The Re-Emerging Beta Israel Community in N. Shewa, Ethiopia
As is customary for me when entering a country I have not previously visited, upon arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I inquired, “Is there a synagogue?” I always enjoy meeting members of the local Jewish community, learning about their customs, and visiting their synagogues or temples. This time, I was entirely unprepared for what I discovered, and it was simultaneously astonishing and deeply disturbing.
A little history. Originally, the Beta Israel of N.Shewa were part of the Beta Israel community that lived in Gondar. Gondar is the area where over 100,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, and eight thousand still remain. Approximately 400 years ago, some ancestors of the Gondar Jews migrated to N. Shewa, located some 50 miles north of Addis Ababa for better land. Approximately 100 years ago, a number of Beta Israel of N. Shewa,, at the request of the king of Ethiopia, traveled from North Shewa to Addis Ababa to construct his new palace because they are so skilled at crafts and building. They lived in a poor community, Kechene, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where their descendants live to this day. Thus, the Beta Israel of N. Shewa today live both in N. Shewa and in Kechene.
For centuries, many Ethiopian Jews from the Beta Israel community in N. Shewa have been persecuted by their Ethiopian Christian neighbors, who believe they possess “the evil eye.” They believed, and, incredibly, continue today to believe, that if a Jew looks at you, you may become ill and die. They have been accused of being “Buda” which means that they turn into hyena at night and attack their neighbors. As a result, when a Christian Ethiopian experiences illness or dies, gentile Ethiopians may randomly select a Jew and kill him or burn down his home. But this is not merely ancient history. Just recently, a Jew’s house was torched, two brothers were killed and a sister badly burned. The home was totally destroyed. The crime may go unpunished.
For centuries, this community has lived in continuous fear. As a result, the Beta Israel of N. Shewa and Kechene have been forced to practice their Judaism discreetly, and lived separately and apart from their Christian neighbors. They are relegated to livelihoods considered beneath the dignity of most Ethiopians. They are primarily craftsman, blacksmiths, potters, weavers and builders. They have little social contact with them, and only married among their own community. They continued to practice their Jewish customs and holidays, and were a religion that combined Jewish and Christian beliefs. Just as Christians accept much of the Old Testament, this community also accepts many Christian teachings. It is important to appreciate that this community is much different from the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tradition which would be considered to be, in an ethnocentric way, as traditional Jewish.
The Beta Israel community is monastic, and their “Gedams” are possibly a place for religious services but also, apparently, of study and for refuge. Accordingly,,it is not entirely clear what a “Gedam” is. As a monastic community, a Gedam appears to be, simultaneously, a place where religious leaders might reside, where refuge is possible and, seemingly, where prayers and rituals may take place. Are they synagogues? We think so, but we do not know. What we know is that I was told that there were once 44 Gedams located among the mountains, forests and caves, inaccessible by road, and always near a river and that today, a mere 15 remain, most of which have never been seen by outsiders. We also know that by sending a delegation to investigate, we may learn whether Gedams indeed qualify as synagogues, or whether they are something distinct.
Most of the Beta Israel of N. Shewa live outwardly as Christians. They may go to Church on Sunday but continue to practice Jewish customs, traditions, and observe most Jewish holidays. Despite centuries of persecution by their Christian neighbors, these Jews steadfastly hold on to their beliefs. To a great extent because of their isolation. There are now emerging leaders in the community that want to follow, what we would consider the Jewish normative, with no Christian beliefs, and the importance of the Hebrew language, and a connection to Israel. They do not want to continue hiding their Jewish roots from their children, and wish to reconnect to Ethiopian Jewish community and the rest of the world.
Approximately 15 years ago, a group of young Hidden Jews in Kechene decided it was time to stop hiding. This became the focal point of a serious internal dispute as the elders feared increased persecution. Ultimately, the young Jews formed their own synagogue in Kechene called Beta Selam, which means House of Peace. It is officially registered in Addis Ababa as Ethiopian N. Shewa Zionist Organization. As a direct result of creating this new synagogue, many of its organizing members have lost their jobs, their friends and their social status.
While in Ethiopia, I met with two of the leaders of the Beta Israel of N. Shewa. Belayneh Tazebku, the designated leader of the Beta Israel of N. Shewa, and Michael Moges, a fellow congregant who desperately desires to become a rabbi. Because there is no place to study to become a rabbi in Ethiopia, Michael wants to study overseas.
These men sharedthe sad history of the Beta Israel of N. Shewa and their hopes and dreams for themselves and for the community. These Jews receive no assistance from the Diaspora. Belayneh and Michael believe that Americans don’t know about them, and, as they informed me, they believe Israel won’t help them until it is finished helping the Falas Mara from Gondar who are still waiting to make Aliyah to Israel.. They implored me to share their story in the United States. Michael and Belayneh desperately desire to live openly as Jews, free from persecution. They requested I contact two Israelis, Irene Orleansky and Malka Shabtay, who knew of their plight.
Irene Orleansky is an Israeli who, in 2016, filmed a documentary about the Beta Israel of N. Shewa called “Bal Ej the Hidden Jews of Ethiopia”. She filmed two of the Hidden Synagogues and the Jews observing their holidays and practicing Jewish customs. Dr. Malka Shabtay is an applied anthropologist who has been studying and working with Ethiopian Jews in Israel for more than 37 years. She first heard about these “hidden” Jews nearly 25 years ago at a conference featuring Professor Richard Pankhurst, a historian who documented the connection between this community and the Beta Israel of Gondar. Not much occurred in the intervening years, until approximately one year ago, when an old friend of Dr. Shabtay confided in her that he was an Ethiopian Jew. He relayed to her the story of the Jews from N. Shewa. She has been working with this friend and the Beta Israel of N. Shewa community ever since.
Presently, we are working in collaboration and consult with a young Ethiopian leader and with the Melokse, who is the highest religious leader of the Ethiopian Jews. He is highly respected by the Orthodox Rabbis of Israel. A group of delegates will be visiting the Beta Israel of North Shewa under the guidance of the Melokse shortly to assess their standing as a Jewish community. This is a very important first step to determine the findings, so we can then get the help of the organized Jewish community, and Israel.
We are also sending two Rabbinic students to Uganda to study under Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a native born member of the Abuyadaba Jewish community in Uganda. He is an ordained Conservative Rabbi, who studied at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. These two men are capable and very excited that they could be the first Rabbis of Ethiopia. One of the men, Michael Moges shared with me that now after work, he comes home and studies Hebrew until late at night. In the morning, he wakes up for the first time in his life with hope. He wrote me in his words what that means to him and to the whole community.
“Hope, people need hope to go through life, without hope efforts became meaningless and minimal. I got energetic and felt purpose when Suzi Colman told me about the studying of rabbinical courses. Since then I have started to work on different areas needed for the study such as Hebrew lessons. I have picked up my Hebrew lesson from where I stopped earlier also studying late at night and early in the morning. I have improved on speaking, reading and listening and writing skills. For me to study a rabbinical course is to live and improve my spiritual life here in this world and in the next to come. This study is a very different and unique experience from all other materialistic life endeavors. This is a journey of a Jewish soul back to its roots. I met with a person from Israel named Tomer, and we had a long chat and he started to talk about how amazing and great Ethiopia is and so on, then after explaining his passion and love for Ethiopia he said “I some times think that in my previous life I used to be an Ethiopian” I then replied “For me I think in my previous life I used to be a Jewish living in Yerushalaim”
Toda raba for everything”
Independently, Malka Shabtay dispatched an Israeli company, CultivAid, already working in Ethiopia, to determine the needs of the Beta Israel community of N. Shewa. CultivAid will provide, in early 2019, an assessment of the human services, agricultural, education needs of this community. We will pursue an appeal to the Diaspora to help these people as needed. It may take time before the Israeli government and the Jewish organizations will be ready to recognize and officially support this community, so until that happens, we, few individual volunteers, took upon ourselves to do our best for the survival of this special community, and go with them hand in hand until they will return to where they originally belong, to the people of Israel.
Most likely this community will need improved sustainable agriculture for food, and improved health care. Additionally, the education system is most likely inadequate, and they will need Jewish education and to learn Hebrew. As they continued their practices of many of the customs of Judaism, with more political freedom and enlightenment in Ethiopia, some are now returning to their roots as a re-emerging Jewish community on their own. Many more thirst for Jewish knowledge after this 500 year hiatus. Numerous Israeli young adults stand ready and willing to travel to Ethiopia as volunteers, but as of today, there is no money to provide them with appropriate and safe housing. The Beta Israel of N .Shewa have no money to pay staff to oversee the needs of their Gedams/unagogues and while members willingly volunteer, it is all they can do just to take care of their families and survive. Of course, there are many other needs, most of which we, as Jews privileged to live in this country, never have to concern ourselves with.