Thousands of Ethiopian- Israelis, known as Beta Israel, traveled from across the country to the Haas Promenade facing the Old City of Jerusalem on Wednesday to celebrate the Sigd holiday together with the community’s elders, senior ministers, MKs and the mayor of Jerusalem.
Sigd, whose roots are found in the biblical Book of Nehemiah, is marked 50 days after Yom Kippur.
The day of prayer and fasting culminating with a banquet began with the recitation of traditional prayers and excerpts from the Bible, followed by addresses from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, and a video message from President Reuven Rivlin.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post at the event, Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel Rabbi Reuven Wabshat said that after the mass immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel the decision had been taken by the community to continue to celebrating the holiday, even though its essence is about the yearning to return to Jerusalem.
Wabshat said that the decision was made so that the community would not forget the “powerful heritage of Ethiopian Jewry,” and to help Israeli society understand the travails experienced by the Ethiopian Jewish community throughout their history in Africa before their return to Israel.
The rabbi asserted that it was crucial for broader Israeli society to understand the Ethiopian Jewish community’s heritage and that it is an integral part of the Jewish people because of the “difficulties” the community has experienced in Israel.
The community has frequently complained of discrimination and racism against it, and in particular has suffered from over-policing and a disproportionate number of arrests and indictments relative to its 121,000 members.
The recent death of Solomon Tekah following an altercation between a group of youths and a police officer led to renewed claims of police brutality, as well as protests and riots by members of the Ethiopian community.
A previous bout of protests was sparked when video footage emerged of police officers beating an IDF soldier from the Ethiopian Jewish community.
“As you know, in recent years, the Ethiopian Jewish community has had difficult experiences, because people do not know and do not appreciate what Ethiopian Jews went through, and looked at things which are not relevant such as differences in place of origin, but not the internal aspects of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Wabshat.
“The Sigd holiday can bring people to the understanding and recognition that Ethiopian Jews are of the same flesh as all Jews around the world, and when the state recognizes Sigd, as it has, it means that we can all be one people.”
Among the kessim (spiritual leaders) who participated in the prayers was Kes Mentasnut Govze from Beersheba.
He explained to the Post how in Ethiopia the Jewish community would travel to and ascend a mountain on Sigd to “pray to God as one people with one heart that we would reach Jerusalem the next year and that the Temple would be rebuilt.”
Govze noted that although the community has now reached Israel and Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s mission is not yet finished.
“We still have not built the Temple and we must be clean. If we go on the correct path, the path of the Torah, God will help us, we will build the Temple and bring the sacrifices,” said the kes.
MK Pnina Tamano-Shata described the holiday as “a big gift for Israeli society” since, she said, it could help unite the Jewish people.
“It is so wonderful to see so many people here who are not from the Ethiopian community, and this holiday has become a holiday for all the Jewish people,” said Tamano-Shata.
“It is celebrated in kindergartens, schools, in the army, in local authorities, and the message is that this story is your story, it’s my story, and the story of all Jews, whether from Europe or from Arab countries.”
The MK said that the identity of the Ethiopian Jewish community was strong, but noted the problems it has faced including “difficulties which are connected to Israeli society such as police violence, discrimination, and racism,” but said that the community remained positive.
“We are positive and fully open to Israeli society, we are not in a place of antagonism even though we have had a very hard, challenging, and intensive year, and we are far from getting justice, nevertheless everything has its time and period,” she said.
Michal Avera Samuel, director of the NGO Fidel, said that the thousands of people who came to the celebrations in Jerusalem came “to learn and understand the heritage of Ethiopian Jews which is an ancient heritage which every child should be proud of and pass on to the next generation.”
Our goal in Fidel is to promote this platform so the youth can teach those from the Ethiopian community and broader Israeli society.
Continued Avera Samuel “The goal is that through studying in school and and youth groups, we can teach the heritage of Ethiopian Jews and build a courageous identity together with a sense of belonging within Israeli society.”