As the two young Jewish leaders from Palm Beach County accompanied Ethiopian Jews on an aliyah flight to Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport early in the summer, they were struck by the historical significance of the trip.
“For most of my life there has been some form of Ethiopian exodus to Israel,” Bryan Drowos, 34, of Boca Raton said recently. “To be able to be part of it and on the last Federation mission and one of the last olim (immigrant) trips is to be a part of history.”
“If not the last, it’s one of the very last missions of its kind,” added Lisa Seymour, 43, of Palm Beach Gardens.
Drowos and Seymour represented the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach, respectively, on a Jewish Federations of North America mission that included accompanying some of the last of the 7,800 Falash Mura in Gondar, Ethiopia on their flight to a new life in Israel.
“So many of them bent down and kissed the ground [in Israel],” Seymour said.
It was an emotional experience for both members of the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.
“I felt even more strongly about it than I thought I would,” said Drowos, who also chairs the young adult division of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. “There was this sense of relief on achieving their ultimate goal. You could just feel this joy.”
Drowos, Seymour and others on the mission also visited the village in Gondar that was home to the 58 Ethiopians on the flight.
“Ethiopia was poorer than I imagined,” said Seymour, an elementary school librarian. “The living conditions were beyond imaginable.” Homes were made of sticks and mud and there were no utilities, yet there were a Jewish Community Center, a pre-school and classes, she said. “It was truly something to see. It was surreal to be at shacharit services [morning services] in Africa.”
People were warm and welcoming, Seymour said. “It was a true privilege to be a part of the mission.”
Belaynesh Zevadia, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, who made aliyah to Israel in 1984 at the age of 17, met the mission. “She was a poor village girl,” Seymour said. “We met her family and had dinner at her home in Addis. She was absolutely lovely.”
“I’ve never been to a place with the extent of the poverty and the extent of masses of people and animals on foot, on dirt roads as far as the eye could see,” Drowos said. “It really emersed you in Ethiopia from the first five minutes on the ground.”
Drowos, a financial advisor, said he got a better understanding of the more than 2,500-year history of the Jews in Ethiopia and the work of the three agencies — Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish Agency for Israel and American Joint Distribution Committee — which was “eye-opening.”
The last planes carrying Ethiopians making aliyah arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on Aug. 28, bringing to an end a 30-year effort that brought more than 90,000 Ethiopians to Israel.