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Memorial Day for Our Ethiopian Jews

Memorial Day for Our Ethiopian Jews

On the 28th of Iyar, Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day. This day was chosen to symbolize the continued historical connection of the Jewish People to Jerusalem. What started as a symbolic event became anchored in law on March 23, 1998, when the Knesset passed the "Jerusalem Day Law," which declared a national holiday to commemorate the date that Jerusalem was liberated during the Six-Day War.

In 2003, the Israeli government decided that the 28th of Iyar would also be recognized as Memorial Day for the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel. Combining the two events marks the appreciation of the strong connection between the Ethiopian Jewish community and Jerusalem.

From 1980-1984, the first wave of aliyah of Ethiopian Jews to Israel took place. The Ethiopian Jewish community, who dreamed for many years of making aliyah to Israel, managed to flee Ethiopia and arrive at the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, where they waited in provisional camps. During their escape and in the Sudanese camps, they suffered from disease, hunger, and continuous acts of harassment, rape, and violent robberies. The families, with their elderly and younger members, walked for long periods of up to several months and were forced to wait in refugee camps in Sudan for up to two years.

In their attempt to get to Israel, approximately 4,000 members of the Ethiopian community lost their lives, both on the journey and in the camps. "Operation Moses," the first national operation for bringing the Ethiopian Jewry to Israel, began in November, 1984, and brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews over on Israeli aircrafts. An information leak to the Israeli press brought the operation to an end before schedule. As a result, many families were left behind, torn apart, and remained in Ethiopia until May of 1991, when, within a 36-hour period, 14,324 immigrants were brought to Israel during "Operation Solomon."

Today, the Ethiopian community in Israel numbers over 120,000 members. Arriving in Israel was only the first step in their aliyah journey. It took many years before Israeli society was ready to fully embrace the Ethiopian Jews, their culture, and their Jewish traditions and history.

In 1991, the famous musician Shlomo Gronich established the Sheba Choir, made up of immigrant children from the Ethiopian community. He was one of the first Israeli musicians to bring the story of the Ethiopian Jews to the attention of Israeli society, and to the entire Jewish world, and to celebrate their rich tradition and culture.

The song "The Journey to Israel" depicts the hurdles that the Ethiopians faced during their journey to Israel. The challenges they faced during the first stage of the journey were caused by the difficulty of the trek itself and the opposing foreign forces (Sudanese soldiers). Yet the hope and resilience of the Ethiopian community and many individuals was remarkable:

The moonlight stood fast
Our bag of food was lost.
The endless desert
Cries of jackals
And my mother comforts my little brothers:
"A little bit more, a little more
soon we'll be redeemed
we won't stop going
to the land of Israel."

Unfortunately, the hardship of the journey didn't end for the Ethiopians when they arrived in Israel. In many cases, the Chief Rabbinate refused to recognize their Jewishness, and the challenges of integrating into Israeli society prolonged the ever-evolving difficulties of their journey to Israel.

"In the moon the image of my mother looks at me
Mother doesn't disappear
If only she were by my side
she would be able to convince them
that I am a Jew."

On the 28th of Iyar, when Israel marks and celebrates Jerusalem Day, one of the most celebrated and cited readings is Psalm 122:

Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together.

There is a challenge far more important and rewarding than physically reuniting the city of Jerusalem -the process of rebuilding our Nation and the People of Israel by opening our hearts and minds to the artistic beauty and vital treasures that each Jewish community has developed and created - within and outside of Israel. May this 28th day of Iyar be an invitation to listen to the stories of the Ethiopian community, to honor their sacrifices and embrace their gifts as individuals and as a community. In recent years the music and culture of Ethiopian Jews has become more present in Israel, but we have a long way to go. When we do so, the People of Israel and the State of Israel will be strengthened and enriched and so will each one of us.

Rabbi Yehudit Werchow is the Director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. She was born in Argentina and grew up in Israel.

Rabbi Yehudit Werchow
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