Ethiopian rescue effort has longstanding ties in community

by | Sep 14, 2012 | Uncategorized

Karen, Nathan and Bernard* Jaffe

Karen, Nathan and Bernard* Jaffe

In 1991, a call for help went out to the worldwide Jewish community. As a civil war raged in Ethiopia and the ruling government was about to be toppled, more than 14,000 Jews had been secretly gathered and were waiting to be transported to Israel, their biblical, promised land of “milk and honey.”

As Israel and a number of Jewish and human rights organizations were finalizing negotiations for the rescue, called Operation Solomon, a last-minute demand came from the Ethiopian rulers: Israel must pay $35 million for the release of the Jews, or they would not be permitted to leave.

So Israel and the organizations spread the word quickly and quietly—the mission must still be kept secret; immediately the Tidewater Jewish community responded.

Bernard Jaffe* agreed to chair the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Operation Solomon emergency campaign. Within hours, the local philanthropist, lay leader and businessman had raised $94,000 from area donors. These funds, along with contributions raised in other communities, allowed Operation Solomon to proceed. In 36 hours, non-stop flights of 34 Israeli aircraft transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

“I was there to see those planes land, and to see the new Israeli citizens walk down those steps into their new homeland,” Jaffe told those gathered at a 2004 event commemorat ing the community’s efforts. “Every person I called upon to help support Israel’s efforts to bring the Ethiopian Jews ‘home,’ immediately accepted and proffered help.”

Jaffe’s legacy of involvement with Operation Solomon and many other endeavors highlight an essential part of the UJFT’s mission:

We care for those in need, rescue Jews in danger, enhance Jewish security and champion the State of Israel. By accepting responsibility for one another, we improve the world with acts of righteous giving and social justice.

With his wife Lee* by Bernard’s side, encouraging involvement and participating in community events, the Jaffes became role models for their children Nathan, Melissa, Karen, and their granddaughter Abbie, as well as the greater community.

Karen Jaffe has followed her parents’ example. As well as being a driving force behind the creation and growth of the Jaffe Jewish Family Service in Budapest, Hungary, she is an executive committee member of the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She also remains closely involved with the UJFT, helping lead the formulation of a strategic plan that brings more inclusivity and outreach to the Federation’s mission.

Nathan Jaffe, too, has been a constant presence in many aspects of the Tidewater Jewish Community. “My parents always impressed upon me and my sisters the notion of giving back. It was an idea, an example, that we grew up with, and I feel very fortunate that I had these role models who showed us how people can be involved in their community, ” he says.

“Their legacy, I think, is to let people know that it’s important to give money, but it’s also important to give your time, and to become involved in your community. If we want to have a strong Jewish community, it’s very important for us to support all of the agencies—whether it’s the Jewish Family Service, Beth Sholom Village, the Jewish Community Center, all of which receive Federation gifts—because the stronger they are, the stronger we are,” says Nathan Jaffe.

The Jaffes, along with other community members who generously donate to the UJFT, are continuing to help Jews locally, in Israel, and in countries like Ethiopia. Since 1991, most Ethiopian Jews have made Aliyah to Israel, but some are still waiting departure. The UJFT remains committed to ensuring that Ethiopian Jews become integrated into Israeli society through a variety of educational and support programs. Through the generous gifts of the Tidewater community, funds have been allocated to a World ORT program that provides pre-Aliyah training to Ethiopian Jews, as well as to programs that will help them in Israel.

To find out more about how gifts make a difference, visit To hear more about the story of Ethiopian Jews, rescue and renewal, attend the 2013 Annual Campaign Kick-offs.

*of blessed memory

by Laine M. Rutherford