Out of Africa -- Almost All

Thank you to those of you who responded to my email last week about helping those in the Jewish community who are currently unemployed or seeking new opportunities. Your response was tremendous and all information has been passed on to Jewish Family and Child Services (JFCS). If you require assistance, please contact JFCS at 503-226-7079. 

The six-week period between November 21, 1984 and ending on January 5, 1985, was one of the greatest covert rescue operations in Jewish history. Following years of planning, thousands of Beta Israel (as the Jews of Ethiopia were referred) fled on foot for refugee camps in Sudan (where it is estimated some 4,000 people died during the dangerous and difficult trek). With Sudan’s support, 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported to Israel in what was called Operation Moses. Operation Moses abruptly stopped on Friday January 5, 1985 after then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres held a press conference confirming the airlift, which was supposed to remain secret. Sudan, with pressure from several Arab countries, ended the airlifts immediately and some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind. Many died while waiting in the Sudanese refugee camps, yet 800 were later evacuated in the less known United States led follow-up mission called Operation Joshua. In the following five years, a virtual stalemate occurred in the emigration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel due to Ethiopia’s dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In 1991, the dictator-led Ethiopian government was close to being toppled with the military successes of Eritrean and Tigrean rebels, threatening Ethiopia with dangerous political destabilization. The Jewish world was concerned about the well-being of the sizable Beta Israel population still residing in Ethiopia. The regime's dwindling power presented a promising opportunity for those Beta Israel who had been wanting to immigrate to Israel. In the previous year, 1990, the Israeli government, Israeli Defense Forces, and the Jewish Agency for Israel (funded with your support of Federation’s Annual Campaign), aware of Mengistu's worsening political situation, made covert plans to airlift the Beta Israel population in Ethiopia to Israel. In May, 1991, an incredibly well executed mission called Operation Solomon, transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a remarkable 36 hours. This included one El Al 747 jumbo jet carrying 1,122 passengers (with two babies born during the flight).

I share this with you as a backdrop to a very special guest visiting Portland January 3-4, 2011. Dr. Rick Hodes, an American doctor who has lived and worked in Ethiopia for over 20 years, is the Medical Director of Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – funded through your annual campaign contributions. Dr. Hodes first went to Ethiopia as a relief worker during the 1984 famine. He returned there on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach internal medicine, and in 1990 was hired by the JDC as the medical adviser for the country. His original position was to care for 25,000 potential immigrants to Israel. In 1991, he was an active contributor during Operation Solomon, helping the Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel. In 2007, Dr. Hodes was selected as a finalist for “CNN Heroes,” a program that highlights ordinary people for their extraordinary achievements. His work is the subject of the HBO documentary “Making the Crooked Straight” as well as a new book “This is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes.”

Dr. Hodes will be speaking to multiple groups in our community including: the Maimonides Society (healthcare professionals) on January 3, Jewish communal professionals, Portland Jewish Academy and Maimonides Jewish Day School students, campaign solicitors and an open community-wide lecture on January 4 at the MJCC (you should have received information via email). We hope you will join us and hear the first hand stories of this remarkable man who continues to dedicate his life to the well-being of others in Africa.

Four years ago, I had the privilege to spend 20 hours in Ethiopia with Dr. Hodes. My words will not do justice to this incredible experience, but here is an abbreviated version. I boarded a plane from Israel at 2:00 a.m. that landed at 7:00 a.m. in Addis Ababa, and then immediately flew to the Gondar region in the north of the country. By observing my surroundings I literally realized I was in a different place and time – mud huts, no electricity, people walking 2-3 miles each way for clean drinking water, farmers with no equipment tending to their animals and gardens. Yet, there, I saw the unbelievable work of our overseas partners, JAFI and JDC. In Gondar, there was a health clinic where I watched the gentle nature of Dr. Hodes treat patients of all ages with tender care. Feeding programs for hundreds of people were operating and Hebrew language courses were taught.

Late that afternoon, we flew back to Addis Ababa to visit the compound where those who would be leaving for Israel that night were preparing for their departure. You could see the excitement and nervousness on their faces as they dressed in their finest clothes and had their bags packed with one or two special family mementos. After a special farewell blessing at the Israeli Ambassador’s residence, my small group left together with these 200 Ethiopians late that night on a plane bound for Tel Aviv. None of these people had ever been on a plane before -- I remember having to help several buckle their seat belts since they had never even seen one. Here they were leaving their homeland, their agrarian society, their mud huts for the Jewish homeland. The opportunity to experience the joy of their arrival, watch them literally kiss the “holy ground” they had dreamed about, and to be reunited with family after so many years is a 20 hour experience I will never forget.

Their excitement quickly turns into the challenges of all new immigrants. The necessity of learning a new language, finding employment, and in this case instantaneously advancing thousands of years into the future with modern conveniences of electricity, running water, and appliances is a tremendous shock and strain. We all should be proud how quickly we moved to rescue this Jewish community - now we must not forget them – those in Israel and those who remain in Ethiopia. Your generous campaign contribution provides nutrition, wellness, and education for these people. More support is needed, and your campaign contribution makes a difference. As we approach the end of the calendar year, please make your 2011 Annual Campaign commitment by clicking here. 

Shabbat Shalom and I hope to see you at one of Dr. Hodes’s speaking engagements.



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