Ethiopian immigrants set to celebrate their first Seder

Some 100 recently-arrived Ethiopians gather in J'lem for a mock Seder to learn, understand the religious, cultural traditions of the festival of freedom.

Ethiopians Seder 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Ethiopians Seder 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
Gearing up to spend their first-ever Pessah in the Land of Israel, some 100 recently arrived Ethiopian immigrants gathered at the Jewish Agency-run absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, west of Jerusalem, on Thursday for a “mock” Seder to learn and understand some of the religious and cultural traditions of the festival of freedom.
“I feel so happy that I am here with all my people in Israel,” said Dr. Tefera Kefale, who made aliya from Addis Ababa last month with his wife and seven-year-old daughter.
“This is a very emotional time for me and I am very grateful to be here,” said Kefale, who described how he and his family waited for more than nine years for permission from Israeli authorities to immigrate.
“This Jewish festival is the most symbolic of their [the immigrants’] journey from Ethiopia to Israel,” Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu) said.
Last July, she made her first visit to Ethiopia in order to assess the conditions of those waiting to make aliya.
“It is very important for the new immigrants to understand the significance of a Seder and to have the opportunity to participate in one,” she said at Thursday’s event, which is one of a series of Pessah Seders being sponsored by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Eckstein, whose organization donated some $200,000 to fund communal Seders on Pessah eve for 5,500 Ethiopian immigrants, was joined at Thursday’s mock Seder by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and other senior agency officials.
“It is very important that we hold these communal events for everyone together,” David Mula, director of the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, said. “It helps the new immigrants to understand the religious message behind the Pessah festival and allows them to enjoy the Seder.”
He said that a mass Seder for the center’s 1,200 new immigrants – 350 of them celebrating Pessah in Israel for the first time – would take place on Monday night. A spokesman for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews said that 16 additional communal Seders for Ethiopian immigrants would take place countrywide.
Although recognized as Jews by the Chief Rabbinate, the Ethiopian Jews coming nowadays – Falash Mura, Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago – do not make aliya under the Law of Return but rather according to a special clause in the Law of Entry.
Upon arrival they must undergo conversion to Judaism.
Even though many of the new immigrants had the chance to participate in organized Seders while still in Ethiopia, organizations working within the community in Israel have found that most new Ethiopian immigrants are unlikely to hold their own Seder.
In addition, a survey published this week by the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture reported that one in every five new immigrants is not likely to attend a Pessah Seder.
“This is not my first time at a Seder, but I am very happy to be able to celebrate it here in Israel this year,” said 79- year-old Getinet Chekol, who arrived in Israel three months ago with his wife and four of his children. “I was waiting in Ethiopia for a long time to come here, and our conditions were very harsh, but now we are here and celebrating.”
He added, however: “It is a little difficult for me because I keep thinking about all the people who are still waiting in Ethiopia to come here. I have many family members such as my grandchildren and my nephews who have not yet made it to Israel.”
Chekol is one of several hundred immigrants to arrive since the cabinet decided in November to allow the continued immigration of nearly 8,000 Falash Mura. Since Interior Ministry officials returned to the region to carry out eligibility checks for those applying for aliya, a few hundred have been flown in every month.
Termed by the government as the “final phase” of organized aliya from Ethiopia, officials maintain that the process will be wrapped up within the next four years.
The latest stage follows years of government backtracking on its position regarding aliya from the East African state.
At the core of the debate over this complicated African immigration story is the government’s willingness to recognize the 1999 Efrati list, which originally included three volumes: Falash Mura living in Addis Ababa, those in Gondar City, and others from outlying villages. Interior Ministry officials at the time decided to focus only on those from the two cities, ignoring the list from the villages.
However, as people left the cities, more Falash Mura arrived from the villages, and those are the people who today have been waiting in Gondar to immigrate to Israel.
Four years ago, the government announced plans to wind up its aliya operation in Ethiopia, but subsequent protests from local community members with family members still living there, representatives of North American Jewry and several key Israeli legislators pushed for this organized aliya program to continue.