Aid recipients are part of the Beta Israel of North Shewa, an ancient Jewish community of around 150,000 dating back more than 2,000 years who have, for the most part, remained hidden because of persecution.
Communities in Ethiopia’s North Shewa region and in Kechene, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, received humanitarian aid for the first time from the Israeli government to help sustain them during the coronavirus pandemic as well as a locust infestation that wiped out much-needed crops.
Although some community members identify openly as Jewish, Israel does not officially recognize them as Jews.
Aid recipients are part of the Beta Israel of North Shewa, an ancient Jewish community of around 150,000 dating back more than 2,000 years who have, for the most part, remained hidden because of persecution. For centuries, these self-described Hidden Jews were not allowed to practice Judaism, so they lived publicly as Christians and observed Jewish customs secretly. About 15 years ago, young Jews in Kechene — now known as the Lovers of Zion Association (LOZA) — decided to practice Judaism openly and hope to attract others to their ranks of 200-plus.
On Aug. 14, with 150 people in attendance, Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Raphael Morav delivered 100 aid packages and also cut a ribbon to inaugurate the LOZA synagogue/community center in Kechene. Another 100 families received packages in late July in Debre Berhan in North Shewa, northeast of Addis Ababa. The essential aid included food, sanitizer and face masks.
“This is a dream come true, a huge thing for us that has given us hope,” LOZA leader Michael Moges told the JN. He says community members, many who produce crafts, have had little or no income during the pandemic.
The aid was distributed by Israel’s foreign ministry through MASHAV, an agency for international development cooperation that offers help to vulnerable communities regardless of race or religious affiliation.
Israel does not formally recognize the Beta Israel of North Shewa as Jewish, owing to a longstanding political quagmire involving nearly 7,000 Beta Israel (referred to by some as Felas Mora) of the Gondar region awaiting permission to make aliyah from displaced person camps in Ethiopia. Some have been waiting for more than 20 years.
Still, the moment was a historic bond.
“The recent MASHAV aid was the first time the communities of North Shewa received help from the Israeli government,” Ambassador Morav told the JN. The ribbon-cutting ceremony and aid distribution drew coverage from Ethiopian media.
Locally, the community is helped by the Friends of the Beta Israel of North Shewa, founded by Suzi Colman of Commerce Township after a chance meeting with LOZA leaders two years ago in Addis Ababa. Rabbi Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield and Jewish leader David Goldberg of Cleveland join Colman as leaders of the Friends group. The JN previously covered this community (June 25, 2020). A nonprofit Ethiopian fund is set up through Temple Israel.
Connections to Morav were first made by Israeli applied anthropologist Dr. Malka Shabtay, who does work with the Beta Israel of North Shewa, and then by Tomer Malchi, founder of the Israeli NGO CultivAid, who also works with the Friends group.
Last November, Morav accompanied LOZA leaders to the Jambaria gedam, one of 15 remote Jewish religious centers hidden in North Shewa.
“Ambassador Morav was very moved by the support from the Americans,” Moges said. “He was impressed with the work we are doing, and he wants to be part of this.”
Moges told the JN in late August that LOZA leaders, with help from Shabtay, have also submitted letters to Morav and to the Israeli government requesting official recognition for the community as Jews.
Morav said the two issues are separate. “The recognition of the communities in North Shewa and Kechene is a totally different issue [from aid] and not in the competence of MASHAV or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel,” he said.
Although aliyah is their ultimate goal, LOZA leaders now are focused on increasing their open practice of Judaism in Ethiopia, securing a Jewish cemetery and modernizing and optimizing agricultural and occupational potential to stem widespread poverty.
The Friends group paid 18 months rent for the LOZA building, funded a mask-making factory there and is working on the cemetery project.
The group recently connected with Kulanu, a New York City-based organization that works with emerging/isolated Jewish communities in 30-plus countries. Kulanu published a paper about the Jews of Kechene in 2009 but did little work with them since. This week, Kulanu gave a $3,450 grant for a lawyer to ask the government for cemetery land; another $3,450 will come if he succeeds.
Morav said two projects to be implemented by year’s end “will make a big difference in their quality of life.”
In one, Israel’s advanced methods will help the community shift from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture. The other includes the installation of a solar water pump to provide potable water year-round.
“When I first met Suzi [Colman], I didn’t think change would happen like this,” Moges said. “The Americans are the first organized partners from the outside with the courage and determination to do more and more to change the lives of our community members. It is huge to have someone helping us.
“Now we are seeing the fruits of our efforts. We hope this is a start with the embassy that opens doors to many things.”
On Sept. 17, the Friends of the Beta Israel of North Shewa were scheduled to hold a virtual meeting with LOZA leaders and Jewish journalists to spread word about the community.