The synagogue is packed. The chazanim slowly take the scroll out of the ark and process back to the reading desk. They open the scroll but read the portion from a Bible… in Amharic.
We are in Gondar, Ethiopia, working with what is left of the Jewish community. It is a rather different community to the old-style Beta Yisrael (Falasha) congregation. Known as Falash Mura, the people consider themselves Beta Yisrael; part of the original Ethiopian Jewish community, but ones whose grandparents converted to Christianity.
Now they are back, wanting to be Jews, living a Jewish life and hoping that they will soon be transported to Israel and reunited with their families. They have a case. The rabbinates in Israel consider them to be like the tinok shenishbar — the Jewish child taken in captivity and raised as a non-Jew who is not held responsible for his new faith. These people had no choice in their Christian upbringing, and their desire to be Jews should be welcomed.
But the Israeli state is not so sure. What makes them want to return? Opportunism. Life in Ethiopia is grim. Their Jewish origins give them a chance of a way out. They have a right to go to Israel under the law of entry, which reunites families, but Israel is not keen to give them citizenship if they are practising Christians. However, there is a very real question; were they ever practising? Their conversion in the 19th century was in itself opportunistic. As Christians, they could get land to farm, and educate their children in the excellent mission schools.
Some say they were forcibly converted. They hardly mixed with indigenous Christians, preferring to marry other Beta Yisrael and creating a network of Jewish/Christian families that extends into Israel.
In Gondar today, they live in abject poverty, suffering low-level but persistent antisemitism and the attentions of aggressive and sometimes violent Christian missionaries. Whatever their original motives, there is no question now as to their dogged devotion to the faith they have adopted.
They came from villages to Gondar 11 years ago, largely illiterate and knowing nothing of Judaism. What they are learning is Sephardi Judaism to make it easier for them to integrate into Israeli culture. The men wear tzitzit and lay tefillin, but they are fearful of wearing a kippah in public. The community are strict in their observance of kashrut, never eating meat unless a shochet happens to visit from Israel.
Their strictures on Pesach resulted in many of them eating only matzah for the full eight days — matzah hand-baked on open fires in the community compound under the strict timekeeping of a young Ethiopian Israeli yeshivah student.
Their spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Waldman, lives in Haifa. Every alternate Sunday morning he delivers a class to the whole community via a conference call; Rabbi Waldman in Haifa, his Amharic translator in Jerusalem and the Jewish community in Gondar. More people turn out for these shiurim than to the synagogue services but that might be because many of the adults have to work on Shabbat.
But the learning is slow. Individuals are sent from Israel to teach on an irregular basis. They trained up the chazanim, young men who probably began their education in Christian priests’ schools learning Bible and the semitic language Ge’ez, making the transition to Hebrew a little easier. But it is a bit disconcerting to have your Jewish prayers led for you by a man with a big cross tattooed on his cheek.
Most prayers are led in Amharic, with the congregation responding “Amen”. Some prayers are said in Hebrew, including the Shema. The chazan says each word distinctly and the congregation repeat it — with such speed that the result is quicker than when I say it personally. This is the case also for the morning blessings. Men and women both happily repeat the words for laying tefillin and putting on a tallit, and for thanking God for “not having made me a woman”. The women then say on their own the alternative, blessing God who “made me according to His will”, usually led confidently by one of several young girls. Through the Jewish school here, the children are learning far more quickly than their parents.
It is in the school that the future of this community lies. Set up by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), it received government accreditation last September and is already ranked second best in the region. The children have three advantages. Their classes are small by Ethiopian standards, they are given lunch each day which means they are fit and alert, and they are clever and eager to learn. It is so satisfying to know the children I taught led the community in singing Echad Mi Yode’a at a Passover seder of 6,000 people! But the tin shacks that house the school have been declared inadequate by inspectors, and the community must find the money to raise a proper building. Work has just started on it —the contractors having promised to use only Jewish labour and not to work on Shabbat or festivals.
It has been demonstrated that the Ethiopian children who have had a Jewish education before they come to Israel thrive in their new society. Today, the adults, too, know more about what to expect through the many visits of their Israeli relatives. But not everyone will make it to Israel and the aliyah is slow and spasmodic. In 2003, the Israeli government agreed to accept 26,000 Falash Mura, after which, it claimed the aliyah would stop. On the official list, 8,760 names remain, but there are others who have not been counted; in the villages and a large number of patrilineal Jews in Gondar itself. Is there enough basic knowledge? Is there a willingness to create a vibrant Jewish diaspora in Ethiopia? That is a big question and one that has yet to be asked.