When Sid Weiner, now 96, and Elie Halpern, 72, visited Ethiopia in 1982, it was a desperate land afflicted by drought, famine, and persecution of the country’s Jews. “Extreme poverty was evident everywhere,” says Weiner, who witnessed the harsh treatment of Ethiopian Jews firsthand. “Several times people tried to give us their children, because they were starving.”
Halpern and Weiner had traveled there to seek answers about the mysterious death of Halpern’s brother, who had been working to help Ethiopia’s Jews. When they returned home, they had a new mission. Along with other Puget Sound Jewish community leaders, they founded the nonprofit Save All Ethiopian Jews (SAEJ). According to an article Weiner wrote in 2005, the extraordinary humanitarian achievement would not have succeeded without the crucial help of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. “All Federation Presidents/Chair(s), from Sam Stroum through Iantha Sidell, have been avid champions of the SAEJ cause. I believe without the continuous help from the Jewish Federation, SAEJ would have disappeared long ago.”
“We wanted to be a part of that program,” says Ray Galante, the Federation’s 1983–1985 board chair. “There was purpose to it. The need was absolutely necessary at that time.” The help from the Federation and others enabled SAEJ to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews over the next eight years. “If you’re in the right place at the right time and meet the right people, then things sometimes work out,” Halpern says.
At the time, it was difficult for Ethiopians to get passports enabling them to leave the country. Weiner and Halpern devised workarounds, such as adopting family members and fabricating documents. “In my [law] office, we were preparing the paperwork for employment contracts or we were coming up with scholarships to colleges or high schools to get kids out of Ethiopia. We arranged for employment contracts from Seattle merchants, but we also manufactured them from fictitious companies,” Halpern says. “None of this was legitimate, but it worked! People were able to get their passports from the Ethiopian government, and if they secured their passports, then they could get out. Once you rescue one person, you want two, then you want more. You want to get out as many as you can as fast as you can.”
Once SAEJ was established and had recruited more staff members, however, a problem arose. The operation could no longer function out of homes or Halpern’s office. Weiner again approached the Federation for assistance, and, once again, the Federation was there to help. “They needed office space, and they didn’t have a whole lot of money,” says Michael Novick, who was the Federation’s executive vice president in 1989. In order for SAEJ to function effectively, it was necessary for its work to remain covert. Despite the organization’s legal nonprofit status, many people didn’t know about it or what it did. Weiner privately met with Novick and brought him into the circle.“I was floored,” Novick says. “Here was this really fascinating organization doing heroic work totally under the radar screen in Seattle, Washington. Who could imagine? But I immediately understood the stakes. The office space was provided at almost no cost. The fewer people that knew about [SAEJ], the better.”
SAEJ continued operating out of the Federation offices until 1991, when the Israeli military’s Operation Solomon transported more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours. Afterward, Halpern says, it was much easier for Ethiopian Jews to emigrate. SAEJ transitioned into the SAEJ/Bill Halpern Ethiopian Scholarship Endowment Fund, which helped Ethiopian students in Israel — who were not being provided assistance from the government because they were older or for other reasons — attend college. The fund is now part of the Federation’s Seattle Jewish Community Endowment Fund and continues to help Ethiopians in need.
Halpern says it’s the greatest thing he and Weiner ever did. “Judaism is about how you treat your fellow human beings and doing tzedakah, doing mitzvahs,” he says. “We both feel very lucky and fortunate to have helped a little bit until Operation Solomon in 1991.”