When I began my professional career within the Jewish community in 1984, it was at the height of Operation Moses — a clandestine, Exodus-like airlift of Ethiopian Jews.
The project was a humanitarian effort to rescue these descendants of Queen Sheba and King Solomon from widespread famine plaguing their country, and a hostile government.
Thousands of Ethiopian Jews trekked by foot for several weeks to the Sudan in a remarkable operation that involved collaboration between the Israeli military, CIA and Sudanese security forces. The indelible impact of channeling resources for such an effort as well as the world's reaction to Jewish and Israeli “chutzpah” in such a monumental undertaking sealed my commitment to the work of the Jewish Federation.
When I assumed my position as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City in 1991, Operation Solomon, a second covert action, was in full swing.
In the three decades since then, Ethiopian Jews have continued to immigrate to Israel, bringing the current number to 130,000. This is equivalent to 6.5 million new immigrants to the United States from a single country!
Just weeks ago, I had the opportunity to bear witness to the miracle of our generation and be part of the completion of this journey. The final chapter of the Jewish Federation's role in the rescue and return of Ethiopian Jews was to close the Jewish school in Gondar and turn it over to the government. The last of the schoolchildren, along with their families, had been preparing for months to make the journey to their new home in Israel — a 2,000-year leap forward.
This remarkable event in our history was coming to an end, and I had the extraordinary privilege of taking part in it.
I spent three days on the ground in Ethiopia with my colleagues from federations across the U.S., as we steeped ourselves in the unique Jewish story of this ancient African nation. The experiences throughout this trip moved all of us deeply, beginning from the moment we were greeted by Belaynesh Zevadia, the new Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, herself an immigrant from Ethiopia.
It was a sweet and unexpected reunion, as Belaynesh and I met more than eight years ago when she served as Israeli vice consul to the Southwest. One of the most touching moments of the trip was hiking with Belaynesh through Ambover, the remote village outside Gondar where she was raised, and seeing through her eyes her school, synagogue and childhood home in the mountains.
This foray into the Ethiopian countryside gave us a frame of reference for finally meeting the new olim — emigrants — at the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Transit House, where they were being outfitted for their journey. Jewish Federations of North America along with their Israeli partners offer a basket of services to the olim in preparation for their new life.
As we walked together through a downpour toward the embassy in Addis Ababa, Jews of all ages and backgrounds, the sense of unity and joy was truly overwhelming. Our official farewell hosted by the ambassador at the embassy provided closure for this phase of the journey and created a sense of pride and celebration before we embarked to Israel.
Fulfilling the dream
The flight to Israel was foreign in so many ways to the Ethiopians, most of whom had never seen an airplane or operated a seat belt. Descending the stairs to the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac with the traditionally garbed travelers, we were overcome when many of them knelt to kiss the ground of the Holy Land. The scene struck at the heart of 30 years of supporting this noble cause.
Pointed in different directions while our passports were processed, we then proceeded together into the great hall of the airport to be greeted with hugs, flowers, kisses and tears by the families, many of whom had been separated for decades.
Being a part of fulfilling the dream of the exodus of Jews from Ethiopia has in large measure fueled my passion for so many years. It was an honor to bear witness to a spectacular humanitarian operation that intensely changed the fabric of Israeli society.
The integration of Ethiopian Jews into modern Israel is an endeavor of biblical proportions. Ethiopians who kept the flame of Judaism at the heart of Africa for 2,000 years are now part of the fabric of Israel.
Coming back to Oklahoma City to tell this extraordinary story is a powerful reminder of what I just experienced.
Despite being a small Jewish Federation, the Oklahoma City group played a crucial role along with other Jewish Federations from across the country in this epic drama to save Jewish lives and fulfill the promise of the ingathering of the Jewish people.
Roodman can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Editor's note: In June, Edie Roodman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City, took part in “Completing the Journey,” a mission that capped a historic three-decade campaign by Jewish Federations, the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to resettle Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Roodman, a longtime metro area leader, shares her involvement in this historic event in the first in an ongoing series featuring Oklahomans and mission work around the country and the world.