In a sprawling valley among the mountains of northern Ethiopia lies a quaint city known as Gondar. Wandering the cobbled streets of Gondar, one will find chickens, stray dogs, sheep, goats, cows and close to six thousand forgotten Jews.
My story with Ethiopian Jewry is only a few years old, and stems from my time as a counselor in a humble branch of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Northern Jerusalem. But their story with Judaism is much, much longer.
Ethiopian Jews have continued to practice Judaism for centuries. However, many were forced to either convert to Christianity or be castigated and suffer, like many other indigenous groups around the world at that time. Halacha (Jewish law) clearly states that any Jew who has sinned will be welcomed back to Judaism when he or she returns. Even though a Jew who strays to an alien religion will forever remain a Jew, this principle has not been rendered upon the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia. And so they continue to remain in exile, alone. These Jews who observe Judaism more intently and authentically than I have ever witnessed are turned away from their homeland by leaders in Israel who refuse to call them Jews.
Over recent decades, these Ethiopian Jews have returned to their tradition,the faith they have had no choice but to hide for years,and have assembled in Addis Ababa and Gondar for one sole purpose: these cities serve as the doors to the Promised Land. For them, the Land of Israel is not merely an asylum, it is a sanctuary.
But their trials have been many. These Jews, who mainly lived scattered in the villages of rural Ethiopia, decided to pick up and migrate to Addis Ababa and Gondar as the first leg in the prolonged journey to the Promised Land. They hastily sold all their possessions except the bare essentials. It was an absolute race against time. But time has stretched out decades longer than expected.
I witnessed the daily routines of the community in Gondar for about two-and-a-half months. Every morning at 6:30, the synagogue would start filling up for morning prayer. And for the rest of the daylight hours, the community compound would teem with an energy that one may find in a youth center in Israel, with Hebrew and Torah classes, activities and meaningful conversation. The congregants have not eaten meat in recent years, as they have no rabbinically approved slaughterer. The name of the G-d of Israel is commonplace on the tongues of the youth; the spoken word is full of passages from the Torah and hopeful dreams of Zion. These are the most Jewish Jews one can find. But it does not end there. Each community member bears acute awareness of what it means to be part of a community. By the time one peaks teenagerhood, he is capable of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. And all the time he preserves the glisten in his eye so characteristic of these people.
That is because there is an unspoken phenomenon alive in this community. You would notice it immediately if you would come see for yourself.
There is Hope. Determination.
When I say “vitality,” I really mean it.
In Ethiopia, a Jew gets rained upon with anti-Semitic slurs, is forced to pay a higher price for basic lodgings and household groceries and must cope with baseless inequity in educational institutions and workplaces. Resources are low, death rates and disease high, possibilities of immigration unclear, and malnutrition runs rampage, but the hearts of the people reign free. Even at the brink of despair, life swells gloriously within the compound walls. This is why I cannot get the community out of my mind, for their love dominates all of the evils of reality. Love. For Torah, for Israel, for God, for the entirety of the Jewish Nation. If only they would receive in return for that love.
The Jewish nation is often alluded to a single body––if any organ or limb is maimed, does not the whole body ache? Does not a mosaic lose its magnificence when colors are left out? If the Israeli government and world Jewry will not accept these Jews, we are all missing out on the beauty of the completeness of our extended family, not to mention the fulfillment of so many prophecies of redemption and ingathering of exiles. I believe that the remaining Jews of Ethiopia hold an integral piece of our puzzle in their trembling hearts.
These people are our brothers and sisters. They dream of the same redemption and wholeness as the rest of us, the same bright future that Israel so relentlessly aspires to create. They embody the same hope that kept our nation alive for so many dark, perilous generations.
There is no need to wait for a bright future - we can bring it now, together. Let us demand of our leaders in Israel and in the global Jewish community to do the right thing and no longer turn their backs on the forgotten Jews.
Hadassah Gotlieb immigrated to Israel from Tenafly 11 years ago. She has been closely involved with the struggle to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel since her recent volunteer work in Gondar. For more info, contact her at [email protected]