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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Ethiopian Jewish Montrealers celebrate their ‘Exodus’

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Aster Mukurow Megunt, left, and Zahava Woudy Dawit prepare traditional Ethiopian bread in the kitchen of Congregation Shomrim Laboker for a celebration of Operation Solomon.

MONTREAL — Mulu Dawit vividly remembers the moment. Her family – along with thousands of other Ethiopian Jews – was in Addis Aba waiting to hear word from the Israeli officials.

There was unrest in the region in the spring of 1991, and the prospect of an all-out civil war loomed.

Suddenly, early one Friday morning, they were instructed to pack a few belongings and appear at the Israeli Embassy. From there they were whisked to the airport and placed on airplanes.

Within hours they were in Israel. In just 36 hours, 14,325 Ethiopian Jews had been brought to Israel.

“When we arrived, we were in shock,” recalled Dawit, who was 12 at the time and now lives in Montreal. “People were crying and shouting for joy. Our grandparents had told us that Israel was our homeland, but we never really believed that we would live there. And we certainly did not think it would be so fast.”

On May 25 at Congregation Shomrim Laboker, the small Ethiopian Jewish community of Montreal celebrated their modern-day Exodus, called Operation Solomon, by inviting the entire Jewish community to come taste their unique culture.

The kiddush included a mix of traditional European Jewish fare and specially prepared Ethiopian foods, such as bread that is baked in pots.

“This year’s celebration, the 22nd, was different in that it featured a new generation of children born after their families had already relocated to Canada or Israel,” said Rabbi Menachem Posner, the synagogue’s educational director.

“It is really hard to grow up black and Jewish,” said Avivah Yesgat to the crowd of 200 at the celebratory luncheon. “In Ethiopia, our parents and grandparents were persecuted for their Jewish identity, and here in Canada, people are constantly questioning us, ‘Are you sure you are Jewish?’”

Yesgat said that she found inspiration in a recent trip she took to Ethiopia. Joining Israeli teens of Ethiopian-Jewish descent, she says that she rediscovered the land where her parents grew up and ended up discovering herself there as well.

“I saw how people live there, and I was able to see how things were for my family. When a woman served me tea, it reminded me of how my own mother would serve tea.”

The continuing challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community were central in remarks made by Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, who addressed the congregation, decrying the fact that two-thirds of Ethiopian-Jewish children in Israel live below the poverty level.

Cotler also discussed the outstanding issue of the Falash Mora, an Ethiopian group that converted to Christianity generations ago and is battling for recognition by Israel.

“Yet, as in past years, the day was a positive one and seen by participants as a display of the Jewish unity,” said Rabbi Posner.

The congregation’s Rabbi Yonah Rosner explained, “The Ethiopian Jewish community has been part of the Shomrim family for decades. When they first came, there were some very socially active members of the shul who brought them in and introduced them to the late Rabbi Chaim Denburg and his wife, Miriam.

“The [then] rabbi and rebbitzen developed a very strong connection to the new immigrants.”

Miriam Denburg arranged educational and social services for them and helped them get established in any way she could.

“This friendship has continued to grow and blossom even after Rabbi Denburg’s passing over 20 years ago,” said Max Haupt, president of the Shomrim Laboker, which hosts the commemoration every year.

“A day like today shows that we Jews are all one. Wherever there are Jews in trouble, they know that they can rely on Israel to come to their aid. It is an honour for our synagogue, and we so enjoy welcoming everyone to join us at this celebration of ahavat Yisrael.”

The CJN print edition returns August 1.

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