Among those they must convince is Adugna Biruk Farade, 58, an Ethiopian-born Israeli who speaks the same language of the applicants and understands just where they are coming from – both literally and figuratively.
Farade is a native of Guyna, a village of nearly 500 people near Gonder, historic home to the Jews of Ethiopia. Unlike the Falash Mora, whose ancestors adopted Christianity two, three or even seven generations before, Farade and his family remained Jews.
The family celebrated Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, ate kosher meat and “prayed for our own land,” he said.
As a youth, after a few short years in school, Farade worked as a “cowboy,” tending the family’s many head of cattle. In addition to the cattle herd, the family owned lots of oxen and sheep. Many in his extended family were farmers but others were weavers. Some worked clay to make pots and his uncles laboured as blacksmiths.
As a young man, he learned from members of his family and from local rabbis all about the Jewish faith and his people’s – the Beta Israel – ties to the Holy Land.
Ethiopians in general, not just the Beta Israel, were interested in Israel, but Jews in his village were so desperate for news about the Jewish state “people went 35 to 40 kilometres by foot to a town to hear the news about Israel,” he recalled.
From a young age, Farade wanted to make the journey to Israel, and he began his journey well before most Ethiopian Jews considered it a feasible proposition. In 1971, he moved to Asmara, a city in Eritrea that was then part of Ethiopia and had access to the Red Sea.
At the time, Asmara had a functioning synagogue, rabbis and teachers, and it was Farade’s hope that he would use it as a base to find a ship to bring him to Israel. Once there, he would attempt to reunite the family in the Holy Land.
Unfortunately, Farade was not able to collect enough cash to pay the bribes needed to acquire an Ethiopian passport, so when he took ill, he returned to Gonder, where he spent 11 months convalescing.
When he recovered, he got a job in a hotel in Gonder where he worked for years. In 1991, he moved to Addis and was hired by the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. Six months later, he got a job with the Jewish Agency.
It was the time of the second large exodus of Ethiopian Jews – Operation Solomon. He was intimately involved with the effort that brought 14,000 Beta Israel to Addis from Gonder and from there to Israel in a massive two-day airlift.
Farade, his wife and four children were on the last two planes to depart Addis for Israel. As it happened, the family was separated at the airport and his wife and one child took off on the second-last flight. Farade and three children were put on the last plane, which was delayed waiting for stragglers from a hospital as the deadline for the airlift came closer and fighting in a civil war threatened to upset the airlift.
After a nerve-racking two-hour wait, the plane took off and Farade finally arrived in the promised land. Unfortunately, his family had been taken to an absorption centre in Tiberias, and it took two weeks for the Jewish Agency – with his brothers and sisters helping – to track them down.
Six months after his arrival, Micha Feldman, the Israeli government official who co-ordinated Operation Solomon, helped get Farade a job in Tel Aviv looking into the cases of 36 Falash Mora families who had remained behind. They were not Jewish and so were not part of the airlift, but their relatives in Israel were pressing for their reunification.
In 1996, Farade was hired by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to work on the Falash Mora file, and in 1997, he returned to Addis for the first time on a temporary basis. In 2000, he moved back full time, but he returns to Israel every three months for a couple of weeks to visit with family.
Based on his experience, he believes the Falash Mora now moving to Israel at the rate of 300 a week will experience “some difficulties. In Israel you have freedom, not like here… It’s a big adjustment.
“Also, you feel it’s your country, your motherland.” he said.
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Birhanu Yiradu Zeleke, 56, was one of the first Ethiopians to witness international efforts to integrate the country’s Beta Israel into the wider Jewish world.
In the early 1970s, Zeleke was working as a cab driver in Gonder when a visiting Israeli, Levi Gershon, asked him to drive him to the village of Amibober in the Wagara area of northern Ethiopia. The Israeli was intent on visiting the Beta Israel, and Zeleke, who grew up as a Christian but who had many Beta Israel friends in school, was ready to assist him.
At one point Zeleke spent 20 days driving Gerson from village to village. The two got along so well, the Israeli eventually brought a Land Rover from Addis to Gonder to make the trips more convenient.
Gershon would open schools for Beta Israel in several villages, and Zeleke would go on to a 30-plus- year career working for Jewish organizations in Ethiopia.
He recalled that his career choice upset his relatives at the time. “When I started the job, my family said, ‘why work with Beta Israel? They have the evil eye.’ I said, ‘Why? They have no evil eye. They’re nice people.’”
Today, he is an employee of the government of Israel working to determine which Falash Mora will receive permission to move to Israel, but over his career, he has worked for the Falasha Welfare Association, ORT, individual Jews helping the Beta Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee.
He can recall the first big exodus from Ethiopia that went through Sudan, even as Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam persecuted the Jews. Beta Israel on that occasion were given a special chai necklace to identify them to Israeli agents who arranged their passage to the Jewish state, he said.
Zeleke’s loyalty to the Beta Israel has been rewarded by the Israeli government, which in 1984 allowed him to travel to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital for surgery and rehabilitation on his leg after a serious car accident.
In later years, four of his children were given permission to move to Israel, where they became citizens. Three converted to Judaism after three years of study and one subsequently moved to Detroit.
One of his sons has moved back to Ethiopia to work for an Israeli agricultural company, while one of his daughters is about to enter nursing school in Israel and another is dating a Beta Israel boyfriend.
Zeleke expects that when his turn comes and he returns to Israel for good, he, too, will convert. “I like Beta Israel people,” he said.
Copyright The Canadian Jewish News.