On Friday night, May 24, 1991, fourteen thousand, four hundred Jews of ‘Beta Yisrael’ crowded together within the compound of the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. They found themselves between nightmare and dream, between the threat of war with the rebel army surrounding the capital and the possibility of immigration to Israel, moments before the rebels would overrun the city.
A few months previously, the Jews of Ethiopia had fled their homes in the Gondar Province, where they had lived as farmers for centuries. They sold their land and walked over four hundred miles south to the poor sections of Addis Ababa, in the hope of being able to go to Israel from there.
Eight weeks earlier, the Kessim (the Ethiopian equivalent of rabbis), had celebrated their last Seder in Ethiopia, in the Israeli Embassy. After purifying themselves with water, they placed their hands on ten one year-old lambs, recited a blessing, slaughtered the lambs according to the custom of the community, and roasted them on a fire. When the Kessim offered me a piece of the sacrificial lamb, I hesitated. As an Ashkenazi Jew, I knew that my laws of Kashrut are different from theirs, but I also knew that eating the sacrificial Paschal lamb has always been a sign of inclusion in the Jewish people. So I demonstrated solidarity and ate my first Paschal lamb.”
Just before the rebels conquered the city, the heads of the Ethiopian regime agreed to allow Israel to take out the Jews of Ethiopia in an air lift, in exchange for a $35,000,000 bribe. 14,400 Jews spent the night in the Israeli Embassy in the dark, calmly and with extraordinary discipline. Like the Children of Israel on the night of the Exodus from Egypt, they experienced a combination of fear and of hope. The designated immigrants went from place to place within the embassy compound. First, the identity certificate of each head of family was examined. Each member of his family was counted and a sticker was stuck on his/her head with the number of the bus that would take them to the airport. Afterwards, they had to put all their local currency into a large container, in accordance with an order from the Ethiopian regime. Finally, they had to leave behind all their possessions, because the Israeli organizers were concerned that there may be explosives in them, and because there was limited space on the airplanes. Only what was on their bodies – their best clothing and their jewelry – boarded the planes with them, along with bread wrapped in the folds of their clothing. I recalled Biblical passages describing a ‘night of watching’ that was similar to this, when no one closed their eyes for a minute – the night of Pesach in Egypt:
"And the People carried the dough before it had a chance to rise; and their kneading troughs bound up in their clothes on their backs...
And they baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into unleavened cakes – for it was unleavened: because they were thrust from Egypt and could not tarry, and they made no provisions...
And it came to pass . . . on that very day that all the hosts of the Lord went out from Egypt, a night of watching for the Lord, to bring them out from the land of Egypt: this very night shall be a night of watching for all the children of Israel throughout their generations."
- Exodus 12:34-42
Within twenty-four hours, El Al passenger planes and C-130’s of the Israel Air Force had transferred 14,400 people by airlift - the longest, largest and fastest in the annals of world history; forty round-trips of more than 1,500 miles.
- As told by Micah Odenheimer in HaLailah HaZeh: An Israeli Hagadah, by Mishael Tsion with Noam Tsion, 2004
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