Ethiopian Jews and the yearning for Jerusalem

Jerusalem Day was chosen as the perfect date to mark the long and painful journey so many Ethiopian Jews had to take to reach Israel.

'Kessim' prepare to celebrate 'Yerusalem' (photo credit: YOAV LEVIN)
'Kessim' prepare to celebrate 'Yerusalem'
(photo credit: YOAV LEVIN)
Jerusalem Day has a special meaning for Ethiopians in Israel, in addition to marking the reunification of the capital in 1967. The day was chosen as the perfect date to mark the long and painful journey so many to take to reach Israel, and memory of the thousands who died along the way.
For too many, the journey cost them their lives, as they struggled to fulfill their dreams and see Jerusalem with their own eyes. For the past few years, the celebration of this special day in the Ethiopian community has included a series of gatherings, conferences and festivities.
This year, the corona pandemic altered the character of Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, but nothing could cause its cancellation, and like so many other events, the major part took place through Zoom meetings. This year’s conference focused on the importance of the kessim, or spiritual leaders, and the major role they play in maintaining the community’s ancestral traditions.
The Guez language designates Yerushalayim or Jerusalem as Yerusalem. Thus, the conference founded and directed by Shmuel Ilmaz – who was born in Ethiopia and reached Jerusalem as a child – is aptly named the Yerusalem Forum, which took place on the eve of Jerusalem Day on Tuesday.
During the forum, more than 500 participants discussed preserving the old traditions.
“For over 2,500 years,” explained Ilmaz, “kessim maintained the faith and unity of Ethiopian Jewry. Their steadfast leadership and devotion to Judaism – and the vision of Jerusalem – enabled the Beta Israel community to preserve its distinct Jewish way of life for over two millennia, despite its isolation from the rest of the Jewish world.”
llmaz tells how, with endless dedication and undeterred by danger, kessim went from village to village to provide for community members’ religious, social and family needs.
“In addition to teaching the next generations and educating new kessim, they prioritized the community’s sense of unity, developing mutual assistance and preserving and strengthening Jewish identity.”
The story of the Beta Israel’s survival in Ethiopia and their tenacious loyalty to Judaism is an inspiring one. The community faced tremendous difficulties, including severe economic problems and governmental oppression, plus relentless pressure from missionaries seeking to convert them to Christianity.
In that context, explained Ilmaz, the role of the kessim was critical. Their status in Ethiopia, compared to now in Israel, is at the core of the community’s striving to tell their story and make it accessible to the Israeli public, especially the young generation. This year’s Yerusalem Forum, the fourth, told the stories of eight of the most prominent kessim.
They have helped preserve the Beta Israel heritage, seeking peace among individuals, helping those in need, combining modern life in Israel with ancient traditions, founding new synagogues, acting as social leaders, and authoring and teaching sacred texts to the next generation.
The main goal of the forum? To familiarize Israeli society with these men as heroes of their time and situation, Ilamz notes, “so they become part of the Israeli story that belongs to all of us.”