For more than 2,500 years, the Sigd was observed in Ethiopia as a day of fasting and prayer for the return to Zion, held on a mountaintop symbolizing Mount Sinai. Jews prayed to one day live in Jerusalem, a city they believed was paved with gold and filled with God’s light and powerful presence.
On Wednesday, thousands of Ethiopian Israelis from across the country gathered on a picturesque promenade in the capital’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, where multiple generations of men, women and children celebrated their triumphant achievement.
Despite numerous protests over the last several years denouncing racism, as well as acute concerns over the unresolved abduction of Avraham Mengistu by Hamas in 2014, a palpable aura of joy and fulfillment filled the air, as the sun broke through gray clouds on this windy day.
Donning a blue and white kippa, Alemenew Tessema, a 36-year-old engineer from Netivot, said he came to Israel with his parents, brothers and 15,000 other Jewish Ethiopians in 1991, during Operation Solomon.
“I am very happy that after 2,500 years we can celebrate Sigd Day in Israel, where we prayed to go,” said Tessema.
“And now we pray to stay in Israel and to be together with all the other people here. I am very happy and could cry talking about that.”
Asked what he recalls about Jewish life in Ethiopia, he said most conversations centered around Jerusalem.
“I remember that they told us about Jerusalem, and whenever anyone asked how you are, you answered ‘Jerusalem!’” he said. “Everything was about Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and when I heard that we are coming to Israel, I was very excited and happy.
I thought that I was in heaven.”
While Tessema, who served in the IDF for seven years, conceded that life in Israel is far from ideal, he nonetheless said he still “feels the heaven in my soul.”
“It’s not really the gold we expected, and there are many challenges, but I still feel happy and proud to be here,” he said. “When we came here, nobody asked us what we brought from Ethiopia.
They said: ‘You came to Israel; be like other people.’ But I have seen over the last five years that there is a change, that they want to know more about our story and history.”
In terms of recent protests over racism in Israeli society, Tessema said that “the situation is better,” adding that he believes the protesters are self-damaging.
“I don’t like protests,” he said. “When you protest, it’s like putting your finger in someone’s eye, and I don’t think it’s good for our land.
There is racism, but the way to fight against it is not to protest in the streets and say Israel is no good. You have to make progress, get an education, serve in the army and be together with all Israelis.”
Sara Abeba, 24, who was born and raised in Netanya and is studying social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said although she has been in Israel her entire life, her parents’ struggle makes the Sigd extremely meaningful.
“It’s a deep feeling because I was the first to be born in Israel, and my parents dreamed in Ethiopia for so many years to come to Jerusalem,” she said. “And for ages, they prayed to be here.
So for me, it’s like I am fulfilling the dream of my ancestors.”
A former IDF officer, Abeba, whose family came to Israel during Operation Solomon, said although she has not experienced racism directly, she is well aware of other Ethiopian Israelis who have.
“I hear a lot of stories and know that there is a problem and that we need to take care of the problem, but I am proud to be from Ethiopia,” she said. “I’m proud to be Israeli and Jewish, but I also need to be proud of my parents’ culture.”
Indeed, Abeba said she has become so acclimated to life in Israel that she must remind herself of her family’s difficult past.
“For a long time, I was forgetting from where I came from and my culture,” she said. “So for the last year I said to myself: ‘Wait, my parents came from a very rich culture with many things they wanted me to learn.’ So now I’m doing research myself and am proud of their traditions.”
“It’s an honor to be here and to have fulfilled the dreams of my father and mother to come to Jerusalem,” Abeba said.
During the celebration, which took place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., President Reuven Rivlin spoke of Mengistu, who remains in captivity after being captured by Hamas when he wandered into Gaza.
“On this day, full of longing for Jerusalem, it is important to mention the longing for our Avraham Mengistu, who has been in Hamas captivity for more than two years,” he said. “The State of Israel is working tirelessly and is committed to continue to use all means and channels at its disposal to release Avraham.
Together, we pray here to see his release quickly and be returned to his family and to the bosom of his people.”
Noting the historic significance of the Sigd, Rivlin praised the bravery of the thousands of families who fled a repressive and dangerous country for a better life in Israel, adding that their presence is a victory for all Jews.
“This is the fulfillment of the dream of generations, not only for the Ethiopian Jews but for all the Jews who returned from abroad to their ancestral homeland,” he said. “The State of Israel and Israeli society won by having you here.”