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An aliyah flight of biblical proportions

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It was an aliyah flight that came together as if guided by the hand of G-d. The South Africans, presently the pariahs of the world thanks to the COVID-19 variant discovered here, were told about it just less than 24 hours before. And it wasn’t just any flight they were joining, but an historic aliyah of Ethiopian Jews who had been waiting decades to come to the Jewish state.

“We were like the Jews leaving Mitzrayim,” says oleh Rabbi Craig Kacev, who read the Megillah in the middle of Addis Ababa Airport on Ta’anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). He spoke to the SA Jewish Report from Haifa, where he and his wife are in quarantine at the same hostel where 286 Ethiopian olim are isolating.

“It was fascinating and exciting to see first-hand the effort Israel makes to continue the ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “There was such joy in witnessing history.”

Liat Amar Arran, the director of the Israel Centre South Africa, says the flight was a “miracle”.

“We had a group of about 20 people who wanted to make aliyah, but there were no flights. Everyone told me to wait, but I said people have jobs lined up, or no place to live here, and I’m not giving up. Then this Ethiopian flight was approved – one of only five aliyah flights from around the world.

“Shai Felder, the head of the aliyah department, said he could try and organise a bigger plane from Ethiopia to add our olim, but he wasn’t convinced it could happen, and he said I might need to give up. I said I’m not giving up, I’m counting on this option,” says Amar Arran.

“I told the South African olim to go for COVID-19 tests as they might be able to get on a flight tomorrow. At this point, we were just praying. Everyone said I was crazy, that you couldn’t do this so last minute. I said I would rather wait till the last minute and try. Well, 12 people had COVID-19 tests, and there were 12 seats available on the plane. It was due to many good people working together that they got on that flight.”

“Getting to Israel was never certain,” says Kacev. “We were asked if we were willing to take a chance and have our COVID-19 tests last Wednesday [24 February 2021] in the hope that we would get on this flight. We did the tests, and late on Wednesday, we were told there was space on the flight going the next day. We had been living out of suitcases for weeks already in the hope that we could go, but from that point, it was still a complete whirlwind – but was also beautifully organised.

“We arrived in Addis after 20:00, and had to wait until 03:00 for the next flight. It was Purim night, so I leined the Megillah in the airport, which was packed, but we found a quiet spot.” Kacev says that while the Ethiopians had cell phones and were living a modern life, they also brought a lot of traditional food with them on the plane, as well as musical instruments.

“When we arrived in Israel, there was such rejoicing, with music playing, flags waving, sweets for the children – it was such a simcha.” The welcoming committee included Israeli ministers, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, and even former shaliach to South Africa Danny Adeno Abebe, who himself made the long walk to Israel from Ethiopia as a boy. As the new spokesperson for the ministry of absorption, Abebe told the SA Jewish Report that he was thrilled to see both Ethiopian olim and South Africans finally touch down on Israeli soil.

“It was so nice to see well-known and familiar faces,” says Kacev. “We walked down to the tarmac and were put straight onto buses with our luggage, and driven to Haifa. Because we are quarantining with the Ethiopians, we are being served their traditional food. We asked staff to ‘tone it down’ for us!”

While in quarantine, the Kacevs have been able to speak to their children (who have already made aliyah) through a nearby fence. Many of the Ethiopian olim have done the same, speaking to relatives who settled in Israel before them. “While we had the inconvenience of not being sure when our flight would be, I thought about how these olim from Ethiopia have literally been waiting years. It was so humbling,” says Kacev.

Sean Korb, who was also on the flight with his wife and two young children, says, “If there is one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that we aren’t in control of everything. As 2021 rolled in, we were ready with every document necessary, and were looking forward to being part of the second or third aliyah plane of the New Year, but then Ben Gurion Airport was shut.

“Being thrown between excitement and disappointment was anxiety-provoking to a degree that we have never experienced. Every flight was an option but not an option. Frankfurt, Turkey, Ethiopia were all options, but not for us South Africans. Permission was needed by the Israeli government to allow us to enter on those flights.

“On the morning of 25 February, we had said we will go when we need to go – we cannot push the river anymore. Just a few moments later, we received a call that there was one more option: to fly together with a group of Ethiopians the following day. We were warned not to get our hopes up, but asked to get our COVID-19 tests just in case. Hours later, we received the news that we had made it onto the flight and would need to be at OR Tambo International Airport for our flight leaving in less than 24 hours.

“The rest of our experience was filled with more extremes: the kindness and hospitality of regular Ethiopians helping us with our pram and luggage as we got off in Ethiopia, but also the ruthless security who checked our bags and wanted our son – who was a day away from his first birthday – to walk through security alone. Our pram was taken away twice to be inspected.

“But we made it. Our baby boy turned one in an Ethiopian airport, on Purim, during a pandemic, on our way to Israel. Now we sit in quarantine in a hotel in Haifa, with staff working tirelessly to ensure that more than 400 people are taken care of. We will never forget the way we made our way to the place we want to be.”

Korb says they didn’t realise how historic it would be to fly with this group of Ethiopians. “We didn’t know how many people it was going to be, but it was literally an entire plane filled with young and old. The kids wanted to interact with our two children, and it was incredible to see them play together. There was also a lot of chaos. Everyone wanted to get onto the plane, and was excited and nervous.”

He emphasises how “incredible” Amar Arran and aliyah consultant Ziva Taitz were throughout the experience. “They literally didn’t stop, working 24 hours a day trying to get us to Israel,” Korb says. “They helped us to deal with our expectations, not get our hopes too high, but also to keep up hope. They were professional, organised, and are still helping us. So a huge kol hakavod to them, and their team. We count ourselves extremely blessed to have arrived in Israel on this historic flight.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. LIORA BAMBERGER

    Mar 4, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    Am Yisrael Chai!

  2. Hylton Joseph

    Mar 4, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    Kol Hakavod to Ingrid Zahavi of XL Fairmount Travel who worked exceptionally hard to get the 20 people on the flights to Israel!!!

  3. Adrienne Judes

    Mar 5, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    Awesome story! Kol Hakavod and Behatzlacha on your new and exciting journey.

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