Sintayehu (right) with two other finalists from his community.
(photo credit: THE STRUGGLE FOR ETHIOPIAN ALIYAH)
Sintayehu Shifaraw will be the first ever Ethiopian to compete in the International Bible Contest, the Jewish community of Ethiopia announced Sunday.
But Sintayehu’s aspirations extend far beyond a short jaunt to Israel: He has been waiting for the Israeli government to approve his application for immigration since 2001.
Sintayehu, 18, is a counselor in the local Bnei Akiva chapter in Addis Ababa. He is a member of the Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews
whose ancestors in the 19th and 20th centuries converted to Christianity under compulsion and pressure from missionaries.
Sintayehu’s father, Rata Shifaraw, immigrated to Israel with his wife and seven of his children in 2001. But Sintayehu and two of his siblings, whose mother is Rata’s first wife, were not approved by the Interior Ministry.
“When we immigrated, we made sure to send a request for their immigration. But the approval never came,” Rata said. “What hurts most is that my other children were left behind, and I cannot raise them and be there for them like a father.”
Sintayehu has seen his father, who now lives in Or Yehuda, near Tel Aviv, twice since Rata moved to Israel.
Alisa Bodner, a spokeswoman for the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliya, did not know the reason for the rejection of Shifaraw’s application but stressed that he is just one example of hundreds whose families who have been separated.
MK Avraham Neguise, who has spearheaded the struggle to bring Falash Mura to Israel, said: “Here is a Jewish boy that is there and he is capable of competing in the Hidon Hatanach [International Bible Competition]. But the Interior Ministry will not provide him with approval to immigrate to Israel, even though his father and siblings are here. This is reflective of the policy to put to the side the issue of Ethiopian aliya.”
Sintayehu went through a series of tests before being selected to represent his community at the contest, which will be held in Jerusalem on Independence Day in April.
The competition tests high-school pupils on their knowledge of the Bible, its books, characters and verses. It is traditionally attended by the prime minister, the Knesset speaker, the education minister and the Jewish Agency chairman.
“It was my childhood dream to do something for my community, as I have grown up watching the community suffer,” Sintayehu said in a statement from the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliya. “When I was told about this opportunity, I said to myself that the day has come for me to be someone and do something for my community. I represent not myself but my friends and people as we win it together. Now my dream is coming true thanks to God.”
Sintayehu is active in Torah study, the community noted, highlighting that he studies every day after school and often shares reflections from the week’s Torah portion with the community.
Sintayehu’s teacher, Baye Tesfa, a cantor at his synagogue, said: “First of all, it’s a great pleasure for me to have my student stand in front of the prime minister, rabbis and Am Yisrael [the Jewish nation]. This will play a tremendous role in conveying a message that even if we are found in a bad situation in a country that is not ours, we don’t forget Torah and halakhot [Jewish law]. We are part of Am Yisrael.”
The announcement comes at a sensitive time for the remaining Falash Mura in Ethiopia who are awaiting approval to immigrate. While the government decided in 2015 to bring the remaining members of the community who are eligible for aliya, that plan is currently in limbo after the first 1,300 were brought from an estimated 9,000 applicants. The government upheld it commitment to bring the first group to Israel by the end of 2017. But it has yet to approve a budget for any further immigration.
Since their ancestors converted to another religion, the Falash Mura are not covered by the Law of Return, which grants the right to immigrate and gain citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.
The Falash Mura are brought to Israel under the Law of Entry and are required to convert to Judaism once in Israel.