"We are brothers and sisters." That's how Gary Hirschberg describes the Ethiopian Jews that he met during the Jewish Federations of North America's "Completing the Journey" mission, which took place Jan. 29 - Feb. 2.
Hirschberg was one of several Chicagoans, including JUF's Associate Vice President of Leadership Development and Campaign, Audra Berg, who participated in the mission. 60 participants traveled to Ethiopia to connect with the "Falas Mura" community as they prepared to make aliyah to Israel. The 6,000 or so "Falas Mura" are rejoining relatives that had made aliyah during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon in 1980s and 1990s.
Mission participants had the opportunity to meet with Ethiopian Jews in the region of Gonder, in addition to visiting community centers, schools and clinics being run by the Federation funded- agencies, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency. They also accompanied the Ethiopian Jews on their flights to Israel, where they could finally fulfill their dreams of living in "the promised land."
For Hirschberg, it was a life-changing experience that strengthened his sense of global Jewish interconnectedness. "Watching the Ethiopians during their prayer service, hearing them say the same prayers that we do… it was incredibly meaningful," he said. "The common language was Hebrew. I was able to speak to them in Hebrew, not English or Amharic [their native language] … we were able to communicate as Jews."
Feeling such a bond with the Ethiopian Jews also furthered Hirschberg's resolve that despite any differences, Jews must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of other Jews. "It make you appreciative not only of our own privileged backgrounds as American Jews, but aware of our responsibility to take care of each other around the world, wherever that may be," he said. "If there are Jews in need, we need to be aware of it and support them."
For Kal and Enid Wenig, the mission provided an opportunity to see firsthand the far-reaching impact of Federation dollars, especially in a country that was the third-poorest nation in the world until very recently. "It was extremely moving," Kal said. "We have traveled extensively to many countries where there's poverty, but have never seen such terrible living conditions and poverty as what we saw in Ethiopia." Seeing the work that the Jewish agencies are doing to help Ethiopian Jews transition to life in Israel has made the Wenigs proud to part of such a monumental effort. "It makes you realize that your efforts are real, and that you help real people," Enid said.
The couple admitted to feeling a great sense of privilege to be present for such a monumental moment in the lives of the Ethiopian Jewish community. "This trip captured the essence of tikkun olam," said Enid. "It's what Judaism should be."