Conservatives Enter Fray for Ethiopians: Epstein Urging Relief Groups

NEW YORK — The American Conservative movement is allying itself with the Israeli chief rabbinate in calling for a wider definition of “who is a Jew” in Ethiopia.

The falas mura are Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, but who are now praying at synagogues, following Jewish commandments and hoping to move to Israel under the Law of Return. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry plan to close down their Ethiopian compounds, but the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, has written a letter urging the relief groups to help the Ethiopians and bring them to Israel.

In the past, the one project that united Jews was rescuing their endangered co-religionists. Now, contention over the fate of the falas mura is serving to expose the divisions within Jewish life worldwide. The Israeli government has determined that the majority of those remaining in Ethiopia who wish to make aliya do not qualify, and the Jewish Agency is arguing that continuing humanitarian aid will only lead them on. Objections are coming not only from the Israeli chief rabbinate, but from the American Conservative movement, which has been battling the Orthodox monopoly on religion that exists in the Jewish state. Ethiopians have been barraging American rabbis with letters seeking support, and one spokesman for Ethiopian Jewry in Israel, Avraham Neguise, is in America, drawing parallels between the falas mura and non-practicing Jews.

“These people are not waiting to come to Israel, because nobody is going to bring them to Israel,” the director general of the immigration and absorption department of the Jewish Agency, Mike Rosenberg, said. Therefore, continuing humanitarian aid could create a “magnet effect” that would most likely cause “a disaster.” Of the possibility of continuing aid to those in Ethiopia who practice Jewish rituals, Mr. Rosenberg said, “in terms of policy, it has serious implications. It could be very problematic.”

Mr. Rosenberg said the Jewish Agency is making an effort to bring to Israel the 1,000 to 3,000 Jews who do qualify for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return, which requires that a person have one Jewish grandparent or be married to a Jew. As for the others, he said, “These are people [whose ancestors] converted to Christianity. So they’re not Jewish…. Most of the world, by the way, is of Jewish descent.”

Rabbi Epstein, however, wrote in his letter: “It is extremely disconcerting that once again people are questioning whether these refugees should be considered part of the Jewish people…. In our view, the Beta Israel communities in Addis Ababa and Gondar clearly qualify as Jewish. There should be no significant question as to their religious authenticity.”

The aliya policies of the Jewish state should be “irrelevant” to American organizations’ efforts to provide humanitarian relief in the Diaspora, Rabbi Epstein wrote. “It is my hope and prayer that the [Joint Distribution Committee and North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry] will now complete the task for which they are admirably suited by resuming and strengthening political relief programs in Ethiopia.”

Rabbi Epstein’s sentiments echo those issued by the chief rabbi of Netanya, Israel, David Shloush, who is the chairman of the Israeli chief rabbinate’s Council for the Ingathering of the Ethiopian Olim. In a letter dated September 9 and addressed to “our brethren oppressed and suffering in the Ethiopian diaspora,” Rabbi Shloush wrote: “Strengthen yourselves with your adherence to the Torah and commandments and the Lord of Israel will be with you in granting you the right to aliyah to the Holy Land, the land of your forefathers.”

And in another document being distributed to those still in Ethiopia, the high priest of the Jews of Ethiopia, Kes Hadna Rephael, wrote: “I call upon the Jewish Agency, the Joint…and the North American Conference for Ethiopian Jewry…to assist you with medical and social aid and the maintenance of a school for your children and Jewish education for you.”

Meanwhile, the director of an Israel-based Ethiopian advocacy group, South Wing to Zion, Mr. Neguise, is visiting America in an attempt to meet with Jewish leaders and encourage them to take a stand on the issue. Mr. Neguise, who said he is “grateful” for Rabbi Epstein’s letter, disputed the term “falas mura.” In Ethiopia, he said, “there were observant Jews and then there were Jews who distanced themselves…and didn’t practice Judaism. That’s just called falas mura. But these people are…returning to Judaism.” Mr. Neguise described himself as “belonging to that [so-called falas mura] community and…continuing to advocate for that community.”

The assistant executive vice president of the Joint Distribution Committee, Amir Shaviv, said his organization received Rabbi Epstein’s letter. “We are looking into the issue of the request for help by the falas mura. We are amidst deliberations on the issue,” he said. The Joint Distribution Committee was holding board meetings here this week.

The president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, said he had issued similar letters. “This is an important issue which has been put on the back burner, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes because when compared to the enormity of the burden and the potential…in the former Soviet Union, this seems inconsequential.” The matter is complicated, Dr. Ganchrow said. “Although what they present are people separated from their children, from spouses, there are some people who are Christians in there.”

The president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said he met with Mr. Neguise and will check with the Israeli government and Israeli organizations. “Hopefully, within a week we’ll make a judgment as to whether we should involve ourselves in this issue…. I’m puzzled as to the status of things.”

The national director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, Barbara Ribakove Gordon, said her organization is holding a board meeting this weekend at which they will “reassess our commitment to leave Ethiopia, which we made before we had any inkling of the stranded Kwara [region] Jews and the persecution of numerous falas mura. Our agreement with the Israelis was that we would close our compound and leave.” Now, she said, “the situation in Ethiopia is critical. Many lives are at stake.”

A spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, Moshe Mosko, said the “subject will be checked.”

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