I can remember it very well. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in May 1991, as I left work in Toronto - I was teaching 7th grade English at the time at a yeshiva - it was a Friday, and I was headed home. I turned right out of the parking lot, then left, and that's when I heard it.
A report on the radio bringing the first inkling that a miracle was happening. An airlift was bringing thousands of Ethiopian Jews (more than 14,000 in 36 hours that weekend alone) home to Israel, in every plane that could be mustered.
I pulled over to the side of the road, and I wept.
Tears of joy. Tears, given my years of participation in campaigning for the Ethiopian government to allow Jews to leave. Tears, knowing the tribulations the Ethiopian Jewish community had been facing - that were brought to the world's attention by several people, including my friend & mentor, Emmy award winning filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. Simcha made a film about them and insisted that Western Jews could not look away.
I found out later, talking with Micha Feldman, the ageless, indefatigable hero who made it all work and who was on the plane, that the world record for the highest number of passengers on a plane was shattered by an Israeli 747 in the airlift (whose seats had been ripped out and left on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport), and that that flight landed with 1,088 people aboard, two more passengers than had boarded, because two babies were born en route! Israel is our home, and their home, and the home of every single man, woman, and child among the Jewish people.
Ours, indigenously. Ours, ancestrally. And no one, from any part of the political or religious spectrum from far left to far right, from one religion or another, no one has the right to challenge our legitimacy or our connection. We pray that never again will anyone have the might to separate us from that which was ripped away from us, which we have finally returned to.
32 years later this is an opportunity to understand that our work is never done. With the help of all those who advocated for them, and with the help of Federations across North America, including ours, over 100,000 Beta Yisrael now live in Israel, and the last of the descendants of the forcibly converted, the Falash Mura, are still coming, with all left who are eligible planning to emigrate to Israel by the end of this year.
Tonight, we begin the two day holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the people of Israel receiving the Torah at Sinai. By the time they entered the land of Israel a generation later, they were united in purpose and empathy for each other. I wish I could say that their unity has been a constant in our history. It has not. But I know that I was not the only one who wept with joy at that moment, 32 years ago.
We are a people with divisions and fissures almost built into our identity. Ashkenazi and Sefaradi Jews; European, Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Hispanic Jews. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Secular Jews; Jews of all genders and identities; Haredi Jews who are Chasidic, and those who are Yeshivish; Jews of color; Jews by choice; Jews with affluence, and Jews who struggle; Jewish refugees, and Jewish philanthropists; Jewish seniors, and Jewish children; Jews who fear antisemitism, and Jews who confront it (sometimes both at the same time); brave Jewish men, and strong Jewish women; Jews who are wise, Jews who struggle to be and do good; Jews with little learning, Jews who don’t know how to ask about their identity, and Jews who aren't even to be found around our communal tables.
But I know I’m not the only one who wept for joy.
On this holiday, and this shabbat, let us be animated by what brings us together in joy and celebration, and in those things that diminish our differences rather than that which enhances them.
I also want to share with you that we will be hosting Arizona Assemblywoman Alma Hernandez, who will be speaking at our Annual General Meeting on June 19th at 7pm at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus. Ms. Hernandez is a proud member of Arizona’s Jewish community. Her outspoken support of Israel, her action and legislation confronting antisemitism, and her advocacy for those in need has earned her a national profile. Alma is a board member of Democratic Majority for Israel, she has spoken at the AIPAC national conference, was recently named one of Forward's 50 most influential Jews and was listed on the J100 list of the top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life by The Algemeiner.. Come to hear her compelling story. Refreshments will be served. Details are below.