Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jewry


Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jewry

Yehudis Litvak

On the 28th of Iyar, which falls on May 24th this year, the State of Israel and the Ethiopian Jewish community commemorate a Memorial Day for the 4000 Ethiopian Jews that perished on their journey from Ethiopia to Israel during the mass aliyah in the 1980s and 1990s.

Currently, there are over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. Some Ethiopian Jewish families made their way to America and Canada. Three of those families live in Los Angeles. Every year, they commemorate the Memorial Day on the same day as the community in Israel.

The Memorial Day is held on the same date as Yom Yerushalayim, the day of reunification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War. Habtnesh Ezra, a Los Angeles representative of the Ethiopian Jewish community, explains that generations of Ethiopian Jews had been yearning for Jerusalem. Parents would tell their children about the Holy Land. Throughout the centuries, some individuals managed to escape to Eretz Yisrael, but most remained in Ethiopia until the 1980s, when the State of Israel conducted the rescue operations that allowed thousands of Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel through Sudan.

The refugees had to travel from Ethiopia to Sudan on foot. The journey, which lasted several weeks, was fraught with peril. They had to cross the desert, facing lack of water, wild animals, and bandits. Many of the travelers did not survive the journey. Habtnesh tells of a family of 50 that undertook the difficult journey. Only three of them were able to reach the refugee camps in Sudan safely.

Even once they crossed the desert, the Ethiopian Jews faced many hardships in the Sudanese refugee camps. They lacked basic supplies, and many people died of hunger, thirst, or disease. “The stories are heartbreaking,” says Habtnesh. “Parents were losing children in their arms.”

Despite the suffering they went through, the Ethiopian Jews who made it to Israel reestablished their community there. “The community is extremely grateful for the freedom of practice which we didn’t have in Ethiopia,” says Habtnesh.

While the Ethiopian Jews celebrate their accomplishments and growth, they remember the high price they paid. “The sacrifices are quite overwhelming,” says Habtnesh. “They had to leave everything behind to get to Jerusalem. A lot of people lost family members. Some don’t want to talk about it because it’s too painful. But their sacrifice has to be known and appreciated.” The Ethiopian Jews that perished had yearned to make aliyah to Israel. “It is really sad that their dream wasn’t realized,” says Habtnesh.

She explains that it is especially important for the younger generation to be aware of the tremendous sacrifices their ancestors went through in order to bring them out of Ethiopia, where they could practice Judaism freely.