(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Doubts regarding the Jewishness of newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants - Falash Mura - have arisen once more at the Jewish Agency absorption center in Mevaseret Zion.
According to community members and the head rabbi of a nearby synagogue, the issue is being raised every week during Shabbat morning services and is turning a mitzva into an uncomfortable social statement.
"They come here on Saturday mornings and fill up half of the synagogue," Rabbi Ya'acov Krauss, spiritual leader of the Bat Zion Synagogue, told The Jerusalem Post. "We have tried to make them feel welcome and have even created a siddur in Amharic so they can follow the service.
"Youth from Bnei Akiva come and help out too, offering them guidance, but until each one has a certificate to say they are Jewish we cannot officially include them in the prayers or allow them to read from the Torah," he said.
Congregant David Addleman said Sunday, "It is a picture of segregation. Fifty or 60 Ethiopian men sit quietly and respectfully on the left-hand side, while the 20 or so whites sit on the right, often observing less decorum, ignoring their presence. Not one [Ethiopian] is ever called up to the reading of the Torah, a basic right of every Jew."
"The main question is, are they Jews or not? It has to be decided by someone," said Krauss, adding that he has contacted authorities at the absorption center and within the Chief Rabbinate, and not yet received a concrete answer.
Rabbi Menahem Waldman, a member of the Rabbinate's committee for the absorption of Ethiopian Jews and an expert on the Ethiopian conversion process, said the issue was extremely complicated. Unlike the Beta Israel, who maintained a distinct Jewish identity in Ethiopia for centuries, the Falash Mura converted to Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When they began arriving in Israel, the Rabbinate decided that a person is a Jew so long as their maternal ancestral line is Jewish, but all Falash Mura immigrants undergo a comprehensive conversion course.
"In many ways, they are recognized as Jews and allowed to go to synagogue," said Waldman. "However, there are some areas that they are excluded from until the conversion process is completed. Being counted in a minyan or being called up to the Torah, they must be Jews in every way, and that is what the problem is in Mevaseret Zion," he said.
Waldman, who works with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry to facilitate conversions for Ethiopians before they arrive in Israel, said, "The Falash Mura coming now have already been identified as halachicly Jewish. Most of them can trace their Judaism on their mother's side, and that is what has allowed them to make aliya."
He said the conversion process, which many start while still in Ethiopia, was slightly different to that demanded for non-Jews who want to convert and could only be completed after arrival in Israel. It can take up to two years, he said.
For those who start out at the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, it means they are unable to fully participate in synagogue services or truly feel part of the community.
"One problem is that in many places, such as Mevaseret Zion, the Ethiopians do not have a synagogue of their own," said Waldman. "We are trying to address this."
Krauss and Addleman said addressing the problem required much more than handing the new immigrants their own synagogue structure.
"They are being treated as second class citizens of Israel," said Krauss.
"Apart from the terrible sin of offending the Ethiopians' feelings, they are being actively pushed out of Israeli society," said Addleman.
Shlomo Mula, Jewish Agency senior consultant for Ethiopian immigrants, said this was a serious problem for recently arrived Ethiopian Jews.
"Israel tells these people to come, tells them that they are Jews, but when they arrive they are treated differently than everyone else," said Mula, recently became the first Ethiopian to sit on the World Zionist Organization's executive and the head of the WZO department that fights anti-Semitism.
"They [the new immigrants] suddenly see it as another form of discrimination. Because they are Ethiopians, because they are Africans, they can't be included. I hope this issue will be resolved soon."
"It is true that some synagogues do not know how to include them in the service," said Waldman.
The absorption center has been plagued by other problems in recent months. The center, which houses more than 1,700 new immigrants from Ethiopia, is under investigation both by police and within the Jewish Agency regarding a rape there four years ago.
The center's director, Meir Russo, was removed from his position in April after the rape victim told Yediot Aharonot that she had been coerced into accepting NIS 2,000 from her attacker in return for not filing a complaint with the police. The Jewish Agency has appointed Shifra Shidlowsky as interim director until the case is resolved.