Home to the Holy Land: Oklahoma City leader witnesses Ethiopian Jews' journey to Israel

Edie Roodman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Oklahoma City, shares her story of traveling with Ethiopian Jews on their one-way trip to Israel for the culmination of a mission effort called “Completing the Journey.”
BY EDIE ROODMAN Modified: July 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm •  Published: July 20, 2013
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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.

Ethiopian experience

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.

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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.

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