After centuries of hiding their religion, this group now is ending the assimilation and proclaiming their Judaism proudly.
After spending a week with a remote tribe in southern Ethiopia in June 2018, Suzi Colman of Commerce Township had two days left in the country when she asked her guide, “Is there a synagogue in Addis Ababa?”
A typical question for a Jewish tourist anywhere in the world. But the answer led Colman to a three-hour visit that ignited her quest to help sustain and uplift the self-described Hidden Jews of Ethiopia. From that trip, she helped start an organization that already is making a difference.
During those three hours in Kechene — a community on the outskirts of Addis Ababa where poverty reigns, food is scarce and homes are brimming with extended family members — she met with young leaders of a group of about 200 Ethiopian Jews.
After centuries of hiding their religion, much like the converso Jews in Spain and Portugal forced to convert to Catholicism during the Middle Ages, this group now is ending the assimilation and proclaiming their Judaism proudly.
It’s a bold stand in this Ethiopian Orthodox country where most Jews had converted to Christianity centuries ago to survive mistreatment and even death from their Christian and Muslim neighbors.
[Related: The History of the Hidden Jews]
“I was entirely unprepared for what I discovered,” Colman said. “It was simultaneously astonishing and deeply disturbing.”
She met with Belayneh Tazebku, 42, a leader of the group of emerging Jews, and Michael “Miki” Moges, 30, who aspires to become a rabbi. Tazebku serves as director of the Lovers of Zion Association (LOZA), which runs a synagogue and is working to improve conditions for the community. Moges is hazzan of the synagogue and a LOZA leader.
They told her of the Hidden Jews, a group of about 150,000 living in Kechene and in North Shewa, a mountainous region 50 miles from the capital. Collectively, they are known as the Beta Israel of North Shewa: ancestral Jews whose history dates back 2,000 years. (See sidebar history.) They have purposefully lived under the radar in modern times, known mainly to a few academics, some travelers and Kulanu, a Jewish organization working with emerging Jewish communities globally.
Many American Jews know of the Beta Israel of Gondar, a region in far north Ethiopia, who were airlifted to Israel during Operations Moses in the mid-1980s and Solomon in 1991 (and smaller subsequent rescues) by the Israeli government and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), with financial assistance from the Jewish Federations of North America, including Detroit’s federation.
Currently, 7,000 more from Gondar wait in camps in Ethiopia for Israel to allow them to immigrate; some have waited more than 20 years. (See section Political Quagmire.)
The Beta Israel of North Shewa were not rescued by Israel because no one knew about them and they did not come forward until very recently. “We were hidden for centuries; the Gondar Jews were not,” Moges told the JN.
“It is time now,” Tazebku told Colman, “to open ourselves to the world’s brothers [and say] where we are, who we are.”
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali became Ethiopia’s new prime minister, bringing reforms as well as a desire for openness and for reconciliation between the cultures. His actions emboldened LOZA members to openly practice their Judaism.
Though they would like to make aliyah, LOZA members understand it’s not practical because of Israel’s current restrictions on Ethiopian Jewish immigration. So, they are focusing on improving their lives, becoming self-sustainable and building community in Ethiopia. Another group, also living openly as Jews in Kechene, whom Colman did not meet, want aliyah as soon as possible.
Despite some changes in Ethiopian society, Moges and Tazebku say persecution and prejudice continue against the Beta Israel of North Shewa.
A centuries-old superstition persists among some less-educated Ethiopians who believe a look from a Jew (the evil eye or buda) can bring illness or death. They also believe Jews transform into hyenas at night. Because of this superstition, some Ethiopians believe that any misfortune that befalls them can be avenged by killing a Jew, burning their homes and more.
“We are the first they blame,” Moges said. “And the government doesn’t do anything serious about it. I have seen the destruction in the rural area, where they burned down 19 houses, farms and food stores.”
Poverty is rampant among the Hidden Jews, Moges said, adding, “Most people live hand to mouth and use what little money they earn to buy food.” He says they make about 90% of Ethiopia’s crafts — pottery, weaving, blacksmithing and metal work using ancient methods — and are known as the Bal Ej (crafts makers). In Ethiopia, these are seen as lowly professions. Because of superstition, no one will buy from them directly in the market, so a broker buys their wares and resells them.
Moges and Tazebku also told Colman of LOZA’s association with the Jambaria gedam, a small religious community in a river valley in North Shewa, not far from Debre Brehan, a city where 10,000 Hidden Jews live. Jambaria is one of 15 hidden gedams in North Shewa. Only three welcome visitors.
The gedams are where the Beta Israel go to experience Judaism, where orphans are raised, where the elderly go to die and receive a Jewish burial, and where pre-Talmudic Judaism (before rabbis) operates in full force.
The LOZA leaders implored Colman to help them and to share their story in the U.S.
[Related: Political Quagmire]
Back home, Colman studied her scribbled notes from her brief meeting with Tazebku and Moges. She began what led to months of research.
“How could what they told me be true?” she recalled. “I have been obsessed with learning all I can.”
She first contacted Malka Shabtay, an Israeli applied anthropologist who shared information about the Hidden Jews. Then Colman relied on guidance from William Recant, a former JDC executive who played a major role in the planning and coordination of Operation Solomon. He had worked with Ethiopian Jews long before that. Now retired and a JDC consultant, he told Colman he and the agency had never heard of the Hidden Jews before Colman contacted them. Penny Blumenstein of Bloomfield Hills, past JDC board chair, told the JN the same thing.
Colman’s goal to help LOZA gained traction when she persuaded her rabbi, Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, to join the effort. Then she connected with David Goldberg of Cleveland, a global Jewish leader very familiar with Ethiopia who was on the JDC board for 20-plus years, and Tomer Malchi, founder of CultivAid, an Israeli NGO working in Ethiopia since 2013, who knows the culture and is well-connected there.
Together, they formed the Friends of the Beta Israel Community of North Shewa, Ethiopia. Temple Israel established the Hidden Jews of Ethiopia Fund under its nonprofit status.
To see the community firsthand, the Friends core four traveled to Ethiopia in November 2019.
Their delegation also included Robert Goldberg (David’s brother, a past chair of the Jewish Federations of North America and a Jewish Agency for Israel board member), Jon Colman (Suzi’s husband), Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Philadelphia (Jon’s sister), Yair Keinan of CultivAid and Mark Gelfand of Boston, whose STEMpower NGO has built numerous high schools and STEM centers in Ethiopia. The U.S. participants paid their own costs. Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Raphael Morav also accompanied them. A videographer documented the mission for educational purposes.
In Kechene, the delegation celebrated Shabbat at the LOZA synagogue, beginning with candle lighting beside a central pole known as “Jerusalem.” Most prayers were in Amharic (the native language), with a few recognizable Hebrew words, like eloheinu (“our God”). Men wore kippot. Rabbis Bennett and Ruskin taught the congregation to sing a traditional Shabbat prayer in Hebrew.
This was followed by questions about Western Jewish traditions and a discussion about community needs.
The delegation learned some of the 200 Jews practicing openly keep kosher, bless their children, have menorahs, recite the Shema, say HaMotzi over their version of Shabbat challah, make Kiddush over grain beer instead of wine, refrain from work on Shabbat, circumcise baby boys at 8 days old and celebrate Jewish holidays. Men and women also sit separately.
Before Shabbat, they had traveled to the Jambaria gedam. They drove on rugged roads for several hours, then completed a treacherous descent to the river valley below on foot to reach the hidden gedam, where secrecy is a matter of survival because their Christian neighbors fear and distrust them.
In the Beit HaMikdas, the mud prayer house, they were greeted by spiritual leader Aba Minas. Aba is Hebrew for father. The nearby river is used as a mikvah, and menstruating women separate themselves for seven days, according to pre-Talmudic tradition. Crafts also are produced here for market.
Poverty and poor nutrition are evident, but the will to live Jewishly is strong.
[Related: Meeting Community Needs]
Any lingering doubts about whether the LOZA members they met are truly Jewish were dispelled by the trip.
“When you attend a Shabbat service, the question goes away pretty quickly,” David Goldberg said. “There’s no question in my mind. I tell some of my Ashkenazi friends, ‘They are probably a lot more Jewish than you.’”
Bennett said, “The most important question is why are we doing this? Because taking care of Jews, kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, is an important mandate of being a part of a Jewish community.
“They are asking us to help them be Jews. As a Reform rabbi, this organization, this movement, is to try to help gain access to Judaism for people who are asking to be Jews.
“When you have a Miki Moges say, ‘I’d like to learn Hebrew; I’d like to learn worship’ — and you witness them trying that — we have an obligation to support them and to serve them. That is the core value driving this project.”
The Friends already sent Moges for three months to study Hebrew and Torah with a rabbi in Uganda. They plan to help him attain rabbinical training to become Ethiopia’s first ordained rabbi.
This month, the Friends have arranged for Moges and Tazebku to virtually attend the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism’s summer program in Hebrew and Torah studies.
Progress has been made on religious and humanitarian fronts, from delivery of prayer books in Hebrew and Amharic to installation of a pepper mill at the Jambaria gedam. (See sidebar on community needs.) Now, most projects are on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moges told the JN families in Kechene are sheltering at home in crowded houses with insufficient food and water, and little support from the government. With markets closed, he says, they have no place to sell their wares and earn money.
In mid-June, Moges reported the first coronavirus deaths in Kechene. “People are suffering,” he said. The Friends group, with CultivAid and LOZA, is helping them.
“In Kechene, we helped develop a face mask-making factory,” said CultivAid’s Malchi, who acts as the group’s coordinator in Ethiopia. Six sewing machines have been delivered to the LOZA synagogue, with $7,500 in funding from the Friends. “We are using their abilities to make what the market is really asking for. Some masks will be donated to frontline workers, some sold, with revenue given to families — a community business that really helps in this time of need.”
They now produce 300 masks a day; next up are plans to make hand sanitizer.
The pivot to give aid during the pandemic allows the Friends team to see if LOZA leaders can truly make things happen.
“They have an opportunity now,” Rabbi Bennett said. “This is a test balloon to decide whether they can organize themselves enough to be worthy of ongoing support.
“We are hopeful, in the short term, they will get some of that by having to do so. But, in the long term, we see our role as putting people on the ground who can intern and teach them what it means to build a community.”
The Friends leaders speak with Moges and Tazebku about twice a month to assess needs and make sure things are on track.
“We’ve had visitors from all over the world, but I can say none of them have a dedicated heart with a passion to help this community like Suzi and her group,” Moges told the JN. “They are making a grand difference we can actually physically see. Not only on paper or words, but through action and change in our lives.
“We did not get help from anybody until now. Together, we build a bridge between our customs, beliefs and religion with the wider Jewish community of the world. We are making history.”