Ethiopian Jews Yearn for Entry to Promised Land
By MARC LACEY and GREG MYRE
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Nearly a decade ago, a mixture of religious devotion and desperation prompted Meles Mandefro to sell off his family's possessions, abandon his farmland in rural Ethiopia and move to this crowded capital, where he and his family settled in a hovel on a hillside near the Israeli Embassy.
Mr. Mandefro, whose weathered face makes him look older than his 47 years, and thousands of other Ethiopians who made similar treks did not plan to stay long in Addis Ababa. They were Falash Mura Jews, and word had reached their villages that Israel would fly them soon to the Jewish state. All they had to do was get to the capital, turn in an application to the Embassy and wait.
More than nine years have passed, and Mr. Mandefro and his family are still waiting. So are more than 15,000 others, some in Addis Ababa and some in the northern town of Gondar, another place where Jews have congregated to pass the time while Israel processes their papers.
Over the years, dozens of Mr. Mandefro's relatives have been tapped to join the 300 people who go every month to Israel, including his younger brother, Gizat, and his wife's parents. Countless friends and neighbors are now leading new lives in Israel, as well.
"The waiting is too much," said Mr. Mandefro's wife, Tilanesh Gulma. "Even if we're walking around, we're dead inside. We've stopped living here. Our families are there in Israel. Our lives are there."
The immigration to Israel has been far slower than the Falash Mura Jews imagined but fast enough that few lose hope completely and return to their ancestral homes.
"When I left my village I felt like I was closer to the Holy Land," Mr. Mandefro said. "I can't go back. I will keep hoping that I will one day see my family there."
For those who do manage to make the trip, life in Israel often falls short of expectations. Gizat, 36, waited only four years in Addis Ababa before departing for Israel nine years ago. From his modest but well kept apartment in the impoverished Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, he acknowledged that the transition had been difficult.
"I thought it would be better than it is," he said. He still has not found a job and lives off $900 a month in welfare payments. Though he has dozens of relatives who now call themselves Israelis, he misses those left behind - including his brother, his sister and their families.
"Israel should just bring them here," he said.
Gizat's experience echoes that of most of Israel's 90,000 Ethiopian Jews, who arrived there in two large waves, in 1984 and 1991. Finding work has been a challenge, and assimilation harder than they expected. There is racism to deal with, and parents lament that their children are losing their Ethiopian culture.
Still, the immigrants say their new lives are for the most part better than the ones they left behind in one of the poorest countries on earth - and that is the only message that family members back in Ethiopia hear.
"I know life won't be easy there," said Meles Mandefro, sitting in a crowded Jewish community center in Addis Ababa. "I know that if you're lazy things are not great. But I will work hard."
His brother thought the same thing. Like many rural Ethiopians, both brothers lacked much formal education. Gizat Mandefro had herded cows as a young boy. He did not attend school until he was 17, entering first grade with children half his size. He worked as a fisherman for a while, and then he heard about the opportunity for Jews to go to Israel.
Gizat Mandefro and his wife had one young daughter when they arrived in Israel. Now they have four more children, all of whom are doing well in school, Mr. Mandefro said. On the rare occasions when he has a little money left over at the end of the month, he sends about $50 each to his brother and sister in Ethiopia.
Kiryat Malachi, where Mr. Mandefro and his family moved last year, is a "development town," established by the government after Israel's founding with the intention of spreading the population around the country.
Most such towns have struggled to develop, and are populated largely by impoverished immigrants like the Mandefros. But the housing is relatively cheap, enabling the Mandefros to buy a three-bedroom apartment in a modest cinderblock building.
Gizat Mandefro said he would never go back to live in Ethiopia. Despite the problems he faces, he considers himself an Israeli now. "I love the state of Israel," he said. "We didn't come for the money but because it is the land of the Jews."
Meles Mandefro is similarly devoted. He is a leader in his Addis Ababa synagogue and speaks some rough Hebrew. His five children have begun studying the language as well, and the eldest son of the family, Fentahun, 17, is a prayer leader.
All of them have signed a form that was sent on to the Embassy. "We swear that we believe in the God of Israel and fulfill the commandments of Torah and the Halakha and are willing to carry out the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel," the pledge says.
Like many Falash Mura Jews, however, the Mandefros were not observant growing up. Their ancestors had been Jewish but over the generations, because of persecution, converted to Christianity.
After much debate in Israel over whether the Falash Mura were really Jews, the Israeli government decided in February 2003 to admit all those who could document Jewish roots on their mother's side of the family. The government estimated the number to be as many as 20,000.
Getting them all to Israel has been a methodical process, requiring document checks in Ethiopia and Israel, interviews and other bureaucratic steps. At the current rate of 300 a month, it will take more than five years to admit all those waiting to immigrate.
"The government has been dragging its feet on bringing the remaining members of the Falash Mura community," said Michael Freund, the head of Shavei Israel, which works to bring "lost Jews" to Israel.
Mr. Freund said that government officials have raised numerous objections aimed at slowing the arrival of Falash Mura or even stopping the immigration altogether: that they are not really religious but just looking for a better life in Israel, that their numbers will swell beyond current estimates, that the cost is prohibitive.
Avraham Poraz, who was the interior minister until November 2004, said on several occasions that he was wary of citizens from poor countries trying to immigrate to Israel. He said he believed they were coming to improve their standard of living, and not necessarily because of strong Jewish roots.
"You can witness how they study and practice Judaism," said Mr. Freund, who advocates increasing the rate at which Falash Mura are allowed into the country. "To suggest they are motivated solely by economic factors is unfair and inaccurate."
For many, time is running short. At the main Jewish community center in Addis Ababa, which is run by the New York-based North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, there are two cardboard boxes on top of a filing cabinet. One is marked "NOT LEFT." Mr. Mandefro's file is in there. The other is marked "DIED OR LEFT FOR ISRAEL."
There have also been signs of growing impatience. Riots have broken out in recent weeks at the community center, officials there said, among people who were denied the right to emigrate.
The other day, there was an early-morning knock on the door of Meles Mandefro's rented one-room hut. At first, he thought it might be someone with good news. Perhaps the Israelis had cleared him and his family to go.
Instead, he learned that his elder brother, Dubale Mandefro, a man in his mid-70's who was also awaiting permission to go to Israel, had died. Dubale Mandefro had a son in Israel and had said frequently that all he wanted was to touch Israeli soil before he died.
"His reason to live was to go to Israel," said Meles Mandefro, his eyes watery and his face full of despair. "He was always asking, 'When is my time?' It would have been better if he had seen Israel for a day, just a day, and then died." http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/03/international/africa/03jews.html