The recent deadly shooting in the parking lots of two Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kan., exposed “glitches” in the Kansas City Jewish community’s security plan, according to the head of the local Jewish federation.
Todd Stettner, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, said he was glad to see how competently both facilities handled the situation, quickly going on lockdown in accordance with previous training they had received.
But the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Kansas City and Village Shalom senior living centre were unable to quickly relay an emergency warning to everyone in their communities – similar to the emergency text-message and email systems used on school campuses throughout the United States.
More troubling in hindsight was the lack of a planned response for the specific attack Frazier Glenn Miller allegedly carried out on April 13 – a shooting in the two facilities’ parking lots.
“We practised for one eventuality, which was a shooter coming into the building,” said Stettner, “but this shooter didn’t come into the building. It’s always hard to plan for random kind of things, and we have to take a look and see what we can do better.”
The community will undergo an audit by U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel and receive input on changes they should make in security procedures. They will also receive help in developing and training to handle a wider range of emergency scenarios.
Paul Goldenberg – director of the Secure Community Network, a Jewish Federations of North America affiliate responsible for addressing security concerns in Jewish communities nationally – took part in a series of meetings between local leaders and agencies such as the FBI and Homeland Security to help answer the community’s concerns about safety and to advise on security improvements.
The 74-year-old Miller allegedly shot to death William Lewis Corporan, 69, and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood, outside the JCC. He then proceeded to nearby Village Shalom, where he allegedly killed Teresa Rose Lamanno, 53, before being arrested by police.
Volunteers at the drop-in centre work together to offer legal advice, medical care, transportation passes, child care, nutritious meals, friendship and more. (photo from New North London Synagogue)
What would your daily life be like if you were not free? For starters, you would have to learn the skills of surviving while in a state of constant fear. Are you facing torture or rape? Are you in jail for a crime you did not commit? Is there a gun pointed at you because you are gay? If the opportunity to escape persecution presented itself, would you risk your life for a chance at freedom?
Every day in the news, we hear of courageous people doing just this – risking their lives to be free. No matter how dangerous it may be to attempt escape, flight offers their one hope for freedom. The lucky ones end up in free countries. What happens later, though, for those whose hope of establishing legitimacy, of officially being recognized as refugees, is gone? How do undocumented asylum seekers get by?
I was honored when my cousin invited me to volunteer with a group of asylum seekers while vacationing in London, England, last year. Though I was only there for three hours, I caught a brief glimpse into their lives and it has left a lasting impression on me.
Since 2006, New North London Synagogue has been running a monthly asylum drop-in centre. Launched by volunteers, the group works with asylum seekers whose claims have been denied. The group offers medical treatment, legal advice, healthy meals, food parcels, transportation passes, clothing and diapers. The drop-in centre is housed at an elementary school, which I’m told is not large enough to accommodate the more than one thousand people who come from metropolitan London to get assistance.
Asylum can be defined as “a place offering protection and safety; a shelter.” Judging by the crowds in need at the New North London Synagogue, Britain would seem to have failed to offer these protections. Most of the asylum seekers that use the centre’s services have chosen to stay and live in abominable destitution rather than accept deportation to the places from which they risked their lives to escape.
Researching the situation of asylum seekers through the Refugee Council of the United Kingdom, I learned many facts, including:
• The vast majority of people seeking asylum in Britain are law-abiding people;
• Many asylum seekers fear approaching the police to report incidents of assault or sexual harassment. They fear that reporting crimes will expose them to being placed in detention and eventually deported;
• Immigration officers have the power to detain asylum seekers, even if they have not committed any crime; even on mere suspicion.
My cousin, Catherine, is a regular volunteer. Her fluent French is an asset and she often serves as an interpreter. I was there in August and Catherine was worried that there might not be enough volunteers. Thankfully, there were plenty on that day.
Fifteen minutes before opening, a briefing takes place to explain the events of that afternoon. I volunteer to help with the children, as that’s where I think I can be of best use. The children have a section to themselves, but parents may not leave their children unsupervised. In the briefing, we are forewarned that some of the children have difficulty interacting and some may not be comfortable with play because the toys available are foreign to them.
Upon arrival, everyone receives a name tag. New asylum seekers are interviewed. Some queue for legal or medical advice. Everyone enjoys a nutritious meal. There are people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, South Sudan, Zaire, Nigeria and Turkey. It is fascinating to hear the various languages and dialects being spoken.
Eventually, I sum up the courage to sit down and speak to people. I talk to a blind woman from Iran who has been coming to the drop-in centre for several years. She lives in a little room, a good 15 miles away. She has no kitchen facilities and must rely on the kindness of friends for food and other necessities.
A Nigerian family of four has been coming for eight years. They ask me about Canada. They have family in Toronto and have heard such wonderful things about this country but, at this point, they do not dare to make enquiries about moving to Canada. As I hold their youngest child, it’s hard not to feel sad that this little boy, despite being born in Britain, may not be afforded legal status.
A single mother tries to gulp down some lunch and socialize with friends while chasing after her active 2-year-old twin girls.
A situation that touches me deeply is assisting a young paraplegic man from central Africa. He tells me that he arrived in England eight months prior. Once a Paralympian, his proficiency at manoeuvring his rickety manual wheelchair around narrow corridors and cracked sidewalks is impressive. All his family remain in Africa. He tells me that his goal is to become a lawyer. I guide him to the bus stop where it will take him roughly two hours to get home.
Little children are sitting at tables, munching on snacks and playing with the large assortment of toys. All are supervised by a group of caring volunteers who take time to play and read with them.
Surveying the scene it’s hard not to feel that the situation these people face is grim. It’s a harsh reminder that all is not OK in Britain – or in the world, for that matter. Indeed, there are many British who wish asylum seekers would go away and take their problems with them. There’s a post on the New North London Synagogue website that seeks to clarify the situation: “All of our clients have fled persecution and many have been tortured. Yet myths prevail that this group are here for benefits, free housing and to take British jobs. In fact, asylum seekers are not allowed to work and many receive no accommodation or government support.”
At the same time, despite the despair, positive moments are in evidence. Expressions of a caring community are everywhere, woven into every activity. Camaraderie can be felt in the crowded rooms. In fact, if someone were to walk in off the street, they would see what looks to be a happy afternoon gathering. People sit in groups, smiling, laughing, exchanging information and eating a plate of nutritious food. Children play, interacting with each other. Enthusiastic volunteers, teenagers and senior citizens and all ages in between, are connecting and offering advice. Many of them are former asylum seekers who have been given permission to stay in Britain and are volunteering to give back to the community.
On that day in August, the hope was that people would leave the drop-in centre with renewed hope, their spirits lifted, and that volunteers would feel they have played at least a small role in brightening someone’s day.
We must all be active in raising awareness of refugee issues, so that refugees and asylum seekers can know the peace and freedom we are so blessed to enjoy. This Pesach, at my family seder, we will read the Haggadah, celebrating our people’s journey to freedom. My family and I will stop to think of all the refugees of today who have had to make their own exodus from persecution, extreme hunger and violence, and even from modern-day slavery. Stateless, many are forced to continue to wander in an urban wilderness. May they find peace and comfort in a new land.
Jenny Wright is a singer, music therapist and freelance writer in Vancouver who is interested in setting up a similar drop-in centre here. If you are interested in learning more, email [email protected].
Dr. Neil Pollock instructs a team of surgeons in Rwanda on carrying out his technique of circumcision. (photo from Dr. Neil Pollock)
Dr. Neil Pollock specializes in circumcision, from newborn to adult, and adult vasectomy. As a leading expert in circumcision, he has traveled around the world to train physicians and, this summer, he will head to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to teach a team of doctors in medical newborn and infant circumcision.
“After carrying out 50,000 infant circumcisions and traveling recently to Turkey, China and Africa to exchange ideas, I have evolved my technique to make it applicable to infants, children, teenagers and adults,” Pollock told the Independent in a recent interview. “I have developed a technique to do circumcision in this older age group under local anesthetic without using sutures and using, instead, a cyanocrylate skin glue that closes the wound. Being able to do the procedure under local anesthetic and with skin glue instead of a general anesthetic in hospital provides for a much simpler, easier, quicker, safer and improved cosmetic outcome for patients.”
This method, he said, is unique. “I’m unaware of this approach being used anywhere in [Canada] except in my clinics. The older age group is currently requesting circumcision for reasons like reduction in disease transmission, preference of their partners and improved hygiene.”
In 2008, Dr. David Patrick was the head of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Pollock said he was asked by his colleague “to teach my surgical techniques for circumcision in Rwanda, where they were using scissors and stitches, without anesthetic, and their surgeons desperately required training in an alternative quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique that would be accepted by their population. In coordination with their surgeons, I planned with my team a five-day surgical training mission that year and flew to Rwanda. I have been in contact with these surgeons by email since my trip and they have informed me that they are using my technique effectively and safely throughout the country now.
“The impact of our humanitarian effort became known in the international medical community, which led to Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, professor at [the University of California, Los Angeles] Medical School, contacting me recently and asking me to essentially replicate the work I did in Rwanda, but this time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where they are being overwhelmed by the number of patients requiring treatment for AIDS and would receive huge benefit from introducing a preventative strategy to reduce AIDS transmission, such as infant circumcision, which will reduce the risk of their circumcised infants later contracting AIDS when they hit sexual age, by over 60 percent. Its impact and effectiveness has been referenced metaphorically to be like a vaccine.” Circumcision, he added, “works to reduce AIDS by removing the portal of entry of the virus, which is the foreskin.”
Klausner, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and the program in global health at UCLA, is an advocate in the use of medical male circumcision for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. He volunteers with GHESKIO, an organization run out of the Centre for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in partnership with the Haitian government. Operating primarily in Port-au-Prince, their work is supported by Haiti’s first lady and has a mission to combat HIV and improve conditions of maternal and child health. GHESKIO will host Pollock’s training in Port-au-Prince.
Raised in Winnipeg, Pollock explained that he decided to become a doctor “because I had a strong interest in sciences, medicine and surgery from a young age.” Early in his career, he decided to create a special focus on circumcision and vasectomy, and built a highly focused practice and a well-tested – and respected – technique.
“My interest in developing a safe, quick and painless approach to circumcision for the medical community in B.C. arose initially from some of the rabbis approaching me approximately 20 years ago and encouraging me to become a mohel in Vancouver,” Pollock said.
The benefits of newborn and infant circumcision are many, but the rates of the procedure vary from region to region, and remain contentious to those opposed to what’s seen as elective (non-consenting) surgeries for babies.
Pollock noted, “The most important change recently in how the medical community has come to view circumcision is expressed in the … consensus statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics released in late 2012 declaring that ‘the medical benefits of infant circumcision outweigh the risks.’ This is the strongest statement of support ever issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The benefits of circumcision are multiple; they include reduction in the risk of urinary tract infection, which can lead to kidney infection and renal failure, reduced risk of cancer of the penis, cancer of the cervix in partners, reduced risk of balanitis (which is infection of the foreskin), and other foreskin-related problems, like phimosis.” As well, circumcised males also experience a “reduction of multiple sexually transmitted diseases, like HPV, herpes and AIDS transmission. The latter is exponentially more important in places like Haiti and Africa, where a large number of the population has AIDS in comparison to other regions of the world where AIDS is less common.” Possible risks include “bleeding and infection,” he added, “but, in experienced hands, risks are extremely low.”
Rwanda and Haiti share a history of national trauma, which has led in both countries to poor health outcomes. In 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their countrymen in a genocide. In 2010, Haiti, already the victim of more than two centuries of extreme poverty, dictatorships and U.S.-led military interventions, experienced a 7.0 earthquake that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000, and displaced 1.5 million of the tiny country’s 10 million people. Since then, Haitians have been hit by serious outbreaks of preventable disease, including cholera, tuberculosis and AIDS. According to the United Nations, life expectancy is 61 years for men and 64 for women.
The health challenges that Haitians are very similar to those experienced in Africa, and the training is seen as critical in addressing those obstacles. “Like there was in Rwanda, there is a need to train surgeons in Haiti to carry out a quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique,” Pollock explained. “In regards to what accounts to gaps in circumcision rates, there may be a deficiency in trained surgeons to carry out the surgery in an acceptable manner, along with variations in social and cultural norms that influence the choice to have circumcision.”
The ultimate intention of the training, Pollock said, is “to set up a national program accepted by the population, to introduce infant circumcision safely and effectively, and have it evolve to become a widespread practice throughout the country, thereby reducing the transmission of multiple diseases, including AIDS.”
Pollock’s visit to Haiti will involve intensive training. “My goal is to carry out a similar plan to what we executed in Rwanda. I worked with physicians there weeks ahead to set up a surgical schedule of 20-to-30 infants per day, over four-to-five days of operating. After working with doctors on models that I brought to demonstrate the technique and do the primary teaching, they moved to assist me with the surgeries and eventually carry them out under my supervision on the infants booked for circumcision.”
The training in Haiti, part of a nongovernmental public health initiative, will be partially supported by charitable donations. “The commitment from my end for Haiti will include a week away from my practice and the commitment to help raise the $25,000 for the mission to take place. The plan is to raise $25,000 from the Vancouver community in the next seven days or so as to be able to launch the teaching mission in Haiti by the end of the summer. During the week in Haiti, I will train two physicians, who will then train other physicians once our team leaves. I will maintain follow-up with these physicians to help them manage any issues that should arise.” The goal is to create a sustainable public health campaign and donated funds not only will go towards covering the costs for the week, but also for “the next 500 infants once we leave.”
Readers who would like to donate to the effort “will support an initiative, which will undoubtedly over the years save thousands and thousands of lives,” Pollock said. “It’s intended that Haiti will become a training centre for circumcision in the Caribbean. It is likely that my technique, once taught in Haiti, will soon be shared with multiple countries throughout the Caribbean, multiplying its effect to save lives throughout the entire region. So, I’m asking readers and members of the community to reach deep and consider making a financial donation to help us raise $25,000 in the next [several] days to allow this mission to proceed.”
To make a donation, contact Dr. Neil Pollock at 604-644-5775 or [email protected]. “We will make it very easy for people to donate, and make arrangements for their cheques (made payable to the Vancouver Foundation) to be picked up by our team,” he said. Donations can also be mailed to 4943 Connaught Dr., Vancouver, B.C., V6M 3E8.
Attendees at the 50th anniversary event in London. (photo from David Schwartz)
Behind the treelike doors of Temple Sholom’s aron kodesh are six beautiful Torahs, each with its own history. The Torah in the centre of the top row is known as our Czech Torah. It is one of 1,564 scrolls rescued from Prague at the end of the Second World War and brought to London, England, in 1964 by a group of dedicated volunteers: the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust (MST). We honor our Czech Torah each year by dedicating our afternoon Yom Kippur service to it.
The Torah, on loan to the congregation from the MST, is officially known as Czech Memorial Scroll #1036, and it was brought to Vancouver in 1971 by Temple Sholom trustee David Huberman, who traveled to London on our behalf to chaperone the Torah to its new home.
Earlier this month, my wife Debby and I escorted Scroll #1036 back to London for something of a “family reunion,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Torahs’ arrival in London. In the years since 1964, most of the scrolls brought to London have found new homes around the world and, this month, for the first time, 53 of them were reunited.
It was a great pleasure to see the Torahs arriving, and a little humorous to see how different congregations found creative ways to safely transport these precious artifacts. One scroll from an American congregation arrived in a golf bag, while another was given free shipping and chaperone service from FedEx. Many congregations who were unable to attend in person sent large posters of their Torahs to include in the commemorative service.
Ours was the only one to come from Canada, and it was shipped in a hard-shell, foam-filled Torah case loaned to us by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. Air Canada was also very supportive of our journey, supplying us with two complimentary seats for the large case. We were seated right behind it so we could keep an eye on it the whole way. Coincidentally, Air Canada’s Vancouver crew handled other unique cargo the same day – the Stanley Cup.
The tragedy of these extraordinary scrolls is that they are often the only surviving relics of some 153 Czech Jewish communities whose members were deported and exterminated in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. Our Torah is one of 18 from the small town of Sedlcany, located 60 kilometres south of Prague in Central Bohemia. It was written in 1890.
In the years after the war, a rumor spread that the Nazis had planned to create a “museum to an extinct race.” According to the MST, this has little foundation in fact. They do know that a pious group of Jews from Prague’s Jewish community worked to bring artifacts and Jewish possessions of all kinds from Bohemia and Moravia to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. There, they preserved what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of plunderers. The MST believes that this Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the scrolls. All the curators at the museum were eventually taken to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two of the curators survived, and the Czech Jewish community after the war was too depleted to be able to care for them. The pious group’s legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague, and the saved 1,564 scrolls.
For 20 years following the war, the scrolls remained in a disused synagogue in a Prague suburb until the communist government, in need of hard currency, decided they should be sold. A British art dealer learned of this opportunity in 1963 and worked with the rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, a Hebrew scholar and a generous donor, to bring the 1,564 scrolls to London. Many were in pitiful condition – torn or damaged by fire and water – a grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.
The Memorial Scroll Trust has given these precious scrolls a second life by restoring them and loaning them to more than 1,400 communities around the world, thereby spreading their message to new generations in diverse communities and institutions such as Temple Sholom.
The Feb. 9 Czech Memorial Scrolls Commemorative Service at Westminster Synagogue was sublime. It began with a procession of the 53 scrolls that had been brought for the occasion, mostly from around the United Kingdom and the United States. To the strains of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, each Torah was lovingly brought to the bimah, held by a member of its current community and its original hometown announced.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, centre left, with the delegation in front of the Knesset Menorah. (photo from CIJA-PR)Last April, when Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts announced she planned to turn one square mile in her city centre into a leading centre for medical technology, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, immediately started paying this leader attention.
“When we heard of her intention to create an Innovation Boulevard, we knew the mayor needed to tap into Israel’s spirit of ingenuity,” said Darren Mackoff, CIJA-PR director. Mackoff and his team helped organize Watts’ six-day trade mission to the Holy Land in December, a delegation that included individuals from the health-technology business sector and representatives from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University – all of them key stakeholders in Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
In January, just a month after her return home, Watts signed a deal with Israel Brain Technologies, the first international deal of its kind secured since she and Innovation Boulevard co-chair, SFU neuroscientist and professor Ryan D’Arcy, announced the boulevard last year. Israel Brain Technologies, created by Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, is a neuro-technology consortium. It unites Israel’s academics, neuroscientists and industry leaders under a single umbrella of brain research and innovation.
The IBT deal will give the City of Surrey access to some of Israel’s top thinkers and the development of innovative, life-saving medical advances, said Mackoff, but it will also give IBT the opportunity to engage in exchanges and partner on specific projects with their counterparts in Western Canada. “The outcomes of these joint ventures will undoubtedly serve the people of both Israel and B.C. well in the future,” he noted. In a press release, Watts said, “Israel and Surrey have common health-care challenges and share the goal of setting a new standard in medical care and innovation. By combining our remarkable pool of talents and expertise, I know that Surrey and Israel will together create groundbreaking and life-changing advancements in health care.”
Watts’ CIJA-led educational mission included 25 business meetings at Israeli universities, hospitals and centres of innovation, political briefings, tours of Israel’s most significant historic and contemporary sites, as well as a visit to Israel’s northern border with Syria, on the Golan Heights.
“In addition to gaining a strong understanding and appreciation for Israel and the challenges the Jewish state faces in the region, it was extremely important that Mayor Watts left Israel with tangible collaborative partnerships between the city, trip delegates and their counterparts in Israel,” Mackoff said.
The blizzard-like conditions in Jerusalem on the mayor’s day of arrival meant CIJA had to do some on-the-ground improvising and move the team to Tel Aviv at the last minute.
Mackoff traveled alongside the mayor and said she was tremendously moved and inspired by this visit. “The Jewish and pro-Israel community in Western Canada has a firm friend in Mayor Watts,” he reflected. “She saw firsthand what Israel is truly about – a country that has overcome tremendous obstacles to create a thriving democracy which is leading the world in scientific advancements.”
Due to personal circumstances, the mayor was unavailable for comment.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
MK Pnina Tamano-Shata speaks to the audience at a convention held Jan. 1 concerning the fate of approximately 7,000 individuals in Ethiopia who are still waiting to be granted aliyah. (photo by Uri Perednik)
Last August, 450 new olim made the five-hour flight from northwest Ethiopia to their new home: Israel. According to those on hand to meet the new immigrants when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the passenger roster for that hot August day constituted the last remaining members of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, known as the Falashmura, or Beta Israel.
“The last group of the Jewish community of Ethiopia just stepped down from their plane,” said Eliezer Zandberg, as Israel’s newest immigrants joined weeping and elated relatives in the airport. Zandberg is the chairman of Keren Hayesod, or United Israel Appeal, which helped coordinate the aliyah of the Beta Israel. “This is the excitement, this is the whole story – returning to their homeland.”
While news agencies reporting on this aliyah assumed that the final leg of Operation Dove’s Wings last August carried Ethiopia’s last Jews, many aid groups remain adamant that the aliyah is not yet over. In the past five months, relief agencies, family members, advocates and rabbis from Israel and abroad have been calling on the Israeli government to return to Ethiopia and process the family members that have been left behind in two Jewish communities, Addis Ababa and Gondar. Both communities are located in northwest Ethiopia, and have been central receiving points for Ethiopian Jews hoping to make aliyah. According to several aid organizations that have recently been in Gondar, there are as many as 7,000 Jewish descendants that should have qualified for aliyah – many of whom are direct relatives of newly accepted olim in Israel.
On Jan. 1, 2014, while the rest of the world celebrated a new year, advocates for those remaining 7,000 got down to work. In Israel, members of the advocacy group Struggle for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry (SAEJ) hosted a convention on the grounds of Ben-Gurion University in Be’ersheva. Some 200 members of Israel’s Beta Israel community, new immigrants and three members of the Knesset were there to discuss what has been termed a continuing humanitarian issue. A second convention was held a two days later in Tel Aviv, hosted by the relief organization South Wing to Zion, which was founded by Ethiopian human rights activist, Dr. Avraham Negusie. The mandate of both conventions was to highlight the needs of Ethiopian Jewish family members still waiting for aliyah approval.
According to Uri Perednik, who helped found SAEJ and helped organize the convention in Be’ersheva, MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata, Hilik (Yehiel) Bar and Shimon Solomon were briefed on the status of the remaining applicants in Ethiopia, and the events that have occurred since the August airlift. After members of the Ethiopian community in Israel staged a protest in front of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office on Aug. 28, the Knesset absorption committee agreed to look into reopening the aliyah for outstanding family members, Perednik said in an interview from his home in Israel. However, he added, there has been little resolved by the government, and members of Israel’s Beta Israel community are becoming increasingly frustrated.
Since the convention, all three MKs have called for the aliyah to be reopened, according to a statement released by SAEJ. Tamano-Shata has offered to forward a petition to the minister of interior, Gideon Sa’ar, while Bar and Solomon have vowed to pressure the government to admit the remaining family members.
“There is no doubt in the [Ethiopian Jewry’s] Judaism because their family is here in Israel,” said Bar. He expects an appeals committee will review the outstanding cases. “The committee will begin to check these cases, examine the paperwork, understand that [there] was a serious mistake here and finish this terrible saga.”
Perednik noted that records maintained by the Jewish community in Addis Ababa indicate that 415 community members have already died waiting for their aliyah papers to be approved. Since the Jewish community in Gondar is much larger than in Addis Ababa, he said, “the number of deceased [in Gondar] may be twice as big.”
“The Israeli government encouraged these families to leave their homes and villages in order to realize their dream of returning to the Holy Land,” wrote Perednik in his Times of Israel blog, referring to Israel’s initial efforts to rescue persecuted Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. The Beta Israel of today “are members of active Jewish communities whose religious lives revolve around their synagogues, who maintain laws of family purity with their mikvahs, and who attend classes on Judaism, and are nonetheless alienated by the establishment.”
Some aid groups charge that the poverty and unemployment in Ethiopian Jewish communities are directly related to their nebulous immigrant status. “The situation is worse than most [for] most Ethiopians” in their cities, Perednik explained. He said the government’s encouragement for them to seek aliyah meant that they were forced to sell their property and quit their jobs in order to come to the cities in which they now live.
“About 80 percent of the people in these communities have family in Israel. I know many cases here in which there could be almost an entire family [living] in Israel – the mother, the father, brothers and sisters, and one sister or one brother is left behind. Or you could have all the children here [in Israel] and the parents left behind. Many of these people in Israel, brothers and sisters, are in the army and grew up in Israel, feel Israeli and Jewish.”
At the heart of the issue concerning the families’ immigrant status is the question of their Jewish ethnicity. In 2003, the government mandated that all future Beta Israel immigrants must be able to show matrilineal ancestry. Prior to that date, Beta Israel immigrants who could show either matrilineal or patrilineal heritage were eligible.
The problem with the change in the ruling, said Hila Bram, co-founder of the London-based relief organization Meketa, is that traditional Ethiopian Jewish communities still follow the patrilineal Jewish ancestry, and have done so for thousands of years. Patrilineal heritage is believed to have been common in early biblical times, and many of the cultural traditions of ancient Ethiopian Judaism are distinct from those followed by Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities.
“The Jewish state has turned around and said we take you by the religion of your mother, whereas Western Judaism until the second century and Judaism in Ethiopia until now, take you [as Jewish] by your father,” Bram explained in an interview from her residence in England. “And that has really added to the confusion and to the problematic nature of all of this for Ethiopian Jews. By their society, you are the religion of your father, who is the head of the household.”
According to both Perednik and Bram, the cessation of Jewish Agency services on Aug. 28 meant the closure of all religious and educational services in Gondar, as well. Perednik said the remaining community members were devastated by the closure of the synagogue, given that it is used daily. Since the closure, the Ethiopian Jewish organizations Hatikvah and South Wing to Zion have stepped forward to raise the rental costs to keep the synagogue open. The Torah, which had been removed by the Jewish Agency, was later returned with Negusie’s assistance. The Jewish school has not been reopened. Students have been transferred to public schools, where there is no provision for Jewish education.
Since the Jan. 1 convention, effort has been stepped up by Beta Israel community members to convince the Israeli government to review the situation in Ethiopia. In December, an appeals committee visited Gondar to assess the situation, but the trip was delayed by snowfall in Israel, and Bram said that the team had only one day to assess the situation. The report is not due to be released for another month or two.
SAEJ released a statement last week calling on the government to increase the immediate powers of the appeals committee and to accept those applicants who meet the following criteria: “They are descendants of Ethiopian Jews from [either] their mother or their father; they left their villages and have been waiting for years in Addis Ababa and Gondar; [they were] listed earlier with the Ministry of Interior; they live as Jews; and they have close relations in Israel: parents, children, brothers, sisters.”
The committee also made a formal appeal that the government change the terminology it uses concerning community members in Ethiopia. “[The] committee is protesting the government[’s] use of the derogatory name Falashmura.” The ancient name was ascribed to the community by non-Jews hundreds of years ago, and implies in polite context one who is a “stranger.” The community has elected the name Beta Israel, meaning “Children of Israel,” for members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel who were granted aliyah earlier, and Zara Israel (Descendants of Israel) for those who are descendants of the original community and are awaiting aliyah.