Ethiopian community celebrates Sigd at B.
(photo credit: GPO)
For decades, all roads for Israel's Ethiopian community have led to Jerusalem on the festival of Sig'd, marked 50 days after Yom Kippur. Until this year, their destination was the Haas Promenade, where they congregated to chant prayers led by Kessim, the community's spiritual leaders.
As of this year, Sig'd has become a legislated state holiday, which was marked on Monday at the President's Residence, giving the Ethiopians a certain one-upmanship over the Moroccans and the Kurds whose Mimouna and Saharana festivals are much better known but have not yet been celebrated at Beit Hanassi, even though they are frequently attended by the president, the prime minister and other members of the government.
Anyone who knows how to count will realize that Sig'd was ushered in early this year, partly because President Shimon Peres will not be in Israel on November 16, the date on which the festival falls this year. He will be winding up a state visit to South America.
The traditional gathering at the Haas Promenade will take place on the date of the festival and there will be other Sig'd-related activities leading up to it.
The Ethiopian Israelis at Beit Hanassi on Monday included academics - graduates in medicine, law and business management; representatives of the arts; educators; officers from the ground forces, the navy and the air force; MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) and other members of the Ethiopian community who hold key positions in many different enterprises; teenagers in the uniforms of the Scouts, Hashomer Hatzair and Bnei Akiva; and people who have been involved in Ethiopian community activities.
And of course, there were the noble looking Kessim - the Ethiopian spiritual leaders resplendent in their pristine white robes and head-dresses, as well as a large representation of non-Ethiopians from government bodies and NGOs.
Senior staff at Beit Hanassi have been working with the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews for the past 18 months, and stood around enjoying the speeches and applauding the highly talented Shva Na entertainment troupe who had everyone clapping their hands as they sang and danced.
Peres noted that 4,000 members of the 118,000-strong Ethiopian Jewish community have university degrees and 2,500 are studying for degrees.
"Their achievements have exceeded our expectations. It's simply incredible," he said. "They're in all walks of life, and they're an example of how people can elevate themselves through their own efforts."
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu) told them: "I'm so glad that you realized your dream to become part of the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. Your presence here is proof of your determination and your belief."
Kess Shimon Samai Elias, speaking on behalf of all the Kessim, regretted that their status is still not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. They are the guardians of Ethiopian Jewish tradition, he said, explaining that tradition was important not only because it marries the past with the future, but because it keeps people together and saves them from isolation.
Elias called the Kessim who had walked with the would-be Ethiopian olim through the wilderness of Sudan the true heroes of Ethiopian immigration, because they kept tradition alive even as people died on the journey.
Peres moderated a panel discussion with five examples of the Ethiopian success story: Dr. Avi Yitzhak, a senior surgeon at Soroka University Medical Center, Beersheba, Shula Mula, an educator and the chairwoman of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, lawyer Ya'acov Goncil, who works as an ombudsman in the State Comptroller's Office, prize-winning actress Tehilla Yeshayahu-Dago and Lt.-Col. Zion Shenkor, the commander of the Shimshon Battalion. Peres was interested in hearing about their absorption experiences, when they finally felt they belonged and the advice they had for other Ethiopians who were still finding their way.
Mula said that she began to feel Israeli when she realized that her problems were not those of Ethiopian immigrants alone, but of any immigrant.
Shenkor said that he most felt part of Israel when he went as a member of an IDF delegation to Poland and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was important to him he said, to stand there in the uniform of the IDF and to hear the playing of Hatikva. "Every Jew should go there," he said.
Yeshayahu-Dago recalled going to New York to perform - something that every Israeli in the entertainment business wants to do. But after she was there for four weeks she was very homesick, and it suddenly hit her that the only place she wanted to be was in Israel.
As for tips on how to make it, this was the collective advice.
â€¢ Be open to learning new things, but don't forget the past, because if you haven't got a past, you won't have a future. The past should serve as a springboard for the future.
â€¢ Get a good education, not only in a formal framework, but in an informal sphere that will spur self-motivation.
â€¢ Don't be afraid to ask for help and don't blame discrimination for your personal failures.
â€¢ Aim high and keep aiming higher, because the goals we set ourselves are often too low.
â€¢ If you want to get rid of stereotyped images, compete to win.
â€¢ Don't be ashamed of who you are.
â€¢ Have faith in your own abilities, and if you fail, don't give up. Try again.
â€¢ The army is the best place in which to prove yourself.
â€¢ Make sure you have plenty of family support, especially from your parents, so that you don't feel that you are battling alone.
When Peres asked if they have any further ambitions, Shenkor reminded him that David Ben-Gurion had said that he was waiting for the day when there would be a Yemenite chief of General Staff. Shenkor wanted to be the first Ethiopian chief of General Staff.
Goncil looked Peres straight in the eye and said: "Why do you think I'm here? I want to be president."