Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D. (Class of 2009) recently visited the Jewish communities in Ethiopia and is raising awareness – and funds – on their behalf. We recently conducted a Q&A with Rabbi Levine to better understand the situation.
Q: Weren’t all the Jews of Ethiopia airlifted to Israel in Operations Moses (1984) and Solomon (1991)?
Levine: Most Jews in America and even in Israel think so, but in fact thousands were left behind. They have been living in terrible conditions ever since. This summer, I decided to travel to Ethiopia to see their circumstances first hand.
Q: What did you find?
Levine: I was shocked. Even though I had been told that their situation was appalling, and of course knew that people all over the world, especially in Africa, live in abject poverty, I didn’t conceive of Jews living that way. In Gondar Province and the forests outside Addis Ababa, 9,000 Jews live in tiny, one-room, dirt-floor mud huts with no sanitation. They cook on coal and wood fires. They are desperately poor, with very little to eat, and with little or no medical care.
Q: Aren’t Jewish aid organizations helping them?
Levine: They used to. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) and other aid organizations built schools, ran large feeding programs, and funded medical clinics. But years after the Israeli government stopped Aliyah, it agreed to resume bringing in Ethiopian Jews only if the aid organizations ceased operating in Ethiopia and left everything to the Jewish Agency. For a variety of reasons, the Government didn’t follow through on its promise to rescue the remaining Jews — even though the great majority has parents and siblings already in Israel. Finally, in 2015, the government announced that it would do so, but only in small numbers over a period of years. In the meantime, as I saw, Jews there are languishing on their own. I decided that I could not “stand idly by” while sick and malnourished Jewish children (not to mention adults and the elderly) live in mud. It’s horrifying.
Q: How are you trying to help them?
Levine: With the very meager private donations they receive, the local Jewish communities in Gondar and in Addis buy small supplies of food and arrange for some life-saving emergency medical care — only for the most desperate — certainly not coming close to meeting the need. So, I took photos (see below) and videos and have created a 2-minute “trailer” and a 25-minute film. They are both accessible on my webpage, rabbiartlevine.com. My site also has a special tax-deductible donations page through which NACOEJ has agreed to transfer 100% of all donations (without administrative overhead deduction) directly to the Jewish communities in Ethiopia. I hope to present these videos at synagogues and churches, and civic organizations to raise funds. It only costs about $1.40 to provide a nutrient-enhanced meal, which works out to about $25/month. All expenditures are closely monitored by Israeli rabbi Menachem Waldman, who has advocated for the communities for many years and visits them often. I am in close contact with both Rabbi Waldman and the few private activists trying to help.
Q: Do you intend to return to Ethiopia?
Levine: I hope to return at least annually. I now feel connected with these communities and want to keep learning about their needs, as well as see first-hand how the donations I solicit are helping.
Q: Do you feel that your AJRCA education played a role in prompting your efforts?
Levine: Absolutely. Even though I had a strong Jewish identity before I attended rabbinical school, AJRCA greatly increased my sense of “Klal Israel.” (Worldwide Jewish community). And I learned both that, as the Talmud teaches, “All Jews are responsible for one another,” and that “Saving one life is like saving the world.” Helping the hungry Jews of Ethiopia provides each of us an opportunity to fulfill these important mitzvot. Even small donations literally save lives, as well as helping stave off severe malnutrition. I believe that the Israeli government will eventually bring these Jews home — but we private individuals must keep them alive until that happens!