Thousands of Ethiopians set to ‘Seder’ together this Passover

The local cantor or community leader counts the baking time out loud and warns the bakers when they have to stop. There are no ovens in Gondar, so the matzah is cooked over an open fire.

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April 17, 2019 01:47
2 minute read.

Ethiopian youth prepare matzot for the Seder in Gondar. (Jewish Agency)

Ethiopian youth prepare matzot for the Seder in Gondar. (Jewish Agency)

 
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Some 4,500 Ethiopian Jews and about 80 Israelis will celebrate Passover together in Gondar on April 19. The Seder, which will be among the largest in the world, is being funded by the Jewish Federation of New York through the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Preparations for the Seder have been underway for weeks, as everything the Ethiopians consume is handmade, explained Alisa Bodner, spokesperson for the advocacy organization Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah. She said the community so far has prepared 10,000 matzot - made from 5,340 pounds of wheat flour - and 100 gallons of raisin wine.

“The community spends a few days cleaning everything,” Bodner described. “Then, the preparations begin. Everything there - every milestone is communal.”

Matzot are prepared for the Seder in Gondar, Ethiopia. (Gal Zeira/Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah)

She said the matzah is made in a central location. The local cantor or community leader counts the baking time out loud and warns the bakers when they have to stop. There are no ovens in Gondar, so the matzah is cooked over an open fire.

Bodner said it would not be possible for families to hold Passover Seders in their homes.

“Their homes are one-room shacks - one room for eight people, usually four cots in a small room,” she described.

In addition to the matzah and wine, the community prepared 3,830 eggs, 2,750 pounds of bananas and 950 wooden beams used to kindle the fires needed for cooking and baking, the Jewish Agency reported.


The Gondar Seder will be run by Matiko Yalo, a Jewish studies teacher who formerly headed the Jewish community in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia before making aliyah in 2001. A second Seder will be held in Addis Ababa for around 1,000 people. That Seder will be run by Rabbi Tzvi Ron of Israel, together with his wife and four children.

Ethiopian youth prepare the Seder in Gondar, Ethiopia. (Jewish Agency)

The Jewish Agency said in a statement that while the Seder will be a time of communal celebration, it will be held in the shadow of the long wait these community members have endured since 2015, when the government decided to authorize aliyah for additional immigrants from Ethiopia, a promise it has yet to fulfill. This year, the government opened the doors to an additional 1,000 immigrants, some of whom have already arrived in the country.

“Every year, they say ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ at the end of their Seder and all these years they repeat it and they still believe it,” said Bodner. “This is a community that lives on hope. The synagogue is called ‘Hatikvah,’ the youth soccer team is called ‘Hatikvah,’” she said. The Hebrew word hatikvah means the hope.

Bodner called on Jewish families around the world to think about the Ethiopians when they utter the words “Next year in Jerusalem” at their own Seders.

“We should not forget that we still have a Jewish community left behind and we should do our part to make sure we don’t forget about these people,” she said.

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