My unexpected visit with the forgotten Jews of Ethiopia

Need I say that this was a most amazing experience and that I am thankful to Hashem for adjusting my plans so that I could be there and see this for myself.

By DAVID HA'IVRI
April 29, 2018 19:26
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked visits in Ethiopia

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked visits in Ethiopia. (photo credit: THE STRUGGLE FOR ETHIOPIAN ALIYAH)

When I agreed to speak at the National Directors Conference of the Africa-Israel Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya, in commemoration of Israel’s 70th anniversary, I asked the organizers to make sure that I could be home in Israel for Shabbat. It was arranged that I would fly back right after my presentation to the central Israel Independence Day event attended by leading Israel supporters from 14 African nations.

To my great disappointment, my flight out of Nairobi was delayed and arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, three hours late, which caused me to miss my connecting flight to Israel. The next available flight would have me land after the beginning of Shabbat, something I could not agree to. The only choice was to rebook my flight for Saturday night.

Aside from once passing through Addis on a connecting flight, I had never been to Ethiopia before and didn’t know anything about the city, nor did I know anyone there. At about 2:00 a.m. the shuttle took me to a sorry excuse for a hotel that the airline put me up in. When access to WiFi was available, I let my friends know via social media that I was stuck in Ethiopia for Shabbat with nowhere to go and no one to see. At this point I expected to spend the entire Shabbat in the hotel room, because I wouldn’t have been able to open and close the door with the magnetic/electric key system on Shabbat.

The next morning I contacted two friends in Israel who had recently visited the Ethiopian Jews still waiting for permission to make aliya. They put me in contact with a young man in the community named Abere who speaks fluent Hebrew. I sent him a text message and he responded very quickly, in Hebrew. He suggested that I switch hotels to be near their synagogue and join them for Shabbat. I did exactly that, which turned out to be a great relief, also because the hotel was much more pleasant than the one supplied by the airline.

I settled in at the new location and was met by another young man from the Jewish community. Getasew is about 17. He, too, speaks Hebrew. He is the Kamonar – or the chief counselor for the local Bnei Akiva youth movement. The teen asked if I would like to take a walk to see the synagogue before Shabbat. We walked about 10 minutes along a very busy main road with broken and muddy sidewalks and shops scattered along it on both sides. With no zebra crossings, we quickly ran to the other side when there was an opening in traffic.

Then we walked up a partly paved path into a neighborhood that resembles a refugee camp, with a mix of some buildings and simpler structures, passing kids playing and adults going about their business. This area was considered the outskirts of Addis when the Jewish residents came here from their villages some 25 years ago and settled around the synagogue. But over time it has become more established; rising prices for rent have pushed the Jewish families to more distant areas. Many must walk over an hour to reach the synagogue for Shabbat prayers.

The walled and gated synagogue compound is guarded from the inside by a male member of the community. Once inside the synagogue grounds, men and boys take kippot out of their pockets and place them on their heads (there can be problems with the gentile neighbors). In the yard there is a little room near the gate for the guard, plus a one-level stone building with classrooms, in which Bnei Akiva activities are held, a small library with Torah, Talmud and Halacha (Jewish law) books in Hebrew and Amaharic.

The synagogue itself is in a covered shed, with benches and a curtain in the middle to separate men’s and women’s sections, which are side by side. In the front there is a low stage. On it there is a table with standard Koren prayer books, with Amaharic translation opposite the Hebrew. Behind the building there is a mikve that I was told is used by the women in the community. I met a couple of teenage boys here who answered my questions in Hebrew.

On the way back to the hotel I bought some fruit and vegetables that would be my Shabbat meal. To my surprise at the hotel I met an Israeli rabbi, who was meeting with four adult members of the community. All were wearing kippot and they were speaking in Hebrew. It turns out that this was Rabbi Menachem Waldman from Haifa. He is a leading expert on the issue of Ethiopian Jewry and has published 10 books on the subject. The rabbi was very surprised to see another Israeli here. He inquired as to the circumstances of my visit and quickly offered to share his Shabbat meal with me.

I spent the entire Shabbat with Rabbi Waldman. The synagogue prayers were identical to what I am used to in Israel, aside from a few differences. In the synagogue in Addis three young men stand facing the ark of the Torah and lead the prayers mostly in Amharic, with some Hebrew; at home in Israel typically one man would lead the prayer, all in Hebrew, with some Aramaic. For the Torah reading in the morning, after each of the seven men make the blessings to read a segment from the Torah scroll in Hebrew, the same segment is read aloud in Amaharic. This is similar to the custom in Yemenite synagogues in Israel where a child will translate each verse into Aramaic.

On Friday night after the prayers the Cantor recited the Kiddush over challah. I was told that normally they would have Kiddush over wine made here on Friday, but that this week they found no grapes. Between Mincha and Arvit on Shabbat Rabbi Waldman gave a class on The Ethics of our Fathers in Hebrew, which was translated by a local teacher into Amaharic. (Although the rabbi has also learned to speak the local language; from time to time he stopped the translator to correct him).

About 200 men, women and children attended the Shabbat morning prayers. More would come on weekdays when they could travel by car. Because of the distance and dangers on the way, it is difficult for old people and small children to walk there and back, especially at night in the dark.

There are about 8,000 members of this community still in Ethiopia. They are descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 17th and 18th century and have since returned to the Jewish faith. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef determined that they are Zera Yisrael (Seed of Israel) and should be brought to Israel and go through a technical conversion to return to the faith of Israel. Some 50,000 of their group have already made the move and integrated into Israel’s Jewish society. These last forgotten Jews are waiting to be remembered and reunited with their families and with the Jewish people in Israel.

Need I say that this was a most amazing experience and that I am thankful to Hashem for adjusting my plans so that I could be there and see this for myself.

The author is an Israeli geopolitical strategist based in Kfar Tapuach, where he lives with his wife and children. He travels internationally to speak on Israel-related issues in faith-based and political forums. Follow him on Twitter @haivri.


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