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“There are Now Hundreds of Ethiopian Torah scholars” — An Interview with Three Ethiopian Rabbis

They are living many years among Israelis, or perhaps more accurately on the margin of Israeli society. We have become accustomed to their non-presence in the public space. Since they immigrated here, in several heroic operations, Ethiopians have tried to keep quiet and segregate themselves. They are timid and shy, and keep to their communities away from the mainstream. Then suddenly, all at once, they exploded in a rage that shook theheartland of Israel inJune, 2015.

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As is always the case, when thefrustration accumulates and the anger is deep, the explosion is all the more searing. This only widened the circle of violence, and the protests erupted in almost unprecedented violence. Throwing stones at police, a police car turned onto its back and a toll of dozens of injured. Suddenly members of the community threw a stun grenade in Tel Aviv, and the earth has been shaking ever since.

What ignited the gunpowder was a young soldier from the community who was innocently bike riding. He was detained by police and beaten for no apparent reason or provocation. But what happened to the community? What's going on under the surface that we still do not know about? Were Ethiopians ignored so long until they felt they had no choice but to shatter the glass?

Ethiopians protesting

Rabbi Mazor Baheine, a former Shas Member of the Knesset and today a rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Be'er Sheva, smirks painfully: “We are not ignored. We are worse than that, we are black. One who is ignored — you do not see him, no one worries about him, no one helps him because he is invisible. But we are black, they see us, and they step all over us. So after longyears of suffering, there was an explosion. It hurts and it hurts us first of all, the rabbis and the community leaders.”

Already three years ago Bakehila gathered together Rabbi Baheine, with another two leaders of the community: Rabbi Eliezer Mengesha, a graduate of Yeshivat Porat Yosef, who is also the rabbi of a community in Beer Sheva, along with Rabbi Reuven Wabeshet, the rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Netivot. The three are all products of the Torah world who became leaders of the community's younger generation. At the time, they spoke about the condition of the community in Israel. Now, in the wake of the riots, they were invited for another meeting to explain the circumstances of the outbreak and what has not changed in all the time that has passed.

We Kept Silent for Decades

“You have to understand,” says Rabbi Baheine, “When we saw that appalling video in which an Ethiopian soldier wearing a yarmulkeh was beaten by the police for no reason, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. The abuse and disregard for the community is a broad phenomenon. It includes discrimination in the workplace, in education, and in allotting resources. I myself have often seen such behavior by police officers against members of the community.

“I personally,” adds Rabbi Mengesha, “have not experienced such a case of violence, although I have heard about dozens of such cases. But I have experienced discrimination over the years. For example, for two decades I have served as the rabbi in the Be'er Sheva community, but the authorities haven’t confirmed and authorized my position. I'm like a UFO. The matter has now reached litigation and therefore I won’t go into it, but it reflects a lack of awareness of the community’s needs. No one disputes that our community is quiet and gentle by nature, and has the three qualities that Jews are noted for: they have a strong sense of shame, and are merciful and kind. Even during the hardest times, there weren’t such angry reactions as there are now, and that's because they feel that enough is enough.”

Rabbi Wabeshet is the only one who says that he didn’t experience discrimination, although he is well aware of its existence. “By the grace of G-d, probably because I was one of the first of my community to immigrate to Israel and because of the track I followed, I didn’t feel discrimination or any special difficulties, but it certainly exists. One sees it every step of the way. Israeli society does not relate to the community as equals. Despite us having talented people who have considerable accomplishments, we are still discriminated against and viewed contemptuously. The protesters, who were mostly young people who were born here, should be equal to all other citizens, but they’re not. “

“Take for example the documented case of that battered soldier,” says Rabbi Baheine, “Imagine if the case had not been documented, the soldier would have been arrested, tried and sent to prison for nothing. His whole life would be ruined and he would be stigmatized whatever he attempted to do. For what? For nothing. And how many cases were there like that and were not documented? Dozens. I see it as G-d's kindness that this case was documented and publicized, so now the public saw it themselves. Now that they know that the claims were groundless, maybe they will wake up and do something.”

Some say that leftist associations intervened here and fanned the flames. Is there truth to that?

Rabbi Baheine: “Nonsense. Perhaps it is true that they intervened marginally, but the frustration and pain is real. Do not sidetrack the discussion.”

Rabbi Mengesha: “True, there was excessive violence here that should be condemned, it was not in place and should not have occurred, but the majority went to protest and had no intention to do anything else. Too bad it spun out of control.”

Rabbi Wabeshet: “There is another problem with these organizations. Sometimes the state allocates a fortune through them or through other organizations that assist the community, but since their approach and the way they work is tainted by extraneous interests, the money does not really improve the situation of the community. In fact, I would say that we can’t complain that the government does not allot money to the needs of the community. It does do that. But it does it without getting the proper guidance and so the funding does not accomplish its goals. In addition, there are also profound social problems associated with the deep-rooted problematic attitude towards the community, which unfortunately requires firm action.”

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Rabbi Mengesha: “We need to integrate young people in employment. To pass laws against discrimination in the workplace and strictly uphold them. We see young people who come for a job interview after training for years, but the employer is not willing to employ them due to various pretexts, but we all know the truth. L-rd, there is a community of 150,000 people here, let them be absorbed into the country. They love the country and are proud of it. They are good Jews who want to contribute.”

Rabbi Ovadya Yosef was our father

Rabbi Baheine: “I want to add several grave things. In general, the only area where there is almost total discrimination against members of the community is education. I'm talking about chareidi yeshiva students who studied in yeshivas but are hitting a wall when they try to send their children to study Torah. There is a tremendous movement in the community towards religion, a movement that is unprecedented in the world. Synagogues are full and people are strengthening their religious commitment and they want to send their children to chareidi education, but they do not let them.”

It also happens in the Shas education system? In El Maayan?

Rabbi Mengesha: “Absolutely. I want to stress that it doesn’t happen in all institutions, but in many of them, there is discrimination.”

Rabbi Aryeh Deri, the Shas chairman, announced that Shas shared your struggle. Did you try to contact him?

Rabbi Baheine: “This is not a political issue — this is a daily painful reality. Every day, parents come to me crying and in pain. They have nowhere to send their children. You think I don’t try to appeal to anyone who might help? Of course I do, but people ignore us. If someone wants to help, if anyone realizes how we are being ignored and want to help us — then let’s go, let's fix things up. There are Ethiopian communities in Beit Shemesh, in Jerusalem, in all the South, all these places have Torah scholars from our community.”

Rabbi Ovadya Yosef of blessed memory always supported you.

Rabbi Mengesha: “You touched a very sore point; Rabbi Yosef was the patron of the community. He was our father; he took care of us in every way. He categorically ruled that there should be no discrimination and each member of the congregation should be accepted. Every time there was such a story, you only had to talk to him and immediately it was taken care of. It’s awful that he’s gone.”

Rabbi Baheine: “To call Rabbi Yosef our ‘father’ — is too weak of a word, you have to find a stronger word. He was with us and took care of us. He took responsibility for every matter. He would call me often to ask how the community is doing and whether it needs help. He would ask for information about how many members of the congregation were absorbed in the yeshiva world, and every single case aroused great joy in his heart. When he died he left a huge void in our hearts. There is no day that I do not cry and feel enormous pain that our father is gone.”

Rabbi Mengesha: “One thing I do not understand. I have met principals who tell me that Rabbi Yosef’s ruling is not acceptable to them. They actually say that, people that he himself toiled to set up!”

Rabbi Wabeshet: “It happened more than once that when we had trouble finding a place for a child, we went to Rabbi Yosef and everything worked out. Today, we have met more than once with his son, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef and he tries to help us. You can say in this case that the son is just like the father. He is going in his illustrious father’s way and trying to help us with everything. We are also planning to meet with Chacham Shalom Cohen and explain the situation to him so Shas will continue Rabbi Yosef’s legacy. It would be best to issue a letter on behalf of Shas’s Council of Sages that all school principals should stop discriminating against the community.”

At Least, “Love the Stranger”

“We and our parents,” adds Rabbi Wabeshet, “immigrated to Israel. With all our heart we wanted to return to the Land of Israel and be part of the Jewish people. And that's all that the members of our community are asking for.”

You were born in this country, or Ethiopia?

Rabbi Wabeshet: “I myself made aliya in the late '70s, before the mass aliya of Operation Moses. My father always wanted to go to the Land of Israel, but Ethiopia didn’t let him leave and Israel would not let him in. He came to Israel under the cover of a student visiting Israel. My mother came to Israel ostensibly to visit relatives. They lived for a while in the home of a precious Jew in Jerusalem and only after a while were my parents granted aliya visas.”

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The one who helped my family acclimatize in Israel was Ovadya Chezi, a Yemenite Jew born in Ethiopia, who for years helped many people from his country to make aliya and acclimatize. “Ovadya Chezi was familiar with the community and was convinced that they were kosher Jews. He worked hard on the issue and was one of the main reasons that the authorities in the country agreed to recognize the Jewishness of the Jews of Ethiopia. He also helped my father acclimatize and helped him in his first stages here. My father fit in and he joined the Moroccan Jewish community. He sent me to study in yeshivas, “says Rabbi Wabeshet.

For Rabbi Mengesha, it was not as easy. “I came at a later period. One day we heard that you can go to Israel. I was a kid and I remember how we left everything behind and the whole family walked many miles from the village where we lived until Sudan. We walked in the desert and suffered hunger and thirst. All my elderly aunts died along the way. In Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, a Mossad man was waiting for us. He ordered us to go to the beach. Some arrived by ship and others were flown to a third country such as Germany and Greece, and from there we boarded a plane to Israel.”

The story of Rabbi Baheine and his family was even more difficult: “We also marched from our village to Sudan, with the hope of immigrating to Israel. But they forgot us there for a year and a half. Meanwhile, my father, may G-d avenge his blood, was murdered by a Muslim who did it just because we were Jews.

“There were times when if they even suspected you of having a connection to Israel, or that you were planning to go there — you would risk death by firing squad,” said Rabbi Mengesha. And Rabbi Baheine notes in this context the brother of his grandmother, who was the Mossad agent serving in Kenya. “One day suspicions were raised against him and they were already ready to shoot him without a trial. At the last minute, he managed to escape.”

Even the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, claims to be of Jewish origin, a descendant of King Solomon.

Rabbi Wabeshet: “Indeed, he called himself the 'Lion of Judah' and even kept a lion in his palace. With my own eyes I saw this baby lion. Some claim that the origin of Ethiopian Jews is from the Jews who accompanied the Queen of Sheba when she returned from visiting King Solomon. I personally think we are from the tribe of Dan.

“By the way, Selassie also had a dog in his palace, which according to witnesses was able to whiff people and recognize if they were enemies of the king or his friends. According to the dog’s response, the king knew how to treat his guests. It reminds me of the midrash about the throne of Solomon on which were engraved figures of animals and according to their reaction, King Solomon knew how to pass judgment.”

It’s natural for people to miss their childhood. Did you feel any longing for Ethiopia?

Rabbi Baheine: “What’s there to miss? The yeshiva that didn’t exist?! We had nothing there. There is no reason for any longing.”

Rabbi Wabeshet: “We had no sense of kinship to the country. The gentiles did their utmost to make us feel uncomfortable. In terms of the law, it was forbidden to sell us land. We could work there as sharecroppers only, and it was easy to rob us of our land. We always grew up knowing that this is not our land, and that we have another land, the Land of Israel. The moment aliya became possible, we got up and left. If only people would know how much love there is in the Ethiopian community for the Land of Israel and the Jewish people! For that we were willing to sacrifice our soul.

“The hardest thing for us was to see Jews who do not observe the Shabbat. When my father saw desecration of the Shabbat in the country, he could not understand it. He was appalled to the depths of his soul. When he saw the lack of modesty here, he was so upset that he even thought of going back to Ethiopia.”

And how was your acclimatization here? Are you bitter at how the State is treating you?

Rabbi Wabeshet: “The State did everything it could for the community and we have no complaints, even if not everything was perfect. At least they tried everything they could. If we have any criticism at how we were accepted, it is directed to the Torah world that has partly rejected us.”

The reason for that is the legal ruling that the Ethiopian immigrants all have to convert to be sure they are Jews, and many of the immigrants refused to do so.

Rabbi Wabeshet: “Now, thank G-d, everyone has converted and they understand its importance. So there are no longer doubts about anyone since they all underwent conversion.”

Rabbi Mengesha: “I always ask, what choice do you have? Either we are Jews — in which case you have the commandment 'Love your neighbor as yourself'. And if we are converts — you have the commandment to “love the convert.' Both are important commandments that must be kept.”

We have excellent Torah scholars

Still, despite the difficulties and pain, the rabbis are optimistic: “In recent years there has been an unprecedented wave of return to tradition and Judaism. Synagogues are full,” they say. The communities are growing and there is a demand and request for more synagogues and more schools.

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Rabbi Mengesha: “Thank G-d, we see the fruits. We see that good boys are blossoming in the shadow of the community. There are now hundreds of Ethiopian Torah scholars, and hundreds of yeshiva students and married students.”

Rabbi Wabeshet: “We have in Netivot a kollel of dozens of married students who are diligently studying Torah study and working, and it keeps growing.”

Why don’t you set up your own educational institutions? Maybe it's the best solution, because it will also preserve the community’s unique traditions?

Rabbi Baheine: “If there is no choice we will do it, but this would be an admission that our acclimatization has failed. We didn’t come to Israel to form our separate community. It is also not practical and not possible. We have small communities everywhere, shall we establish a school for every small community?”

Rabbi Wabeshet: “I have a plan to establish a yeshiva for the community, where they can come to learn from over the country. The trouble is we do not have funding for it.”

When you made aliya, why did you adopt the customs of Beit Yosef (practiced by the Sephardim)? When one doesn’t have a tradition, you can adopt either Ashkenazic custom or Sephardic custom equally.

Rabbi Wabeshet: “It's a question I'm asked occasionally by young people from the community, but as I told you, when my father came to Israel he immediately felt comfortable among the Jews of Morocco. And there's a good reason for it — because the Sephardim’s origins are mostly from Africa. The mentality is similar, the culture is similar, and they feel comfortable together. There are now hundreds of Ethiopian Jewish synagogues and all of them pray according to the Oriental version. They have quite a few similar practices.”

How will you keep your special customs? The Sigad holiday for example. How will you maintain the Gez language, which is your holy language?

“The Sigad holiday can be kept even when one is studying in Ponovezh. None of us know the Gez language besides the kesim [Ethiopian priests]. Just for those things, you do not need a separate education system. You only need that the existing religious schools will accept us in the proper way.”

It is difficult to be a rabbi in your community. You are fighting for your position against the establishment, against the Sephardim, against the Ashkenazim, against secularism. How are you able to do it?

“That's right, it is difficult. And yet, thank G-d, when you look at the fruits that we are producing — we are proud and encouraged.”

“Sometimes I marvel,” said Rabbi Mengesha. “Every Ethiopian Torah student had a huge effort invested in him, equal to that invested in a hundred youths from chareidi homes. And nevertheless, there are already hundreds of Torah students from within the community. I appeal to you, 'Do not view me as black because the sun darkened me’ [Song of Songs]. Do not look at me as being different. It is because I suffered a long exile, and because my exile was hard. Don’t look at my outside but at my inside. Check and find out the positive things in us.

“I remember about 22 years ago, I learned in the Kfar Chassidim religious youth village. I suddenly felt a strong desire to go study in a holy yeshiva. I came to my instructor and told him I wanted to go to a chareidi yeshiva. He said to me: ‘What do you want to look for among these “black-hatters”? They won’t even accept you.’ But I insisted I wanted to go to the Peer Moshe yeshiva in Bnei Brak. At first the yeshiva hesitated, and they checked up after me until they decided to take me.

“I have not forgotten until today Rabbi Avraham Ben Zimra who taught me Torah. When I left for yeshiva high school, he said to me, ‘You're not going until you bring another Ethiopian in your place.’ After a year, another fellow Ethiopian arrived, who studied diligently and today he is proficient in all the Torah’s treasures and is studying to be a Jewish legal authority.”

Rabbi Wabeshet: “Long ago I visited Rabbi Yissocher Meir, and talked with him about the community’s difficulties. First he asked me a few questions. We began to discuss the halachic issues. He was amazed and said, 'I did not know that there are Torah scholars among you. Since then, his attitude towards us changed completely. I'm sure that if they became familiar with us and would see what good fruits our community has produced, every yeshiva would be proud to accept them.”

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