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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Women in the Gondar, Ethiopia Jewish Community Center preparing for prayer.

Jewish boy studying at the Jewish Community Center in Gondar, Ethiopia.

(l-r) Ellen Goldner, Mel Jacobs, Sue Rosenthal, Abere Endeshaw Kerehu, Sheri Goldberg, Michael Smith, Howard Tepper.

(Courtesy of GMWFCRC) On September 27, just one week after Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to allow 1,000 more Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel, the Greater MetroWest Community Relations Committee met with Abere Endeshaw Kerehu, a 23-year-old Orthodox Ethiopian Jew, to learn about the conditions of the Jewish community in Addis Ababa. Kerehu was born in Gondar, Ethiopia, and moved with his family to the Addis Ababa’s Jewish community. He attends university in Addis Ababa and is a member of the Young African Leaders Initiative Network, where he must hide his Jewish identity for fear of discrimination.

This summer, Kerehu came to New York City at the invitation of Romemu’s Rabbi David Ingber to study at a yeshiva on scholarship. He explained that he is the spokesman for the Ethiopian Jewish community and is in close contact with the Ethiopian community in Israel, which has been raising awareness to bring the remaining 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Kerehu expressed disappointment that the Israeli government is only offering to bring 1,000 Ethiopians who have children already living in Israel. Although he had never before left Africa, all of Kerehu’s mother’s extended family live in Israel.

In 2013, Israel declared that all of the Beta Israel Jews from Ethiopia had been rescued and brought to Israel. However, when rescuing these Jews, families were divided, leaving approximately 8,000 relatives who are currently practicing Orthodox Judaism in Ethiopia with first-degree relatives in Israel. To distinguish between the Ethiopian Israeli Jews who call themselves Beta Israel, some refer to the Ethiopian Jews who remain in Gondar and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as Falash Mura.

Kerehu explained that the Jews in Ethiopia consider the term Falash Mura a derogatory label. He explained that the remaining 8,000 Ethiopian Jews do not qualify under the Law of Return because they cannot document that they have at least one grandparent who is halachically Jewish. In many cases, due to discrimination of Jews and poor economic opportunities, Ethiopian Jews converted to Christianity generations ago so they could own land and provide for their families. In other cases, Ethiopian Jews intermarried.

After all the Beta Israel were rescued from Ethiopia, the Israeli government enacted a Law of Reunification to permit the remaining Ethiopian Jews to make aliyah if they have a first-degree Israeli relative who has sponsored them and they agree to convert to Orthodox Judaism upon arrival in Israel. Last year, 1,300 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel and moved to absorption centers in the Jewish state. The Israeli government invests a tremendous amount of money into the difficult absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, who generally live in the absorption centers for a minimum of two years before they are entitled to government housing subsidies to partially pay for the purchase their own homes.

Of the 8,000 Jews currently practicing Orthodox Judaism in Ethiopia, approximately 3,000 live in Addis Ababa and 5,000 in Gondar. In Addis Ababa they remove their kippot in public for fear of discrimination. If their identity is discovered in Addis Ababa, they are evicted and can be seen scrambling to find new housing, carrying their mattresses on their backs as often as every three months. If they are identified as Jews, they are not allowed to have government identity papers and therefore have limited access to gainful employment.

The Ethiopian Jews in Gondar, in contrast, pray three times a day at the Jewish Community Center in Gondar where they openly and proudly study Hebrew in preparation to eventually move to Israel. Entire families are living in single-room huts with dirt floors in poverty conditions. The only financial assistance they receive in Ethiopia is from family members who live in Israel. Some of these Ethiopian Jews have been waiting as long as 20 years with the hope of being rescued.