Ethiopian Dreams, Israeli Realities

An Ethiopian who became a Conservative rabbi struggles to make a difference in a community harmed by the flawed reception offered by Israeli authorities.

RABBI-NURSE: Yefet Alamo521 (photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
RABBI-NURSE: Yefet Alamo521
(photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
RABBI YEFET ALAMO SAYS that he is, and always has been, a dreamer. He had to be a dreamer, he smiles, to survive. Almo, 52, emigrated from Ethiopia, an agrarian society, to Israel, a post-industrial society, at the age of 22. His dreams, he says, helped him face anti-Semitism in Ethiopia. They guided him as he made the terrible journey from Gondar through the Sudan, suffering thirst, hunger and fear, walking for weeks, escaping the threats to his family’s life and his own. They aided him when he arrived in the Jewish homeland, only to find that Israel rejected his Judaism. And those same dreams for a better society have given him comfort as he continues to struggle religiously, serving as Israeli’s only Ethiopian Conservative rabbi.
He speaks like a man who believes in his dreams, his tone upbeat even when talking about the difficulties. Today he lives in the settlement of Adam in the West Bank, just north of Jerusalem. The two daughters who were born in Ethiopia are married – to Israeli Ashkenazim, he emphasizes, and his son, born in Israel, is about to finish his military service. He has one Sabra (Israeli-born) grandchild and another on the way. Finding that he was unable to make a living as a rabbi, he works as a practical nurse in Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem; his wife is also a nurse at another Jerusalem hospital. “I refuse to depend on anyone or any project for my living,” he says passionately, but adds that he insists on “working for the community, for acceptance of our ancient traditions and for the respect that our people deserve.”
Alamo recalls the many challenges he faced growing up in Ethiopia. “As a young boy, I suffered a lot from the non-Jewish Ethiopians – they cursed me, they bothered me,” he says. In Ethiopia, his religiously observant parents destined him to be a kes, a revered community spiritual leader. From his early teens, he lived in a village near his home with a group of kessim, who taught him Jewish ritual and observance.
But even in Ethiopia, he says with a broad smile, “adolescent troubles can mess up even the best plans.” He married at the age of 17, which was young for Ethiopian men; five years later, with two daughters, he decided to come and live in Israel, despite the dangerous journey.
When he arrived in Israel in 1981, he says, “I quickly realized that my suffering was not over. It hurt me to see the situation that my fellow Ethiopians were living in.
Those were the years when the government didn’t want to bring the rest of the tribe here – we were disconnected, separated. I joined the few who were protesting, trying to catch the government’s attention.
“What hurt us so terribly was to find out that the state was demanding that we Ethiopians, who had kept the most ancient traditions of the Jewish people, abandon those traditions, just as we were fulfilling our most cherished and ancient dream – to come to Jerusalem, to the Holy Land.”
Naively, he says, he had thought that the Israeli religious establishment would welcome them because they were the only ones left who still performed ancient Biblical customs.
“But on the contrary,” he says, “we were despised, rejected. We were told to renounce our practices, the rituals for which we had endangered our lives. Here, they were considered worthless. This was a terrible blow for the whole Ethiopian community.”
They were expected, he says, to renounce their most precious practices in favor of the halakha, which is the compendium of Jewish law and includes Biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic law as well as customs and traditions.
It is observed, in largely identical form, in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions.
But the Ethiopians, living isolated from the rest of the Jewish world for centuries, had developed their own laws and rituals, based on their interpretations solely of the Bible.
He cites examples. “In Ethiopia, issues of purity were essential. We used ‘purifying waters,’ as a regular part of our lives – for women after giving birth, after menstruation, for mourners, for anyone suspected of having been in contact with something impure.
A man who went to another city for a length of time would also have to be purified by a kes upon return to his village, in case he had become impure in the city.”
Although the State of Israel brought the Ethiopian Jews out, the Israeli rabbinic authorities refused to fully recognize their Judaism. Their kessim were not recognized as rabbis or religious leaders, so they were not permitted to perform marriages or to rule on public religious issues. Furthermore, in order to affirm their Judaism, for purposes of marriage, for instance, the Jews of Ethiopian origin had to undergo a modified conversion procedure, which included symbolic letting of blood (in lieu of circumcision) and immersion in a mikve (ritual bath).
“We had dreamed for generations about the moment that we would arrive here. And after the terrible hazards of the journey, when we finally arrived, we were told that we were not Jewish enough.
“And it was difficult for the kessim, especially the oldest among them, to admit that Jewish life had progressed across the centuries and that the halakha developed in the Jewish world, outside of our lives and traditions,” he continues. “In the eyes of the kessim, accepting halakha is a demand that they abandon the rules of the Torah. I believe that, with a little good will, it would have been possible to include the ancient Biblical traditions and values that we had kept for centuries in current reality. What harm would that have done? But the rabbinate had no compassion, no mercy. They acted maliciously.
They needed to have total control over the practice of Judaism, leaving no place for us and our customs.”
And almost all children were sent to religious boarding schools, the message being that “at least the second generation would be normatively Jewish.”
The Ethiopians have come to recognize, he says, that the Jewish world has progressed beyond the Biblical interpretations of Jewish law and now accept the notion of halakha. “I think that all in all, we were rational, we were those who acted with responsibility – we have accepted the changes. We just didn’t want to be considered with such contempt.
We didn’t want to stop respecting our spiritual leaders, our kessim, our values.”
IT WAS THIS CONTEMPTUOUS attitude that pushed Alamo into the arms of the Conservative movement.
Accepting that in order to be a religious leader he would have to study to become a rabbi, he applied and was accepted to a prestigious Orthodox yeshiva. “The head rabbi told me that he was happy to see me among his students, and then he added, ‘You’ll see, we’ll make good Jews out of you.’ As if my fellow Ethiopians and I were not good Jews.
I felt I had always been a good Jew, and the rabbi’s comments were crude and rude. And oh, how that hurt me.”
He left the yeshiva. “I was willing to accept that I had to fill in the gap between my traditions and developments over the centuries. But I wasn’t willing to accept their malicious arrogance.”
He studied practical nursing in order to make a living and was active in Ethiopian causes. By chance, he met a group of Conservative rabbis at a demonstration for Ethiopians’ rights. “I had no idea that such a movement existed. These people said they were observant, religious Jews, but they didn’t look like any of the religious Jews I had met. I discovered another type of Israeli Jew and I felt an irresistible attraction to who they are and what they offer.”
What he found irresistible, he explains, was the inclusiveness of the Conservative movement. He understood that the Conservative movement would also demand that he observe halakha and that, as a rabbi, he would have to base his religious decisions on its premises, but “they were not coercive and they accept different people.”
The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem accepted him to their rabbinical studies program, even though he had no academic degree. “I had no money, either. But they were outstanding – they decided to give me a chance. They were sincerely interested. I loved studying. I had a tutor who translated into Amharic for me. Those were the best days of my life in Israel.”
He seems to have come to a religious balance.
He now views the kessim as part of Jewish spiritual life, but accepts the halakha as that which guides religious life. For this reason, he says, he has had no difficulty in accepting the Conservative movement’s interpretations of halakha that include, for example, a large measure of gender equality, which was completely unheard of in Ethiopia.
After his ordination, Alamo attempted to establish a community. “I didn’t want to establish a Conservative Ethiopian community.
I wanted to create a Conservative community in which Ethiopian and non- Ethiopian Jews would pray and live together, side by side. Remember, I told you I’m a dreamer. I wanted to create a place with one Torah, one people. But I was alone with my dream. I appealed to many organizations, to the Ministry of Education, but it didn’t work.
I guess my dream was too big.”
He says that he failed because he was unable to raise the funds to establish the community, although it is clear that Conservative Judaism, with its modern Western roots, may have been far too much of a stretch for the observant Jews of Ethiopian origin to accept. Alamo emphasizes that despite his innovations, he felt that he was well accepted by both his fellow Ethiopians and the kessim, because, he says, “they trust me and know that what I want to do is in the interests of the community. They know I have no intention to pull them apart.
“I was desperate, depressed,” he recalls.
And then, again, he found hope when he was accepted to the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, a Jerusalem-based, multi-year program. “Once again, it was a great period,” he recalls.
Having given up the idea of serving as a community rabbi, Alamo continued his practical nursing to earn a living and is active as aJewish educator. He has a regular television program on the Amharic cable channel, where he discuss the weekly portions and uses these homilies to emphasize the importance of education for the Ethiopian community. He relates that he receives hundreds of letters from viewers, many asking for his advice. In addition, he serves on the board of the Ethiopian National Project, a multi-year program intended to implement broad-based policies for the betterment of the Ethiopian Jews.
THE LOSS OF THEIR RELIGIOUS life and the sending of their children to religious boarding schools, combined with the social welfare authorities’misguided approaches, have left the Ethiopian community in a precarious position, Alamo says. “Our spiritual leadership was broken; parents lost their authority over their children.
And the result has been that we have about 5,000 delinquent youth. Social workers, psychologists, people like that who graduated from Western academic schools imposed their Western notions and concepts on us and looked down at us. They didn’t understand us – they had no idea about our customs or our ways, and they imposed themselves on us. They destroyed our community, and now the community is closed within itself, living in poor, underprivileged neighborhoods. Our youth are lost – today they are delinquents, tomorrow they will be criminals.”
These are, he acknowledges, the same mistakes that were made in the attempts to absorb the immigrants from other non- Western countries. He smiles sadly. “So why did they make the same mistakes all over again? We were so few – there were barely 80,000 of us – why did the authorities try to break our leadership?” Today, Ethiopians are still subjected to different religious requirements than other Jews, which indicate that their Jewishness is still essentially in doubt in the Jewish state.
All Israeli Jews must be married through the rabbinate, since Israel does not recognize civil marriage, but Ethiopians must register with Rabbi Yossef Hadana in Tel Aviv, who has been appointed by the Chief Rabbinate to assess if they are, indeed, Jewish. Alamo says that that Hadana is “strict but fair.” But if Hadana does not recognize the applicant’s Jewishness, they must be go through a complete conversion procedure.
Only after they have obtained a document attesting to their Jewishness, are they able to marry any other Jew. Most choose a Sephardi rabbi to perform their wedding ceremonies, because, Alamo says, they are more comfortable with the Sephardim, who traditionally are more liberal and tolerant in their interpretations and observances. “There is a whole new generation that has religiously found its place in Israeli society. I have even seen Ethiopians among the Breslover Hasidic groups, singing and dancing in the streets.”
But he still recognizes the severe problems the community faces and places his hope in the Ethiopian National Project. “It is the only project that was conceived, programmed and implemented by Ethiopians for Ethiopians, with all the sensitivity and understanding that we need. I believe that only when Ethiopians will take care of themselves and their problems will things really improve.”