‘What happens when you want to move a tree?” asks the stately young woman in the
long white gown, reading to the audience from an oversized notebook marked
Let’s call her Adina – a name that works in both Hebrew and
Amharic. Out of modesty and unease about media exposure, she prefers to use a
“You can try to transplant the tree without the roots,” she
says. “But if you take the trouble of digging out the roots, it will thrive in
This Ethiopian aphorism captures the theme of Sigd
night at Nishmat, the Jeannie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for
Women in Jerusalem. Nishmat is renowned for enabling women to decode complex
Jewish texts, a prerequisite for leadership in the religious community, and for
the pioneering of women’s halachic advisers – yoetzot halacha – who run an
authoritative hotline for women in matters of ritual purity.
the tall books of Talmud are stored away.
Nearly 200 women and men –
students, teachers, volunteers, friends – led by Ethiopian-born students like
Adina from Nishmat’s Maayan Program, are celebrating the Ethiopian festival. The
usual photos of Sigd show Ethiopian patriarchs (kesim) in white robes, carrying
umbrellas and staffs, praying on the hillsides of Jerusalem. Back in Ethiopia,
Jews celebrated Sigd by fasting, dressing in festive white clothing and climbing
to the highest nearby mountain peak where they reaffirmed their commitment to
the observance of Judaism and their continued longing for Jerusalem through
prayer and reading the Torah. Later, they returned to their villages for
feasting and dancing. In 2008, the Knesset made Sigd an official holiday of the
State of Israel.
Adina has taken a rare day off from her intensive
She went to the ritual ceremony with her dormmates, Sabra Torah
scholars and American gap-year students, and interpreted for them. And she and
her 16 fellow Ethiopian-born first-year Maayan students have prepared the
evening’s dramatic readings and the food.
The menu includes miser wat
(red lentils), dabo (bread) and stewed vegetables eaten with injera, the
high-protein sour crepe that is the staple of the Ethiopian diet.
is easy for them, she says. By age five, children in Ethiopia were already
helping their mothers cook, draw water and craft pottery. School wasn’t an
option. Adina also had a stint as a tiny shepherdess, but was relieved when her
younger brother took over the family flock. The family eventually left its
remote village for the pre-immigration camp in the city of Gondor, where she
learned to read. Her family made aliya eight years ago and settled in Petah
Tikva. She was 14, and in the following years she succeeded in graduating from
high school and completing national service on time with her class. With the
help of a program sponsored by Emunah, she completed her matriculation
THEN SHE heard about Nishmat’s Maayan Program from a recent
graduate. The program provides personal tutoring and mentoring, coaching, life
skills like timemanagement and Jewish studies to ambitious and gifted
Ethiopian-born Jewish women. After students get into college, support continues
until they graduate and join the workforce. Current students are enrolled in
colleges and universities, majoring in education, nursing, social work,
biotechnology and law. Adina wants to become a teacher. “I wanted the help
getting into college, but what really appealed to me was to strengthen my Jewish
background at the same time,” she says.
The skits the students perform
are mostly lighthearted – but not all of them are. One deals with the
prohibition they maintained in Ethiopia not to marry anyone who was a family
member for seven generations back. In Ethiopia they sought a match in a distant
village, but in Israel marrying within their community and keeping the strict
ruling is difficult. Learning to compromise and adapt – at least partially – to
prevailing Israeli norms of Judaism is one example of the challenges they face
creating a Judaism with which they are comfortable. They have been transplanted
but not without roots.
Many of the young women are already taking the
lead in infusing their families’ homes with Judaism, says Nishmat founder and
director Chana Henkin. “It’s not uncommon for students to come home on a Friday
evening, make kiddush while the TV is turned on, eventually joined by one of
their siblings,” she says. Unlike the Ethiopian immigrants who arrived decades
ago on Operations Moses and Solomon, a large percentage of these immigrants are
Falash Mura who were forcibly converted to Christianity in Ethiopia. Indeed, a
number of the moms in the audience have crosses tattooed on their
The program wasn’t created to make the Ethiopian community
more religious, though. Nor was it created out of hessed, a desire to act in
lovingkindness for the needy. Henkin and the members of her staff speak in terms
of acting out of social justice. Her eyes tear as she describes the high rates
of school dropouts and poverty among Ethiopian immigrants. “I don’t want to see
a black underclass developing in this society,” she says.
my Torah values.”
And so Nishmat founders and supporters respond by doing
what they know and what they do best: empowering women who are seeking education
to become leaders in their community. There are 43 sensational women in
different stages of the program.
An hour into the Sigd festivities, Adina
and a coemcee announce that all the men and boys are invited to go upstairs to a
Torah class. The rest of the evening is for women only. As the men and boys file
out, the stage fills with young women. In this religious institution, women
don’t sing or dance in front of men. The young women open with the soulful
prayer recited on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the new month) and holidays,
where the phrase “remembrance of our ancestors” feels particularly poignant
considering their background.
Then the dancing begins. No tepid horas
here. The students are dressed in long skirts and long sleeves, but their dance
style is all esketsa, the Northern Ethiopian dance style built on
impossible-to-imitate shoulder shaking and head joggling. Soon everyone is up
and dancing. The music is an eclectic mix, from Israeli wedding music to
Ethiopian pop, like Teddy Afro favorites.
The dance floor is a mix, too.
Moms dance with daughters.
Teachers dance with students. American and
Sabra students, their hair plaited by their roommates, are making a credible
effort to loosen up their shoulders to get the shaking right. On the pulsing,
joyful dance floor, Jewish educator Chana Henkin comes over to gently nudge a
couple of visitors to join in. “This is Nishmat,” she says. “No wallflowers
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations
for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.