Sigd: Celebrating the History and Culture of Ethiopian Jewry

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I am aching.

As many were focused on the U.S. election, the world lost its most eloquent teacher of ethics, morality, philosophy and religion. The Jewish world lost our most articulate and positive ambassador of Judaism in generations.

I, like thousands if not millions of others, have lost a leader whose guidance all of us would have turned to, especially right now. That is the profound and painful irony of the timing of the loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l.

In the face of so much polarization, how should the world behave? I keep hoping that Rabbi Sacks will teach us not what to think about the Biden vs. Trump, Democrats vs. Republican situation, but how we should all think about it, and how we should all treat one another in light of our differences.

We’ve lost so much. Having met with Rabbi Sacks’ team a number of times this past year, I am devastated because of all the Torah and all the ideas we will never have the chance to learn from him. But we’ve also gained so much. We all know what Rabbi Sacks would say to us right now. We know that during this time period, Rabbi Sacks would implore us to embrace the “dignity of difference,” to demand we “restore the common good in divided times,” to focus on “healing a fractured world.”

He wrote this about the diversity that exists within the Jewish community:

“Judaism is not an ethnicity and Jews are not an ethnic group. Go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and you will see Jews of every colour and culture under the sun, the Beta Israel from Ethiopia, the Bene Israel from India, Bukharan Jews from central Asia, Iraqi, Berber, Egyptian, Kurdish and Libyan Jews, the Temanim from Yemen, alongside American Jews from Russia, South African Jews from Lithuania, and British Jews from German-speaking Poland. Their food, music, dress, customs and conventions are all different. Jewishness is not an ethnicity but a bricolage of multiple ethnicities.”

So it is fitting that today’s Weekly is all about the upcoming Ethiopian Jewish holiday, Sigd, and the history and culture of the Ethiopian-Israeli community. How much do we all know about their story?

This past January, we released a short video on the story of Ethiopian Jews with educational resources, which has garnered over 130,000 views so far. We wanted to make sure that the Jewish community and the world learned this fascinating story. Because even though my great- grandparents are from Belarus and Poland, the Ethiopian Jewish story is part of my story. To quote Rabbi David Wolpe, the Jewish people are one big “religious family.” If I do not know their story, I don’t really know mine either.

As we mark the holiday of Sigd this coming Sunday, November 15, and the anniversary of Operation Moses on November 21, let’s explore what this holiday is all about and how we can all learn and teach about the history and culture of this community.

We dedicate this Weekly to our two thousandth subscriber, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory. On behalf of OpenDor Media, I want to say thank you. Thank you, Rabbi Sacks. Dan Sacker, Joanna Benarroch and his entire team, no expression of gratitude for your work will be sufficient. Lady Elaine Sacks, we are thinking of you, and we hope that you feel the comfort in return that you and your husband of blessed memory have provided for millions of people across the globe.

Baruch Dayan Ha’emet, Blessed be the One True Judge,

Noam

We’re Curious…

This coming week, the Ethiopian Jewish community will celebrate Sigd, an ancient holiday that is observed 50 days after Yom Kippur. “Sigd” means “prostration” in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian liturgical language, and is related to the Aramaic word “sged” (“to prostrate oneself”). Historically, on Sigd, Jews living in Ethiopia would mark the renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish people and pray to return to Jerusalem.

Now that a majority of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, the community marks this holiday by gathering at the Western Wall, celebrating the return to their ancestral homeland, and educating all Israelis about Ethiopian Jewish history and culture. Avi Wogderas Wassa, an Ethiopian-Israeli musician, explained that Sigd is a day to “stop and [celebrate] a dream that has come true. [Our] ancestors prayed for generations for our return to Jerusalem and we have fulfilled this dream.”

The State of Israel recognized Sigd as a national holiday in 2008. Today in Israel, it is celebrated for the entire month prior to the 29th of Cheshvan, as a time to explore the rich Jewish heritage of Ethiopia. What is the story of the Ethiopian Jewish community, and what has their experience of integrating into Israeli society been like? And what can the entire Jewish community learn from their experience?

Operations Moses and Solomon

The Jewish community of Ethiopia — also known as the Beta Israel — lived in complete isolation from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 2,000 years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a civil war and widespread famine in Ethiopia led to the deaths of thousands and an increase in the persecution they already faced. Ultimately hoping to move to Israel, 12,000 Ethiopian Jews trekked by foot through the country’s desert to Sudan. One-third of them died along the way from malnutrition, disease or violence. Upon reaching Sudan, they were prevented from procceding to Israel and placed in refugee camps where they faced antisemitic persecution.

At this time, Israel had been sending Mossad agents to coordinate small airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In 1984, Israel initiated a large-scale rescue mission called Operation Moses, which brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel in just seven weeks. The Jewish State carried out the operation in secret. Unfortunately, Operation Moses ended prematurely when Sudan’s Arab allies found out about the airlift and pressured Sudan to cut off the operation.

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews remained in war-torn Ethiopia, waiting for the day that they would be able to join their brothers and sisters in Israel. In 1991, a regime change in Ethiopia provided the necessary opening for the Israeli government to act. In May 1991, another airlift, called Operation Solomon, brought more than 14,000 Beta Israel to Israel in just 36 hours. 

Today, more than 125,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, with 100 to 300 Ethiopian immigrants arriving in Israel each month. However, thousands of people known as Falash Mura — Jews whose ancestors converted, under duress, to Christianity — remain in Ethiopia. In October 2020, the Israeli government approved the aliyah of 2,000 Falash Mura, a term that some of them consider demeaning. About 8,000 members of this community are currently waiting to emigrate to Israel. More than half of them have immediate family in the Jewish State. Watch our video about the Ethiopian Jewish community to learn more.

Challenges in Transitioning To Life in Israel

After the success of Israel’s daring missions to bring the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel, the community’s transition into Israeli life was more complicated.

In preparation for the absorption of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, the Israeli government developed an elaborate program covering issues of housing, education and employment. However, this approach did not sufficiently account for social and cultural differences between the existing Israeli population and incoming Ethiopian immigrants. Unlike European immigrants, Ethiopians were coming from rural villages and were not prepared to work and live in a modern, industrialized society. This resulted in social and economic marginalization of the Ethiopian immigrant community.

Making matters worse, not all Israelis supported the aliyah of the Ethiopian Jewish community. In 1980, Yehuda Dominitz, then Director General of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Immigration and Absorption, declared that “[taking] a Falasha out of his village, it’s like taking a fish out of water…I’m not in favor of bringing them [to Israel].”

The new Ethiopian immigrants also faced religious challenges. Although their Jewish status was affirmed in 1973 by the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef, many Israelis continued to question whether Ethiopian Jews were really Jewish.

The Ethiopian Jewish community is not alone in having faced challenges in transitioning to modern Israeli life. Learning a new language, leaving behind family and friends and starting a new life in a different culture are challenges shared by many immigrants. Jews from North Africa and other parts of the Middle East, Holocaust survivors, and Soviet Jews have also faced particular obstacles in integrating into Israeli society. 

Like many other countries, Israel has important work to do to address these challenges. Still, this does not absolve the Jewish State of its responsibility to improve the situation. Jewish values such as equality and acceptance of others, loving fellow Jews (ahavat Yisrael) and loving the stranger (ahavat ha-ger) should guide the Jewish state as it navigates these issues.

Ethiopian-Israeli Life Today: Successes and Continued Challenges

Although integration into Israeli society has been slow, many aspects of life for Ethiopian-Israelis have improved since the community first arrived in the Jewish State. In May 2020, Pnina Tamano-Shata of the Blue and White party became the first Ethiopian to serve as a minister in the Israeli government. In 2012, Israel appointed the country’s first Ethiopian-born ambassador, Beylanesh Zevadia.

Ethiopian-Israelis have also risen through the ranks of the military in recent years. In December 2018, an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier became the Israeli Air Force’s first pilot of Ethiopian heritage. And in 2016, Dr. Avraham Yitzhak became the first Israeli of Ethiopian heritage to hold the rank of colonel in the IDF.

The Ethiopian music scene has also been attracting greater attention in Israel. In February 2020, the singer Eden Alene became the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent chosen to represent Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest, winning the spot with her performance of “Halo” by Beyonce. The popular Idan Raichel Project — a group led by the singer Idan Raichel which features Ethiopian musicians — has also helped bring Ethiopian music into the Israeli mainstream starting with the release of its popular 2002 album.

Despite this progress, the Ethiopian-Israeli community still wrestles with problems and full integration is far from complete. The Israeli government has worked to improve the quality of housing, reduce unemployment and combat racism in the workplace and at large. However, poverty, a lack of opportunity, police brutality and other forms of discrimination continue to be issues for this community. Organizations such as the Ethiopian National Project, the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews and Be’chol Lashon work to ensure the full integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israeli society and raise awareness about the community. Ethiopian Jewish activists have been calling on the government to bring remaining members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia to Israel for decades.

It was in large part due to all of these efforts that the Israeli government recognized Sigd as an official holiday in 2008. The government’s recent approval of large-scale aliyah for the Falash Mura community, still in Ethiopia, is another testament to this work and improving attitudes toward Ethiopians in Israel.

The Bottom Line

Since rescue missions like Operations Moses and Solomon brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the community has experienced both successes and challenges in adjusting to Israeli life. In recent years, the community has achieved greater political representation and more senior ranks in the military and has enjoyed success in Israel’s mainstream music scene. At the same time, discrimination and economic and social disparities persist for this community. Sigd is an opportunity to learn and teach about the remarkable story of this community, including their rich history and culture, which, if you’re Jewish, is part of your story as well. Through the story of Ethiopian Jewry, we learn about the diversity within the state of Israel, the work to ensure the full integration of different groups of immigrants and how to make a more equal and inclusive society for all.

Student Prompts:

  1. Watch our video about Ethiopian Jewry and answer the following questions:
    • Even though the Ethiopians spoke Amharic and not Hebrew, had never heard of the Holocaust, did not include rabbinic holidays like Hanukkah as part of their tradition, Israelis have always felt like Ethiopians were part of the Jewish people and that saving them was a critical mission for the Israeli government. What do you think is the common link that unites all Jewish people?
    • How can your new understanding of the Ethiopian-Israeli experience help you think about your own identity as a young Jew? Respond in a video using flipgrid.
    • What do you think are the challenges of being a minority in your own society, and how does it compare to the complexities of being a minority in Israeli society?
  2. Watch our film “Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew” which follows the story of a young Ethiopian immigrant to Israel. The documentary tells the story of Mekonen’s return visit to Ethiopia to explore his roots and how he makes peace with his past and embraces his future in Israel.
  3. In 2019, Eden Alene, an Ethiopian Israeli singer was selected to represent Israel at Eurovision 2020 (cancelled due to COVID-19). What does it mean for the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel to have “one of their own” represent Israel at Eurovision?
  4. Having been separated from the rest of world Jewry for over 2000 years, the Judaism practiced by Ethiopian Jews was very different from the Judaism practiced by the rest of the world. They observed biblical Judaism, rather than rabbinic Judaism, and didn’t celebrate holidays like Hanukkah, which took place after they had already been living separately. If you were an Ethiopian Jew reuniting with the rest of the Jewish people, would you want to maintain your own unique way of observing Judaism, or would you try to adapt to the rest of world Jewry?
  5. Watch our video about the Law of Return and answer the following question: Israel is a country that was mostly founded by European (Ashkenazi) Jewish leaders, but now Ashkenazim are less than 50% of Israeli Jews. Israel is also home to a diverse Jewish community from vastly different cultures, communities and socio-economic statuses. If you could give advice to the leaders of Israel, what would you suggest as a way to unify these different peoples without stripping each community of its unique flavor and contribution?
  6. Check out the music of the following three artists/music groups that represent the Ethiopian Jewish community:
    • Eden Alene – the young Ethiopian Israeli singer will represent Israel in Eurovision 2021
    • Cafe Shachor Chazak – an Israeli hip-hop duo of Ethiopian background
    • Idan Raichel Project – Idan Raichel’s group is a diverse showcase of music, featuring instruments and singers from various backgrounds

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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