Photo Essay: Ethiopian Jewry: Emblem of Jewish Continuity

The Ethiopian Jewish community celebrated the holiday of Sigd this week. The holiday is observed in Israel with a fast and a gathering in Jerusalem, during which religious leaders read from the Torah in Gez Amharic. The fast is then broken and celebrations begin with food and dancing. In Ethiopia, the holiday was a day of longing for Israel for the Beta-Israel community. They would ascend to the highest spot in whaterver area they lived and face Jerusalem, the symbol of heavenly holiness and longing for Zion to them and pray for redemption. The holiday, which hails from the days of Ezra the Scribe in Ethiopian tradition takes place 49 days after Yom Kippur as they counted that period instead of the days from Passover to Shavuot as does the rest of world Jewry.

Rabbi Chaim Druckman of the Or Etzion yeshiva took part in a Sigd celebration at the Or M’Ofir academy, which prepares Ethiopian-Israeli young men for their military service and for academic life afterward.

“Nothing expresses the eternity of the Jewish people like Ethiopian Jewry does,” Rabbi Druckman said. “The aliyah [immigration] of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel is a miracle of miracles, and the connection Ethiopian Jews have to the land of Israel, which is expressed through this holiday, is supernatural.”

Addressing his young audience, the rabbi said, “We are proud of you and we love you. You have a great mission to fulfill in the Ethiopian community, which throughout the years was dedicated to Torah and holiness. You must continue that chain. That is your mission – to lead. To lead the community to move forward with faith.”

Or M’Ofir, established in 1995, is part of the yeshiva system headed by Rabbi Druckman. The school teaches students Torah while preparing them for the army, and in addition, helps young men who have not completed their Bagrut (Matriculation) tests to do so, in order to prepare them for higher education after the army. Many other religious Zionist institutions, including youth villages, yeshivas and ulpenas as well as religious girls doing National Service in the area of absorption have taken an active part in Ethiopian Jewry’s integration into Israeli society.

Students at the pre-military academy put on a presentation in honor of Sigd in which they focused on the place Ethiopian immigrants hold in Israeli society. The presentation illustrated both the discrimination that many Ethiopian-Israelis face in the academic world and in the workplace, and the young students’ determination to overcome discrimination and take on leadership roles in society.

The central Sigd celebration took place in Jerusalem and INN reporter Ben Bresky photographed it for INN readers to see this ancient community celebrating the ingathering of the exiles.

A kes addresses the crowd of several thousand at the Sigd prayer gathering at the tayelet promenade in Jerusalem.

Aviv Melese, a musician from Hashmonaim plays on the masenqo, an Ethiopian string instrument. He sings both in Hebrew and Amharic.

The crowd was overwhelmingly made up of Ethiopian Israelis, but many Israelis of other backgrounds attended including youth groups from the scouts, Bnei Akiva, and Ezra. Non-Ethiopian family members and friends attended as well.

Prayer leaders hold colorful umbrellas as Israeli flags fly overhead. Facing forward is Dr. Avraham Neguise, director of the organization South Wing to Zion, and one-time Knesset candidate with the Atid Ehad party. He spoke to INN stating, “We hope that slowly all of Am Yisrael will celebrate this festival. No matter if they are from East Africa or North America or Europe. The G-d of Israel is bringing His children back from the four corners of the earth to the land of Israel in Jerusalem.

A young Ethiopian Israeli prays with talit and tefilin provided at an information table. Other tables sold CDs and books and had information on Ethiopian youth programs and other cultural events.

Two Jewish Ethiopian leaders dressed in colorful attire.

Prayers are recited by a prayer leader while the crowd answers in unison “amen.” Others pray silently as the ceremony progresses.

Various community leaders spoke as well. A statement was sent from Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu that read, “The Sigd holiday is an additional stone in the great mosaic of the State of Israel and the Jewish People. The wonderful tradition of the holiday that has been passed from grandfather to father to son – continues the chain of generations of the Jewish People.”

Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian Israeli youth dance together in a circle and sing songs in Amharic and Hebrew including Am Yisrael Chai. Jerusalem’s Old City is in the background. Lior Golgher, a research assistant studying Ethiopian Jewry attended the celebration to interview participants. He spoke to INN stating that Sigd is not just part of Ethiopian heritage but that all Jewish people should consider it part of their collective heritage. It is possible that all Jewish people celebrated Sigd during the Babylonian exile.

All photos by Ben Bresky, Israel National News.


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