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Out of Africa: A Long Journey Home

By Maayan Hoffman
All photos courtesy of A.Y. Katsof


A.Y. Katsof and Suzi Makur Riel happily display Suzi’s newly received Israeli identification card in September 2019. On her lap is her son, Mubarak, who suffered from malaria on arrival, but recovered at an Israeli hospital.
Piath Aguar learned about the “Chosen People” when she was a child in Bible school. But for a girl being raised in Sudan, the Jews and Jerusalem were a fairy tale.

Until last Passover, when she landed in Israel.

“If you had told me 10 years ago that all of a sudden this crazy white guy would call me up and tell me he is going to bring me to Israel because I am Jewish, I would have thought you were crazy,” Piath said, speaking in Arabic through a translator, having only arrived in Israel six months prior. “All of a sudden I find out I am one of the people in the Bible. I am chosen.”

“It was like a light came down on me,” she said.

But only one year ago, the prospects of Piath coming to Israel seemed very dim.

When A.Y. Katsof lit the menorah with his family in their home on the Aish Kodesh West Bank outpost last Chanukah, his daughter cried.

“She said she wished that Suzi and Piath, two Ethiopian women we had befriended and who were on a quest to live their lives in Israel, could be with us,” A,Y, said. “Chanukah is a time of miracles. When we light the candles, we think about the wishes we want to come true.

“I told her I didn’t think the women had a chance, but if God wills it, nothing’s impossible.”

When A.Y., who heads The Heart of Israel program of the Binyamin Fund, turned away from the candle flames, an Alabama pastor visiting for the holiday put a cash-filled envelope into his hand.

The pastor said he had told his church about The Heart of Israel’s efforts to raise money to bring the last Jews of Ethiopia back to Israel and resettle them in the biblical heartland. One congregant handed him a large amount of cash and asked him to deliver it.

“As soon as I got that envelope, I knew I had to bring them home,” A.Y. said.


Ayen Aguar pictured with her classmates in June 2019 at the Kibbutz Saad School, near the Ibim Absorption Center in southern Israel. She has since relocated with her family to an absorption center near Beit She’an in northern Israel.


Home at last, an ecstatic Piath Aguar in Netanya during Passover 2019. This was the first time she had ever walked on a beach.
The Stranded Sisters

He had first heard about Piath Aguar and her sister, Suzi Makur Riel, the previous spring on a trip to Ethiopia. There, he met their mother, Tewabech Tashu, whose brothers walked across the Sudanese desert to Israel 37 years ago. She stayed back with her father, who died waiting.

Tashu then tried to cross the desert on her own but was arrested and jailed in Sudan. The prison warden released Tashu and married her, and she put her Jewish past behind. When the couple had their first daughter, they named her Piath, which means “good.”

Several years later, the warden took the couple’s children and moved to South Sudan, while Tashu stayed in northern Sudan. In 2015, she saw a newscast about Ethiopian Israeli Jews visiting Africa as tourists and wondered if they knew her brothers. She begged an Israeli couple she found to take a video of her to share with any Ethiopians they knew back home.

Within months, Tashu’s brothers, Yaakov Alamo, a resident of Ofra in the West Bank, and Uri Ben-Baruch, a resident of northern Kibbutz Lavi, discovered their long-lost sister.

Tashu had moved to Ethiopia from Sudan to start the Aliyah process when A.Y. met her. He helped facilitate a DNA test that led to her acceptance as a Jew and the Interior Ministry’s permission for her to come to Israel.

Tashu longed to reunite with her Israeli family, but just as it seemed possible, she told A.Y. she could not go. While her two sons were living with her in Ethiopia, her two daughters — Piath and Suzi — had been sold into marriage at age 12, had several children and were trapped in war-torn South Sudan.

“I decided I would have to do whatever I could to rescue her daughters,” A.Y. recalled.



A Yearlong Mission

He spent nearly 12 months in a clandestine rescue mission, which took him through South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Piath is divorced and her ex-husband, as is common in South Sudan, took her children — Ayen, 11, and Bior, 7 — to live with his family. A.Y. needed to find a way to reunite the children with their mother.

He reached out to Come True, a project of the Become organization, which helps children of South Sudanese refugees receive a better education. In some cases, the children are brought to Israel for school.

Although the plan was to convince Piath’s ex-husband to let them leave him to learn in Israel, A.Y. knew it was unlikely. A representative of Come True called their father, and the first miracle manifested.

“I am a Christian, and I believe in God,” the father told Come True. “If God wants my children to have a better future, I’ll take it. The alternative is to let them die in South Sudan.”

He took his children to Uganda, where Come True has a base and signed the necessary paperwork. When they crossed the border into Kenya with A.Y., they discovered their travel documents were faulty.

Police arrested A.Y. Katsof for kidnapping the kids.

It took an Israel-loving Kenyan pastor, Dennis Nthumbi, to convince the authorities to let them go. But a not-too-dissimilar situation recurred when the team made it to Gondar, Ethiopia, where A.Y. learned that the children did not have the necessary documentation again — this time for immigration to Israel. The only way to get it was to send the children back to their father in South Sudan and ask him to procure it.

“It meant sending them back to the mercy of a father who could easily change his mind,” A.Y. recalled. “I cried like a baby that night. I was convinced we had lost them.”

The pastor, however, would not let A.Y. lose hope. “The matter looked dangerous and hopeless,” he said, “but I believed God would help.”

He called a bishop, who then called another pastor he knew back in South Sudan, who ensured the father’s approval throughout the process. One week later, the needed documentation arrived with a message from the pastor, “The God of Israel is mighty.”

Within a week, Piath, her children and A.Y. arrived at Addis Ababa airport for their flight to Israel.

“Are these your children?” the airport official asked in suspicion, when he saw him with the children.

“These are the children of Israel,” A.Y. responded. “I’m taking them home.”

The man stamped their passports and placed them into his hand.

“The God of Israel is great,” A.Y. said.


Piath, Ayen and Bior Aguar celebrate their first Rosh Hashanah with the Katsof family in September 2019.
Returning Israel’s Children

Two days later, a Jewish Agency Aliyah flight from Ethiopia arrived with Tashu and her sons.

Four months later, however, A.Y. was still fighting for Suzi, who like her sister and her sister’s children, faced African bureaucracy. In her attempts to get to Ethiopia and then Israel, she was repeatedly apprehended at the airport and sent back to South Sudan. When she finally arrived in Gondar, the Israeli embassy at first would not approve her paperwork because the name on her passport did not match her birth certificate.

Days after A.Y. and his colleagues managed to break through the bureaucracy and get Israel to approve their travel, he learned that Suzi’s visa was about to expire, and she would once again be sent back to Sudan to restart the process. Moreover, her son was in mortal danger with malaria.

The Jewish Agency confirmed it would allow Suzi and her children to make Aliyah upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, but it could not help them get on the plane. “My credit cards were maxed. I could not afford their plane tickets, the Israeli benefactor recalls.  

Someone mentioned to A.Y. that “Israel Inspired” podcast co-host Jeremy Gimpel might want to help, so he reached out.

“Jeremy takes a picture of his credit card and says, ‘This one’s on me,’” A.Y. said. He bought the tickets, and they were on a plane two days later.

“It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to bring Jews who were lost in Sudan to Israel,” the podcast co-host said. “I wanted to help.”

“I don’t think there is much future for Jews in South Sudan, Ethiopia or even France,” he continued. “If a Jew wants to make Aliyah, it’s incumbent upon us to do what we can.”

The last family members arrived in late August. Before Rosh Hashanah the sick child was released from the hospital, and they celebrated together at an absorption center.

They are now learning Hebrew and how to live a Jewish life.

“It is very important to me to be Jewish,” said Piath, but she admitted she does not really know what that means. When A.Y. prays, she stands next to him. When his wife lights candles, she does, too.

“Overall, I want to be connected,” she said. “There is a lot I don’t understand. What I do know is that I am a dark Jew. A.Y. is a light Jew. But we are all the same family.”

The Land of Honey

Piath said that for her, “everything in Israel is honey.”

“You don’t understand what hard is,” she said. “Here, there is food. You don’t wash your clothes with your hands. Water comes out of the wall. When you are hot, machines make it cold. It is more than I could dream.”

However, Suzi, who has been here for much less time, is still struggling.

When she had a toothache, she asked A.Y. to take her to someone “to get it cut out with a knife.”

In South Sudan, he explained, they extract the tooth and wash the mouth with salt water. There is no modern dentistry. When her young son was in the hospital with malaria, he had never slept in a crib. She had to convince the hospital staff to put a mattress on the floor so he could rest.

And recently, she went to the supermarket and offered to pay for 500 shekels worth of groceries with five 200-shekel bills and could not understand why the cashier insisted on giving her change.

“She never learned basic math,” A.Y. said. She does not know how to read and write, something she hopes to change at the absorption center.

The sisters dream of eventually opening up a hair salon called “African Sisters,” catering to Ethiopian and other African immigrants like themselves.

“At the end of the day, when the people of Israel say, ‘Welcome home,’ they mean it,” A.Y. said. “My sisters are home.”

B’’nai B’’rith Assisted in Jewish Ethiopian Exodus

By Cheryl Kempler

In 1905, Polish anthropologist Jacques Faitlovitch, from the Sorbonne, first traveled to Abyssinia (now part of Ethiopia) to study its devout community of men and women who identified as Jews.

He became the first person to spread awareness of the Falasha Mura (“aliens,” their former name) or Beta Israel. Israel officially recognized them as Jews in 1975, but Ethiopia’s anti-Zionist policies prohibited them from emigrating. Learning that some of their people had gone to Israel from neighboring Sudan, where the Israeli government had rescued them, thousands more suffered in its squalid refugee camps, where they lost hope of making Aliyah.

At Israel’s request, B’nai B’rith’s then president, Gerald Kraft, traveled to Ethiopia to assure its Jewish community that Israel would fly the Ethiopian Jews out. His organization’s seven-branched menorah was strong proof for a people with sacred and secular traditions measured by that number: Even the Sabbath is grouped into cycles of seven. After the Ethiopian government curtailed “Operation Moses” before all the Jews were extricated, Kraft met with French President François Mitterrand and U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose administration had already planned to complete the airlift.

The approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews arriving between November 1984 and March 1985 were assisted in resettlement by B’nai B’rith, coordinating with Israel’s government and clergy.  

Israeli and overseas districts were among the philanthropies meeting the immigrants’ needs; British and Australian B’nai B’rith lodges constructed community centers and club houses and ran vocational programs. From a member’s significant gifts, Netanya’s David Ben Gurion Lodge established a foundation that paid for camp tuition and college scholarships.  

Anticipating “Operation Solomon,” which rescued approximately 14,000 Ethiopian Jews over a few days in 1991, lodges readied clothes, diapers, medicine and furniture. B’nai B’rith’s volunteer department and District 14 (now B’nai B’rith Israel) developed an initiative relying on help from members and others who oriented the newcomers to modern life. “Adopt a Family” matched donors to individual households, who received letters and packages.

During the mid-1990s, B’nai B’rith focused on Ethiopian children who were integrating into Israeli society. District 14 funded hundreds of bar mitzvah celebrations, and a Los Angeles lodge, Ivan Franks-Ladra, donated $5,000 to raise educational standards at a pre-school based at an immigrant trailer park. During the years in which the Ethiopian Jews were adjusting and needed assistance, B’nai B’rith continued to provide their families with, among other things, eyeglasses, dental care and, for students, sports equipment and book bags.