Celebrating Rosh Hashanah on the Ethiopian New Year
Nine groups of rabbinical students have set up shop in various Sub-Saharan locations for the High Holidays to host services and provide for the spiritual needs of Jews living in the remotest corners of the African continent.
Yaacov Behrman and Shmuli Bendet will be conducting Rosh Hashanah services starting tonight in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Interestingly enough, their visit coincides with the Ethiopian New Year of Enkutatash, which began on Tuesday and marks the year 2,000 on the Ethiopian calendar. According to the students, the streets have been packed with singing, dancing and bonfires, all while the city’s Jewish residents, a mixture of native Ethiopians, Israeli expatriates and businesspeople, get ready for their own New Year celebrations.
Behrman and Bendet’s trip, as are those of the eight other teams stretching from Nigeria to the Ivory Coast, is under the aegis of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. They traveled from New York at the invitation of Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, the Congo-based director of Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Central Africa.
Bentolila said that the Ethiopian holiday is just one of many occurrences that can make reaching out to the Jewish community difficult.
“We’ve seen it all. From the first revolution to the democracy we enjoy today, thank G?d,” said Bentolila, who lives with his family in Kinshasa. “The problem is that in Africa you’ve got to expect the unexpected. Within an hour, without prior notice, airports can close and rain can flood the streets, and in such a case, you can’t travel and the Sukkah we built won’t be used.”
Drawing on his past experiences, which include meeting with Jews attending Hungary’s art festival and training a child in Kenya for his bar mitzvah, the Brooklyn-born Behrman has big plans for the community in Ethiopia on top of the prayer services, including classes in Judaism, a children’s holiday party and a women’s program.
“It is very important that we be there,” said Behrman before he left the United States. “There are families living there and they are very much looking forward to us coming.”
Sponsored in part by a grant from the United Jewish Communities of Central Africa, the teams of students are spending the High Holidays in Abuja and Lagos in Nigeria, Accra in Ghana, Luanda in Angola, Windhoek in Namibia, Nairobi in Kenya, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.
In these far distant communities where year-round Jewish education is lacking, the Chabad-Lubavitch students will host programs for both children and adults. Plans are underway to introduce all children to the art of making their own shofars and to the various High Holiday customs and traditions.