When President Biden’s rabbi met an Ethiopian-Israeli Orthodox rabbi

I spoke to these two rabbis as part of a series on the relations between the two largest Jewish communities in the world – Israel and the US.

 RABBI MICHAEL BEALS (photo credit: Elisa Komins Morris)
(photo credit: Elisa Komins Morris)

The conversation between Rabbi Michael Beals and Rabbi Sharon Shalom barely needed any mediating. These two rabbis, one of them Orthodox and Israeli from an Ethiopian background; and the other, a Conservative rabbi who is President Joe Biden’s rabbi from Delaware, hit it off from the start. In fact, it took effort to convince them to end the conversation, since they were having such a good time.

I spoke to these two rabbis as part of a series on the relations between the two largest Jewish communities in the world – Israel and the US. During this series, each week I hop on a Zoom conversation with two prominent individuals from Israel and the US.

Rabbi Shalom said that he was born in a small village in Ethiopia. “We grew up in a village that was only Jewish, separated from the other villages.” He added that the people of his village and other Jews “kept our unique identity of Jews, but we were always in touch with other groups such as Christians and Muslims. We understood then that we are all equals. But it does not mean that if you are equal, you are the same. We are different from one another.”

He remembered that in Ethiopia, he used to sit down with his grandfather. “My grandfather used to tell us stories about Jerusalem. Jerusalem was everything to us. I asked my grandfather, ‘When will God take us from Ethiopia to Jerusalem?’ He would always say, ‘Now.’'

Shalom explained that “only later on in my life did I understand that during 3,000 years of exile in Ethiopia, all of our ancestors answered the same way as my grandfather. They truly believed that they would be leaving for Jerusalem. But we are now here, in Israel.”

Shalom continued by saying that the “secret” that kept his community alive for so many years, as well as other Jewish communities, was hope, but that “unfortunately, this secret of hope that kept us going throughout the exile in Ethiopia is lost. It seems to me that when we arrived in our historic homeland, we lost the secret. It seems to me that we have lost hope in our home, in our land.”

RABBI SHARON SHALOM. Photo credit - Sasson TiramRABBI SHARON SHALOM. Photo credit - Sasson Tiram

Shalom said that this is similar to a couple before they wed. “They very much love each other; but after they get married, they feel that all the love is lost. What happened to us?” Shalom asked, regarding the current situation in Israel and how the country is perceived around the world. “This sometimes makes me very sad,” he said.

Rabbi Beals’s body language showed that he was very supportive and enthusiastic about what Shalom had to say. “I’m a first-generation American on my dad’s side. Our family came up from England, and before that from Russia and Poland. I’m just a little older than you, Rabbi Shalom, but I’m just a really good-looking guy,” he laughed.

“I just turned 60 on Shushan Purim, and my Hebrew name is Mordechai. I was born in San Francisco, California, which is known as a very tolerant multicultural city. I’m an only child. I was brought up only in non-Jewish environments, so I was the only Jew anywhere I went, not deliberately.”

Beals explained to Shalom that “I always had to kind of understand and be able to explain Judaism to people who weren’t Jewish.”

BEALS SAID that he remembers clearly that “in 1973, I was 10 years old, and I remember we were in the parking lot of the Belmont Jewish Community Center, which is where our services were for the High Holy Days, and we heard from a car radio that Yom Kippur war broke out.

“It was the break between the services and somebody on the radio was talking about Israel being invaded. It was so shocking. Nobody went home, we were just a whole community of Jews standing around a car in a parking lot with a radio on. We were all biting our nails because it was a very scary war.”

“I love Israel,” Beals continued. “I’ve lived in Israel twice during my studies.”

“I learned so much more about Israel and it really refocused me. I understood that the story is much more complicated. Rabbi Shalom, what worked for me was I made friends, who are all sorts of people; people whether in settlements, in Tel Aviv, Hebrew University students, Palestinian kids who have trouble getting to their classes because of roadblocks and others. It’s almost a curse to know as much as I do,” he said, adding that “in America, people tend to be very bipolar, and I became this way in Israel as that allows me to see the full picture.”

Beals added that on a personal note, “I feel a special connection to you, Rabbi Shalom, for so many reasons: Your energy, your youth, and your desire to bring Jewish people wherever they’re at is really spoken. I feel like you’re representing an Ethiopian community that is sometimes not heard and I’m representing a Masorti [Conservative] community that’s also not heard and yet Israel is all of ours, shelanu [ours].”

In his opinion, “I do not believe in the idea that Jews in the Diaspora shouldn’t say anything [about Israel] because we don’t live there. That’s so irresponsible. It’s ours. It’s shelanu. In the end, Israel has to make its own decisions. But for us to sit back in exile and say, ‘good luck to you,’ I think it’s really politically and socially irresponsible.”

SHALOM WISHES to continue with the message that Beals was trying to promote. “People will say to me occasionally, ‘I will never meet with a Reform or Conservative rabbi. My answer to them is: What’s going on? You are Jewish and so is he. What’s the problem?”

Shalom shared with Beals that when he was in Boston, a few years ago, he met someone who was surprised to see a black Jew with a kippah on his head. “He asked me, ‘What are you?’ And I said simply, ‘I’m a Jew.’

“He was so confused and asked me ‘how can you be black and be a Jew at the same time?’ Then he told me, ‘But you don’t look like a Jew.’ I answered: ‘Who decides what a Jew looks like?’ Do we look like Conservative Jews? Reform Jews? Secular Jews?”

Sharon explained that this type of openness to others is based on Ethiopian philosophy. “In Ethiopian philosophy there is no hierarchy consciousness, but rather transverse consciousness. There is no such thing as someone who is more religious or less religious.

“This type of conversation does not exist. How can anyone tell who is more religious? Am I more religious than someone else? What does this even mean? Why would you be more religious than me? Because you pray three times a day? Because you wear tzitzit [fringes]? This is the basis of a multiculturalism perspective.”

Beals affirmed, “I just need to say that I really embrace what you’re saying. It’s really lovely that you’re saying this today because I’m a big bashert [believes in destiny] guy and especially for the Parashat Hashavua [the weekly Torah portion].

“This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra, and it deals with the sacrifices, which in Hebrew is called korbanot, but can also be looked upon as the root letters of karov, closeness. Which is that for our ancestors, who were trying to find something to bring them closer to Hashem which is a really big idea.”

HE EXPLAINED that during the time of the Bible, when Jews gave a sacrifice, it was according to their financial status and it was accepted, whether it was a bull or a pigeon. “Hashem [God] does not say this one is better or worth more. This is your point, Rabbi Shalom. God does not judge the sacrifices and neither does Aaron or Moses.

“So, I guess what I’m trying to do as a rabbi is that I’m trying to create a connection between my congregants no matter where they are in their very secular world to Hashem, Judaism and Israel. I’m also concerned since we’re a minority here in little, tiny Delaware. I want to make sure that Judaism is appreciated, that people see us as players and that we can be helpful.”

Beals added that “Israel needs as many friends as possible. In the United States, Israel should not count on the Jewish population alone to have covenants; that’s not enough. So, part of my job is to have good relations with my senators and with my president, who happened to also come from Delaware.

“Because we need friends. First, as a Jew living in galut (exile), we need friends. I need to make sure that the kids [in Delaware] get Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur off school and that they don’t suffer from the fact that they took off for the High Holy Days.”

“On the other hand,” Beals says, for the first time displaying a bit of worried body language, “I need to make sure Israel supports my challenges. With the current government in the State of Israel, I don’t feel that they care about what happens to me, my congregation, and my people.

“In the meanwhile, I’m trying to get my congregants to go on a trip to Israel after the holidays in the fall, but I don’t want them to feel that because of what’s happening with the argument over the Justice bill that we aren’t loved.”He explained that “I’m trying to make a separation between politics and Judaism: Maybe you didn’t vote for President Trump. Maybe he’s not your guy. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love the United States of America. You can love while separating between what your politics are. I don’t want people to look at what the current Israeli government is doing, and then say we’re not going to have anything to do with Israel.”

Beals shared that his challenge is that he wants to keep his congregants informed about what is going on in Israel “how much do I share with them? Because I don’t want to influence them in a negative way.”

He further explained that “for me, it’s a little bit more challenging as a rabbi in the diaspora,” to convince his constituents of the significance of support and a relationship with Israel. Beals added that his congregation “put Israel in our mission statement, it’s actually the last word because we want to make sure that if you didn’t hear anything else, you heard the state of Israel and that we are Zionistic, we are proud of it.”

At the end of the interview, Beals said that he would like to stay in touch with Shalom since “I want Rabbi Shalom as my friend for the rest of my life.” Shalom agreed and said he would “love for your synagogue to visit our synagogue when you come to Israel.”

Shalom concluded with the words, “I feel that I know you from somewhere I don’t know where from, even though it’s my first time speaking with you.”

Beals replied, “We met at Mt. Sinai,” and they both laughed. Shalom added that “the one secret of the Jewish people is solidarity, therefore our synagogue in my hometown is open to you each time you decide to come to Israel.” 

A special project of the Ruderman Family Foundation