(JTA) — Avraham Adgah figuratively scratches his head, wondering what motivated Jacques Faitlovitch to dedicate his life to the Beta Israel — the Jews of Ethiopia.

“That’s the question that occupies me,” Adgah, a civil engineer at Israel’s Technion, says by telephone from his home in Kiryat Ata, near Haifa. “What led a 23-year-old white Jew from Poland to go to an undeveloped country and travel from place to place on donkeys — and when there were no donkeys, on foot? So I ask: What compelled him?”

Jacques Faitlovitch is shown with Ethiopian Jewish students shortly before his death in 1955. (photo credit: Tel Aviv University's Sourasky Central Library)

Jacques Faitlovitch is shown with Ethiopian Jewish students shortly before his death in 1955. (photo credit: Tel Aviv University's Sourasky Central Library)

Adgah wants to honor Faitlovitch by establishing an institute dedicated to the history and culture of communities once known as “lost Jews,” including those from Ethiopia. Such an institute, he says, was the intent of Faitlovitch in bequeathing his Tel Aviv house to the city upon his death in 1955 at age 74.

Tel Aviv University now houses the archive of articles, photographs and personal writings on Ethiopian Jewry that Faitlovitch accumulated during many visits, beginning in 1904. Should the institute be established, Adgah says he will ask the school to return the collection to the old Faitlovitch home.

Adgah, 47, who immigrated to Israel in 1984 from the village of Wegera in Ethiopia’s Gondar region, wants to locate Faitlovitch’s relatives, who he hopes will support the venture and provide personal information about the man for future exhibits. A lawyer told Adgah that he could improve chances for establishing the institute by locating Faitlovitch kin and prevailing upon them to approach Tel Aviv officials.

“I won’t stop talking about him,” Adgah said of Faitlovitch. “I want everyone to know about him. His whole life was the Ethiopian Jewish community.”

Faitlovitch occupies near-mythical status for leaving his hometown, Lodz, for Ethiopia in his 20s, devoting much of his life to the Jewish community there and rallying support and recognition for Ethiopian Jewry among European and American Jews. He brought Ethiopian pupils to study at Jewish schools in France, Switzerland and Italy, where they were trained to teach Jews back home. Later he helped establish a Jewish school in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and founded the New York-based American Pro-Falasha Committee.

Shortly before he died, Faitlovitch helped bring 27 Ethiopian Jewish teenagers to Israel to study at the Kfar Batya youth village, near Raanana. One person in that group was Adgah’s uncle, Yitzhak, now in his late 60s.

According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Faitlovitch “was an indefatigable lecturer, everywhere trying to stir active interest in the ‘Black Jews of Abyssinia.’ He considered the Beta Israel ethnologically the descendants of genuine Jews and an integral part of the Jewish people.”

Adgah is concerned that time is working against his plan — that the Tel Aviv municipality, in violation of Faitlovitch’s will, might sell the home, at 10 Vitkin St., because of its prime location a block from the beach. In recent years the city has used the two-story home and its garden as a kindergarten and then as a drug-treatment facility, he says.

Faitlovitch was “certainly an historical figure, one of the first European figures to spread the word about Ethiopian Jews,” says Friends of Ethiopian Jews director Susan Pollack, who adds that she has spent “many hours” reading Faitlovitch’s “beautiful [and] fascinating” descriptions of the community.

“He’s highly respected because his writings about Ethiopian Jews were very positive. He described them as very religious, very devout and much more stringent about rituals than were [many] Jews in Europe in the early 20th century. He viewed them as very spiritual,” she says.

Shortly after being interviewed in late March on the Israeli radio program “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau), Adgah heard from several cousins of Faitlovitch, who married late in life and never had children.

The relatives are excited about the venture and eager to lend a hand, Adgah says. He is gratified that through him, some of Faitlovitch’s relatives have reconnected after many years.

Sara Geiger remembers that Faitlovitch, who was her paternal grandfather’s first cousin, located her and her sister when they arrived in Israel in 1948 after surviving the Holocaust. On many a Saturday night, the sisters visited Faitlovitch and his wife, Mara, at their Vitkin Street home, which Geiger said “seemed large, like a castle.” There they listened to interesting lecturers the couple had invited to address guests in melavah malkah, or post-Shabbat, programs.

Faitlovitch sometimes spoke about his work in Ethiopia, and it was evident that “he really loved his students and the people he helped,” recalls Geiger, 83, who lives in Jerusalem. Geiger remembers her young daughter accidentally breaking a beautiful platter Faitlovitch had been given by an Ethiopian emperor.

Faitlovitch’s “activity was praiseworthy” and the institute effort is “something that has to be done,” Geiger says. “I’m a religious woman with a lot of faith. I believe that for sure [Faitlovitch] will get his reward in the world to come, if he did not get it in this world.”

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you are a relative of Jacques Faitlovitch and wish to be involved in establishing the institute in his memory. If you would like the help of “Seeking Kin” in searching for long-lost relatives and friends, please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief [one-paragraph] email.)