Last week, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that the government hopes to bring another 400 Ethiopians to Israel within the next two months. These Ethiopians are largely part of the Falash Mura community, descendants of Beta Israel Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
To learn more, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Yisrael Goldberg, editor of the weekly Shabbat magazine, Giluey Daat, who took a fact-finding trip last month to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa.
The Jewish Press: What can you tell us about Gondar?
Goldberg: Gondar has a population of 200,000 with approximately 6,000 who identify as Beta Israel. Gondar looks like a place where time has stood still. The Falash Mura tribe lives in huts of sticks and mud…all of them with no plumbing or electricity.
Did the Beta Israel community suffer for maintaining distinct religious beliefs?
Throughout 2,000 years of exile, the Jews in Ethiopia endured persecution and famine. Two-hundred years ago, a famine wiped out a third of the community and another third were forced to adopt Christianity.
Are their prayer services similar to ours?
On weekdays in Gondar, about 1,000 men and women pray with a kosher mechitzah. Prayers are in their ancestral tongue and Hebrew. Some of the people we met know conversational Hebrew. On days when the Torah is read, their enthusiasm is almost ecstatic.
Israeli flags stick out from the walls, and a sign proclaims: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” I brought a small Sefer Torah with me, which I gave to the beit knesset. They all gathered around it with great joy, impressed by the beauty of its letters.
What about Shabbat?
For them, Shabbat is a day of prayer and rest. Attendance at synagogue is doubled. At night, they sit in the dark. In the beit knesset, there are oil lamps, lit before the holy day begins, but many homes have only one lamp, or none at all, because the family is very poor.
Who teaches them about Judaism?
We met Rav Menachem Waldman, who is responsible for the education and conversion of [Falash Mura tribe members back to Judaism]. Every afternoon, youngsters gather to hear Rav Menachem’s lectures and to enjoy the food he has waiting for them.
Since the Oral Torah never reached them, there is plenty of material to teach. All of them, he reports, eagerly await the day when they can make aliyah.
What’s the situation in the larger city of Addis Ababa?
The Eliahu family runs a Chabad House there which is the center of Jewish life. They welcome everyone who wants to pray, learn Torah, or enjoy a tasty Seudat Shabbat, including chickens personally shechted by Rabbi Eliahu himself.
In general, how were you greeted by the average Ethiopian?
More than half of the country’s 100 million residents are Habesha Christians who trace their ancestry back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who came from Ethiopia. Touring around the country, I carried a small Israeli flag.
Everywhere we traveled, people excitedly approached our group, greeting us with a happy “Shalom” and letting us know that we were both the children of Solomon. When I told them I lived in Jerusalem, they eagerly asked to shake my hand as if Moses himself had arrived for a visit.
In touring the country, what struck you most aside from your encounter with the Falash Mura community?
The landscapes of Africa are panoramic in their beauty. We saw herds of cattle freely roaming the plains, and packs of monkeys followed us along city streets. But what gripped me most was our visit to a Pygmy village in southern Ethiopia near the Kenya border. The tribe exists like it did thousands of years ago, still worshiping idols, without the influence of modern civilization, without electricity or any connection with the media.
In a living sense, as if experiencing it with my eyes, I realized that these were the type of people whom Avraham Avinu met in the Land of Canaan. Our forefathers taught primitive idol worshipers and savages like these the truth of one G-d, the value of kindness, morality, and justice.