The Ashkenazi rabbi who devoted his career to Israel’s Ethiopian Jews
Rabbi Chananya Blumert has devoted himself to the Ethiopian community for 20 years. He speaks Amharic, has an Ethiopian wife and commands the respect of the Ethiopian kesim (priests). However, some question whether a white Ashkenazi is really the best person to honor the traditions of the Beta Israel, and whether his appointment as their rabbi in Bat Yam is symbolic of attempts to homogenize Judaism.
Almost every rabbi, from every stream and community, has a repertoire of jokes that he whips out under the wedding canopy, for the edification of the excited young couple about to tie the knot. Rabbi Chananya Blumert is no exception to this rule. Last month he was invited to perform a marriage ceremony at a banquet hall in Rishon Letzion’s old industrial zone. The waves of laughter that roll through the audience are generated by total surprise, bordering on shock, followed by a burst of emotion and joy at what seems to be a rare act of grace. The invited guests are witness to a theater of the absurd: A “frenji” (Western) rabbi, wearing a black suit but with snow-white skin, reciting the words in their mother tongue, amusing them in Amharic, a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia .
“Did you buy the ring with your own money?” the rabbi asks the groom in Amharic. The groom nods in the affirmative, and the rabbi responds with a one-liner that sounds terrific in Amharic: “Tell me the truth – did you pay more than NIS 50 for it?” He will go on to utter a well-known proverb in Amharic, and the guests will swoon with delight – from the old men holding wooden staffs, to the young women attired in tiny dresses and with smoothed hair for whom Amharic is, at best, a second language. “He speaks Amharic better than I do”; “He is a real attraction”; “Does he speak Russian, too?”; “It can’t be real,” the young people say.
In the blood
But the 37-year-old rabbi is completely real. Chananya Blumert’s Amharic opens doors to the older members of the community and wins over many of the younger generation. He is invited to officiate at a marriage ceremony in Israel practically every week, mostly on the Ethiopian community’s designated day for weddings, Thursday. During the rest of the week, Blumert is at the beginning of an equally complex journey of the absurd, performing the role he received from the Religious Services Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. After a struggle that lasted almost two years, Rabbi Blumert is now officially the rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Bat Yam.
He was victorious in his battle despite the opposition of senior figures in Shas, notably the religious services minister, Yaakov Margi, and the ministry’s director general, Avigdor Ohana. In 2009, the two never imagined that the tender they issued – as part of an affirmative action policy relating to Ethiopian Orthodox rabbis in eight cities – would be won in Bat Yam by an Ashkenazi raised as a religious Zionist and a graduate of the movement’s flagship yeshiva, Mercaz Harav, in Jerusalem.
The tender and its results tell a story of the power relations between white Jews and black Jews in Israel. More than this, though, it’s the story of the decline of an ancient Jewish tradition embodied by kesim (priests who are seen as religious and community leaders among Ethiopian Jews ) – one that is taking place in the Holy Land, of all places. That tradition is being supplanted by Orthodox rabbinical Judaism, and by vast confusion.
For Blumert – who threw in his lot with Ethiopian Jewry 20 years ago, married a woman from the Ethiopian community and, with her, is raising their six Ashkenazi-Ethiopian children – his appointment as rabbi of an Ethiopian community is perfectly natural. He sees himself as the “white kes,” who represents the rabbinical Jewish law the Ethiopians never knew, but also the Ethiopian heritage that many of them have cast aside. “If I do good work and can be of benefit to the community, what difference does it make what my skin color is?” he asks. “I am here to sanctify the Lord’s name. I come with the Israeli experience and with the Israeli tradition. On the other hand, the Ethiopian religious tradition – which I studied for years – is in my blood. I come to be of use and to be of benefit. I am a rabbi from the rabbinate who makes an appeal to the community and does not say, ‘You must necessarily be like me.’ If I feel that I am splitting the community, I will leave.”
Affinity for languages
Blumert has never been to Ethiopia. He was born in New York to an American father, Shmuel, an engineer, and an Israeli mother, the poet and writer Ruth Blumert. When Chananya was 5, the family immigrated to Israel and settled in Jerusalem, and he has never left the country since. He first encountered Ethiopian Jews in the fifth grade in 1985, when he joined one of his three sisters for her meeting with boys and girls who had arrived in Israel via Operation Moses a year earlier, the operation that airlifted some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan . In the gathering he learned a few words in Amharic and found a friend to correspond with for a time. But it wasn’t until six and a half years later, when he was a student in a high-school yeshiva, that what he calls his “affair” with the Jews of Ethiopia began in earnest.
In 1991, after the first Gulf War, a record number of immigrants arrived in Israel, mostly from the former Soviet Union. “I was in the 11th grade and my area of interest was language,” Blumert recalls. “I studied a lot of grammar, purely from a thirst for knowledge, in addition to the material for the five-point matriculation exam, and I also decided to learn Arabic by myself at home, and also Russian. We had a Russian neighbor who taught me the language.”
That continued until the spring day when 15,000 immigrants from Ethiopia landed in Israel, after Operation Solomon . “One Saturday evening, in May,” he continues, “I went to the neighbor for my Russian lesson and she told me that during Shabbat, buses carrying immigrants from Ethiopia had arrived in the neighborhood. Thousands of immigrants needed housing, and some of them were put up in the Shalom Hotel, next to my parents’ home. In a flash it was clear to me that I would go there the next morning. I am an 11th-grade student, it’s the day before an important exam, and it is clear to me that I will resume my old affair from the fifth grade. I felt this was my opportunity. I don’t know where the feeling came from, it was truly an inexplicable urge.
“The next day I snuck into the hotel, got past the guard and went up to the 10th floor, where the immigrants were. I started to talk to the first immigrants I met, exchanging a few words I knew, and I invited one of them to my parents’ place so he could call his relatives abroad. While we were speaking, I noticed how similar the languages were. When one guy I had invited to eat at my parents’ place told me ‘hodi mula,’ I noticed the resemblance to ‘bitni mleah’ [my stomach is full], and in this way I learned various rules – Amharic grammar places the words in reverse order from Hebrew, for example.
“For a year and a half I listened to them and succeeded in translating into Hebrew, by finding the roots of the words. I went to the hotel every day after school for two hours. They had an ulpan [intensive Hebrew class] in the morning, and I ran an improvised ulpan in the afternoon. I obtained a Hebrew-Amharic dictionary from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, bought chalk, and taught and learned every day. In this way I was able to learn and understand more and more words. At first it was joint learning, then it became friendship. I was very much involved in their life and I conducted part of my life there. Gradually, people moved from the hotel to trailers, in [Kibbutz] Hulda or Givat Hamatos [on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem] and I followed them.”
Since Operation Moses, and more intensively after Operation Solomon, the Ethiopian community became part of the religious melting pot, its members compelled to affiliate themselves with the existing religious communities in Israeli Jewish society. Those among the new immigrants who remained traditionally religious were welcomed with open arms by the religious-Zionist movement and by Shas, but were compelled to adopt Orthodox Judaism. Those who cast off religion seemed to lose all interest in tradition, above all the tradition of their forebears. Only a dwindling number of the older segment of the community continue to cling to the ancient Ethiopian tradition and to obey the kesim, who in certain places conduct worship, ritual slaughter and funerals.
The Religious Services Ministry employs a few dozen kesim, but they are an aging group and officially are not authorized to engage in “hard” religious matters such as marriage and circumcision. The Ethiopian tradition is a vanishing world, above all for the Ethiopians themselves. Only a few young people in Israel have learned the work of the kesim, even though every week sees the death of another aged kes, one of those who safeguarded the tradition of his forefathers devotedly, only to see it vanish in the land of his yearning, the Land of Israel.
Blumert was not only a witness to the formation of this melting pot; he played an active role in it. In his senior year in high school, the whole religious-Zionist movement was afire with a sense of mission to integrate the new immigrants. The young Blumert started to serve as an interpreter, on a volunteer basis, for the religious organizations that operated in the trailer camps that housed the Ethiopians. He also started to teach formally in Jerusalem’s Machon Meir ulpan – a kind of higher yeshiva for students who were not raised in the religious-Zionist movement, and which also took in Ethiopians. When he began his studies at Mercaz Harav, he became close to one of the most influential figures in the religious-Zionist movement, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, the head of the yeshiva, who had just concluded his tenure as chief rabbi of Israel.
“When I was a student at Mercaz, my connection with the community underwent a quantum leap,” Blumert says. “We used to visit the trailer camps, and the need arose for a liaison with the kesim. The kesim wanted to know who the people who arrived to worship with the Ethiopian children were – were they ‘for us or against us?’ This was how my first connection with kesim was formed, at the Bat Hatzor trailer camp [near Gedera]. Youths from Bnei Akiva [youth movement], from Mercaz Harav and other yeshivas would come every Shabbat to form a minyan [a quorum of 10 men] in the trailer camps, in order to conduct the prayers the way they are conducted for children in the first grade. This was done with the authorization of the kesim. At this stage, Rav Avrum [Rabbi Shapira] himself made me the liaison with the kesim.”
Drawing the line
Blumert views his appointment as an calling. “Because I had connections both with the Ethiopians and with Rav Avrum, I took advantage of the situation to learn what the rabbi really thought about the Ethiopian immigrants, to learn about all the issues of religious law that were involved and, as far as possible, to be helpful and supportive,” Blumert says. “He asked me to study all the books on the subject, on the grounds that this was a precept that could not be fulfilled by others. I made constant progress. I studied at Mercaz for three and a half years and in this period I met more and more kesim, until I reached the top one, Kes Menashe, who has since died. He was then 90 years old, the eldest of the kesim in Israel, and he had been among the senior kesim in Ethiopia as well. He was a Jew whose house was always open. At that time, he lived in Rehovot.
“The first time I entered his home,” Blumert adds, “he immediately sat me down on the sofa and started to teach me as though we had known each other for years. I learned a great deal from him over a long period about the community’s traditions. I was like a member of the family and I would even spend Shabbat in Rehovot so I could visit him.”
That connection led the young Blumert to his first crossroad, where his commitment to halakha (Jewish religious law ) overcame his desire to draw close to the Ethiopian tradition. “A few kesim suggested that I myself be appointed a kes,” he relates. “It was sufficiently serious for Kes Menashe to give me a shash – the head covering worn by a kes. But on a personal level I declined to formally become a kes.”
“I was happy at the offer, but I didn’t want to become a kes officially, because it involved a ritual act I did not wish to perform. I did not agree to do the required actions, namely to slaughter animals in a ritual manner. The demand is, as in Parashat Shemini [Book of Leviticus], to sacrifice a bull and a ram as part of the appointment to the priesthood. Sacrifices were made in Ethiopia, but in terms of religious law it is forbidden as shehutei hutz [the prohibition to slaughter sacrificial animals outside the Temple grounds]. It resembled a sacrifice, so I did not want to do it. Formally, there was no appointment, but one of the kesim still dubbed me the ‘white kes,’ and it stuck.”
Blumert may have refused to become a kes, but before that he had done something that even today, 16 years later, is still considered exceptional in Israel: He married an Ethiopian woman. He and his wife, Esther, now have five daughters and a son. She declines to be interviewed, for reasons of modesty, and the girls, too – who attend a religious school for girls – will not be photographed or submit to an interview. “Everyone thinks I learned Amharic from my wife, but my wife is actually a Tigray-Tigrinya [from the northern region of Ethiopia] and does not speak Amharic,” Blumert says. “On the street, people sometimes say hello to us in Amharic. She doesn’t even hear it, and to the surprise of the people I reply in her place and sometimes launch into a lively discussion in Amharic.”
He first met Esther at the start of his studies in Mercaz Harav. At the yeshiva he befriended a group of Ethiopians who were studying at Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, a settlement south of Bethlehem. One of them, who later became an Orthodox rabbi, suggested Blumert meet his female cousin. “The fellows from Har Etzion sometimes visited Mercaz, where I was studying. We became friends, and his suggestion was alluring. We were 20, and a year later we were married.”
When you were married, in 1995, you were probably the only mixed Israeli-Ethiopian couple. Did you view it as a daring move?
“I so much lived the community, loved it and felt part of it that I thought this could be something very good. I didn’t plan it – I had dated white girls – but in some way the match with the woman who became my wife was the next logical step in the life I had built until then. It’s true that I threw in my lot with the community. In retrospect, I think that from that moment in the 11th grade when I decided to go to the hotel after Shabbat, I was totally drawn in, things lurched out of control. There is no rational explanation. The hand of the Lord was on me. The pace of things, as you see, was dizzying. It’s a mission of some kind; even my wife sometimes says I drive her crazy. I am always busy with Ethiopians and more Ethiopians.”
How did your peers react to the news?
“First of all, before the wedding, I asked Rav Avrum. I asked him a halakhic question about the Judaism issue, because some rabbis were skeptical. He of course gave his approval, but after the halakhic question I asked if the rabbi thought it was also good. He replied with these words: ‘Why did we bring them to the Land of Israel if it is impossible to marry them?’ I had no other questions. In terms of the social milieu, the reactions ranged from ‘wonderful’ to ‘well done,’ or ‘well done, I could never do it.’ People felt it was a logical step that they were incapable of taking, but they were happy with it.”
But Israeli society, including the secular part, is quite conservative about such matters.
“For both of us, it is not something different. It is of no interest to my wife, plays no role for her. We are often asked, as a couple, what characterizes our home. We do not feel there is anything different. The children do not feel there is something different. It is so natural – I am even amazed that people are curious about it.”
As the father of Ethiopian children, what kind of reactions would you say the children get?
“Overall, nothing. There are, here and there, a couple of kids who pester them, but that’s nothing. They are very dominant, happy children. I also get reactions of ‘well done’ and of great liking for my children, too. In any event, because I am a person with status in the society, people can’t say it. I don’t know what they say behind my back. To my face no one will say anything bad about Ethiopians. If I were considered a ‘street person,’ people would say I was crazy, but I cannot be viewed like that. There are 80 or 90 people in Bat Yam who attend classes that I give regularly. People cannot be scornful of that. From my point of view, that too is an accomplishment.”
Isn’t “well done” a reaction that reflects conservatism? Your family life is not an avocation, but simply your life.
“That is true, but I am happy that people have a high regard for it. Overall, many people in society like Ethiopians and view them as gentle, good people. Not enough to marry them, but many would like to see them integrated into society. So a remark like ‘well done’ does come from an idealistic place. Everyone likes to be complimented, but that is not the story. I feel that without having intended it, I am privileged to sanctify the Lord’s name, even when shopping at the supermarket. Almost every step I take brings happiness to people. We are invited, as a family, to give talks at educational institutions. Outwardly there is interest in us, inwardly not. We never sat at the Shabbat table and talked about our being a special family. And I wouldn’t want that, either.”
Do mixed couples come to consult with you?
“Just this year six couples like that visited us. I performed the marriage ceremony for two of them. Last Shabbat I heard about another couple who married, and two weeks ago I was the officiating rabbi for a marriage.”
Why do they come to you?
“What they really want is reinforcement vis-a-vis their milieu. If couples come to see me, it’s generally because they face opposition from their surroundings. They need reinforcement for their path. The couples themselves generally have no cultural problem – the fact is they are in love and want to get married. Sometimes couples tell me their parents ask them what will happen in the future, how will they get along? What do I tell them? I say it’s not the parents who are getting married. True, there are situations in which the threat looms of a complete rift between the couple and the parents on one side, but the halakha says its piece on this subject: When it comes to marriage, the parents do not decide. It’s good to hear them out, but they are not the ones who decide.
“I just had a visit from a couple in which the groom’s parents are being bullheaded and are not even willing to see the bride. The parents have no rational explanation. And I am going to perform the marriage ceremony for the couple, in spite of the parents’ opposition. For four years the parents have been holding the couple back. They have no logical explanation for preventing the marriage, and it is not a case of halakhic doubt. Anyway, the parents are secular. It’s the couple’s decision. The parents are not a function. They are a function in terms of good and correct advice, but not when it comes to the actual decision.”
Is there a difference between mixed secular and mixed religious couples?
“There are many mixed religious couples. The religious among them take a greater interest in the halakhic aspect. They want to be sure that they [the Ethiopians] are authentically Jewish, because there are some people who hesitate a little, some rabbis who raise doubts, and that has caused a certain lack of clarity about the halakhic aspect. People want to hear a religious-Zionist stance from me, and here I can only represent Rav Avrum. His approach was to draw people closer and to overcome a halakhic dispute that might have arisen. The goal was to surmount it, not create it. The rabbinate demanded ‘precautionary conversion,’ in order to overcome the doubts. For a time they followed that practice, and then they stopped.”
Even though he has become part of the Ethiopian community, Blumert perceives himself first of all as a rabbi, as a man of halakha, and not as “one of them” – of the Ethiopians. He will not preach the upholding of the Ethiopian Jewish traditions if they clash with the halakha – and there are quite a few clash points. He does not consider himself a spokesman for the community, and it’s unlikely that he considers himself its representative. Indeed, as an Ashkenazi living close to the Ethiopian community, he is not afraid to speak out even if what he says is not politically correct. He accuses young Ethiopians of forgetting the community’s ancient traditions, is against the policy of integrating Ethiopians into the education system, and, above all, as an Orthodox rabbi, he supports “precautionary conversion” – the sweeping procedure that contributed mightily to the traumatic insult suffered by Ethiopians arriving in Israel.
A short history of conversion
At the start of the wave of immigration from Ethiopia, the Chief Rabbinate obliged all immigrants to undergo giyur lehumra (precautionary conversion) because of doubts raised about their Jewishness by Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis. However, in 1984 the rabbinate adopted as its official policy the well-known halakhic ruling that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – the spiritual leader of Shas – issued a decade earlier, which held that there was no doubt about the Jewishness of the Falasha, the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews ). From this point on, instead of the demand to undergo conversion, members of Beta Israel wishing to marry had to undergo a “clarification of Jewishness.”
This procedure is carried out under the watch of the chief rabbi of Ethiopian Jewry, Yosef Hadane, who authorizes most marriages after checking the genealogies from Ethiopia. Only those who do not receive an authorization of Jewishness and still want to marry are compelled to undergo precautionary conversion in Israel. (Policy toward Falashmura – members of the Beta Israel who converted to Christianity in Ethiopia – is different and more stringent. ) Blumert says that, as an official of the Chief Rabbinate, he is committed to the official policy, but on a personal level his halakhic approach is more conservative.
What is your position on precautionary conversion?
“No one asks me – today the law is not in my hands. The present policy is clarification of Jewishness. Whoever wants to marry goes to Rabbi Hadane and a check is made going a few generations back. There are certain families who are known to be Jewish, and other families with which there is a problem. A clarification is made. It’s the same as is done with the Jews of Russia, the same as is done in all kinds of other places. The majority are valid Jews, the minority not, and then they undergo precautionary conversion. I am not enough of an authority to have an opinion on the subject. I am a pupil of Rav Avrum, that is clear, and on the other hand I hold a state position and today do what the Chief Rabbinate says.”
What does the halakha say, as you understand it?
“I’ll tell you, precautionary conversion was very lenient in halakha, and not stringent. If precautionary conversion had been carried out, those about whom there was a doubt would have been given the benefit of the doubt, because they all would have been converted. They would not have searched in everyone’s guts. Beyond the halakhic truth of that, I see it as very sharp-sighted. These days, a file is opened for everyone and quite a few cases are discovered of people about whom there is a problem, and then there are complaints about Rabbi Hadane: ‘Where do you get off doubting us?’ It’s not that there is a basic doubt about their Jewishness. It’s a case of removing doubt for marriage only, where a stricter approach is taken.”
What was the situation with your wife?
“In the first two years [of immigration], until 1984, everyone did precautionary conversion all-inclusively. She arrived as a girl in 1982.”
Many Ethiopian immigrants speak about this as a wound that does not heal.
“I think the subject is overblown. It is talked about as a traumatic event, but that only happened after people said it was a traumatic event. I don’t think it was traumatic … I don’t know, I don’t want to speak for them.”
Wasn’t it traumatic for your wife?
“I don’t recall that the subject came up. My mother-in-law said it was a bit insulting, but, alright, you move forward.”
It’s not clear who exactly moves forward when even Hadane – who is identified with Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party – describes the demand for precautionary conversion as a stinging insult that has not been erased even after 20 years. In a conversation Hadane held recently with Ethiopian yeshiva students, he told them about their patriarchs and matriarchs: “People thought, We will get to the Land of Israel and there we will be purified, sanctified. But the moment they arrived, they were received by inexperienced people. There was incorrect explanation about the conversion issue. They were spoken to very harshly. Women who used to go to the mikveh [Jewish ritual purification bath] suddenly stopped. They were told about rumors that mikvehs in Israel contain conversion material that converts people automatically, so every woman who went to the mikveh, for her niddah [ritual purity after menstruation] thought she was immediately being converted. So, to this day, when the mikveh is mentioned, it is truly frightening. People remained with the fear even now.”
The Ethiopian Haredi yeshiva students with whom Hadane spoke are taking part in a prestigious program under the auspices of Mercaz Harav. The program is named for Doron Meherete, one of the eight yeshiva students who was murdered in a terrorist attack at the yeshiva in 2008 (Meherete had immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1991 ). Meherete was studying to become a rabbi when he was killed. The program was founded by an American rabbi from Beit Shemesh, Michael Cytrin, who heard about Meherete after the attack and obtained funding for scholarships to be awarded to students in yeshivas throughout Israel – mainly from the religious-Zionist movement – in order “to create a new generation of Ethiopian leaders” in the religious realm. Hadane is especially worried about the situation of young Ethiopians. “The young people have all kinds of complexes and are totally bewildered,” he told the yeshiva students.
Shame in reverse
A physical manifestation of that bewilderment was visible at last month’s wedding in Rishon Letzion, which was attended by old and young, traditional and secular, though it was clear there is almost no point of contact between them. During the long wait for the ceremony to begin, the old folk, dressed in traditional white robes and white brimmed hats, sit silently on the roof of the banquet hall, while the young people crowd around the bar in a hip-hop and R&B;atmosphere, exuding a sense of youthfulness and freedom. Who knows if Abraham wasn’t black, as the Ehud Banai song goes, but the young people seem less into Sarah and Abraham and more into Jay-Z and Beyonce, including smoothed hair, peroxide and cleavage.
People at the event tell me about strict rules now being enforced at weddings in the Ethiopian community. These rules prevent young people from sneaking in uninvited in order to drink free alcohol, and in order to stop genuine guests from losing control.
Before the ceremony, the bride and groom, Tami and Kasao, are hanging out with a group of handsome and beautiful groomsmen and bridesmaids in the offices of the banquet hall’s management, enjoying a bottle of Chivas and chain-smoking American cigars. How did they get to Blumert? “I heard about him from friends, and I liked the idea,” the bride smiles. “There is an older crowd and a younger crowd here, and he knows how to combine them. I didn’t want the rabbi to conduct the ceremony only in Amharic or only in Hebrew. He makes it really chic.”
In the meantime, the groom has gone to another room to sign the marriage contract with Blumert. Some time later, the group emerges onto the roof and waits at the edge of the white carpet that leads to the wedding canopy. The DJ invites the groom’s parents to take their place beneath the canopy, to the sounds of traditional Ethiopian music. They are followed by the groomsmen and bridesmaids, the young women in tight dresses, the young men in suits with black ties and glittering hats. “Where’s the applause?” the DJ asks, and the bridesmaids dance their way to the canopy, waving their arms to the sound of Michael Jackson. Only after everyone is finally in place do the bride and groom emerge to the backdrop of Gad Elbaz’s “Mizmor Ledavid” (“Psalm to David” ). Fireworks are launched into the skies of Rishon Letzion. The icing on the cake is provided by Rabbi Blumert who, since his appointment, has taken to wearing a Haredi hat which covers a large knitted skullcap. He begins in Amharic: “My brothers and sisters, good evening.”
After the ceremony, emotional young people crowd around him and tell him he is their role model, gush about what a thrill it was to hear an Ashkenazi frenji speaking Amharic better than them. “I have already performed 50 marriage ceremonies and I am still very moved,” Blumert says. Netanel, the groom’s older brother, tries to decipher the secret of Blumert’s popularity. “He is an Israeli sabra, white, a frenji, who speaks fluent Amharic. These young people are usually ashamed to speak Amharic, but when they see him they feel shame in the opposite direction – because they do not know the language and he does. He causes them culture shock, but in a positive sense. Unlike me, who immigrated at the age of 17 and experienced the Ethiopian culture, they experienced nothing.” Netanel talks about a deep cultural crisis that afflicts the community’s young people, who know nothing of their parents’ way of life. “In this situation,” he says, “I think it’s preferable for them to become Orthodox rather than cut themselves off. I am very proud of the Ethiopian rabbis. I wish many young people would go in that direction and not in the opposite direction.”
The place of the kesim is gradually being taken by members of the second generation of Ethiopian immigrants who are studying for the rabbinate under the auspices of religious-Zionist yeshivas or Shas. In the past few years, the Religious Services Ministry has appointed nearly 20 rabbis to Ethiopian communities as part of its affirmative action policy; eight of them are new posts, including the one in Bat Yam. The rabbis do not ignore the problematic aspects of the penetration of the rabbinic halakha into a community that has never been familiar with it. Blumert, for example, regrets the fact that there is no Ethiopian prayer book in Hebrew and also the fact that the Ethiopians were quick to adopt the prayer formula of the Mizrahi communities – those of Middle East and North African origin. “Nowadays,” he says, “an Ethiopian who is religiously observant is not Ethiopian-religious, he is Moroccan-religious.”
In his conversation with the Ethiopian yeshiva students, Hadane said: “Our community needs leaders of stature who will take the community on the path of Torah and precepts. This community lived as a religious community that maintained Judaism all along, across the generations. People gave their lives for Judaism, for God. What is happening here in Israel? On the one hand, we have a pleasant duty to respect the previous generation. We must respect our leaders, the elderly. Our community. On the other hand, there is halakha. We must behave according to the halakha. Sometimes there is a bit of a contradiction in preserving the way. What do we do in this situation? These are very important and far from simple matters. If you come and say this is forbidden and this is forbidden and this is forbidden, people will not accept that. In our community, too, not everyone is cut from the same cloth. So we need to go very slowly. Very slowly.”
The most highly charged religious issue in the transition to halakha-based religious observance is the slaughter of cattle and fowl, which was – and still is – traditionally done at a number of places by the kesim. This is a divisive issue within the Ethiopian community, because the Orthodox among them no longer trust the slaughter performed by the kesim in terms of halakhic regulations.
Hadane told the yeshiva students about an Ethiopian community in the center of the country, where a bitter dispute broke out after the Orthodox Ethiopian rabbi spoke publicly about the halakhic flaws in the ritual slaughter carried out by the kesim. “The rabbi spoke about all the serious problems, and what happened is that some accepted what he said and others did not. The community split. What is the result? You hold a party, a wedding, a bar mitzvah – some come and some do not. These are people who just yesterday sat together, a community where everyone accepted everyone. There was tremendous tension. I was told about it and went there. I didn’t realize how serious it was. I went once, and the second time a police car was summoned to the synagogue. Policemen inside the building. Real tension.
“I arrived,” Hadane continued. “Everyone rose and received me well. I spoke. One person stood up and said, ‘We do not want this rabbi, he caused the split, he caused a dispute.’ I told them, ‘From now on, food is a private matter. I myself do not eat in every home, there is no need. It is important for you to be together, for good and for ill. Food? Because of food? That is not right. If I want to be strict with myself, why not? I can be strict, but you – why oblige others? I had to work hard to bring this rabbi here. The government sent him, and you are going to fire him?’ Everyone fell silent. In the end I said, ‘People, let us walk together, all together. Pray together, for good and for ill, walk together. Food? Whoever wants, will eat, whoever does not want, let him not eat.’
“So my advice is that we cannot decide for every family what it will do. We [the Orthodox rabbis] say halakha as it is. What happens in the home? Everyone will decide.”
It was against this background – of spiritual crisis and disappointments that the Ethiopians find it hard to cope with, while Israeli society prefers to turn away – that Blumert was appointed rabbi of the Bat Yam community. He himself admits that in an orderly world, in which the ancient Ethiopian tradition would be preserved, he would not have been appointed.
Blumert was chosen unanimously in August 2009 by a committee headed by the chairman of the Bat Yam religious council, through a tender for the position of rabbi of the city’s Ethiopian community. The threshold requirements, he says, were rabbinic ordination and fluency in Amharic – conditions that posed no problem for him. After it emerged that the tender had been won by an Ashkenazi rabbi over Ethiopian candidates, Religious Services Minister Margi and his director general, Ohana, decided to suspend the tender. Margi, an MK for Shas, was quoted as excoriating “clerks” from the religious-Zionist movement, which “craved the bounty” – meaning positions designated for Ethiopian rabbis, too. In the wake of a subsequent procedure, it was decided to appoint Blumert, despite the vigorous objections of elements in Shas. Blumert was officially appointed to the post in May.
According to Margi, the appointment was made “beyond the strict letter of the law.” A spokesman for the Religious Services Ministry says now that the tender for the rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Bat Yam “was intended for a member of the Ethiopian community” and not just for a rabbi who speaks Amharic. The point was that he, or one of his parents, should be Ethiopian-born, in accordance with civil service regulations. “The ministry’s approach, even before Minister Margi took office, was that the position should not be approved for anyone who is not classified as a member of the community, even if he is connected to the community in some way,” the spokesman said. “At the same time, after many requests were received, both from the Ethiopian community in Bat Yam and from other public representatives, the subject was reconsidered and after due consideration and beyond the strict letter of the law, the selection of Rabbi Blumert was approved.”
But is the issue here the color of Blumert’s skin or the religious identity he represents? Ziva Mekonen-Degu, the executive director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, is against the appointment of a rabbi for the Ethiopian community as a form of affirmative action. “Does the Moroccan community have a rabbi?” she asks. “A person of Ethiopian descent who received ordination from the Chief Rabbinate did all the required studies. He is a regular rabbi. Why can’t he serve all the residents of the neighborhood, and not have to be a rabbi only for people of Ethiopian origin?”
Blumert or others like him “might be knowledgeable and fluent in the language and be able to communicate with the community,” she continues. “But what is his attitude toward the heritage of Ethiopian Jewry? How does he integrate it into religious life? How does he view the community and accept its traditions? That is really a question. It is also a question for rabbis of Ethiopian descent. There are a great many rabbis like that who have no interest in continuing our heritage; they only follow the ways of the rabbinate. It is not only Haredi Ethiopians, but also the religious-Zionist group. They will not eat meat of animals slaughtered by kesim, because they regard it as not halakhic. They will come to the Sigd holiday [which symbolizes the acceptance of the Torah] in order to be part [of the community], but they do not really respect or observe any tradition of the community.”
According to Mekonen-Degu, the religious establishment is out to make Orthodoxy the exclusive model for the Ethiopian community, to supplant the vanishing world of the kesim. “The Religious Services Ministry and the State of Israel did their duty by the kesim elegantly. They give them a little more than the minimum wage and tell them to provide service for their community. It’s not that they perform marriage ceremonies for members of the community or examine their Jewishness or officiate at the meaningful ceremonies. They are told, ‘Keep quiet. We will give you money as long as you do not intervene in religious matters.’ That way we can say, ‘Look, Israel is giving the kesim their due place.’ But in reality it is silencing them. A few years ago, there was a decision to recognize the absolutely last 13 kesim . From the state’s point of view, the Ethiopians have to integrate, and that means from now on there will be rabbis and not kesim.”
But does the problem reside within the establishment? Has the Ethiopian community ever discussed the penetration of Orthodox Judaism? Are the young people even interested in the ancient tradition?
Mekonen-Degu: “We in the Ethiopian community are so busy with sheer survival, with everyday matters, that we do not have time to deal with those issues. Obviously we need to address the question of whether we want to be separate with a religion of our own – to be, say, like the Samaritan community. That is a genuine issue. But when we look at the government’s policy, it is clear what is being decided for us. They are trying to blur, to erase, not to leave a trace of ancient, traditional Ethiopian Judaism. They want everything to be done according to the halakha. That is the policy of the rabbinate. Many would like us to be swallowed up in one form or another, both in terms of religion and in terms of color, and for our presence to be minimal. The religious institutions are the most salient factors in this connection.”
But is it a matter of skin color? Your criticism is aimed primarily at Ethiopian rabbis and not at rabbis like Blumert…
“In the final analysis, I am perceived on the street according to my skin color,” Mekonen-Degu says. “Color plays a part, whether we like it or not. It is present. But when I talk about the appropriation or extinction of culture, it makes no difference whether it’s a rabbi with white skin or a rabbi with black skin but who came from the same institute. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The solution is not good intentions, the issue here is the conception.”
Recently, Mekonen-Degu relates, she was invited to the wedding of the daughter of a well-known kes. “He stood there, beneath the canopy, but the ceremony was performed by a young Orthodox rabbi from the Ethiopian community. Without the rabbi’s authorization, the kes’ daughter would not have been married. He is a kes whom I very much admire, with tremendous knowledge and seniority. But he stands to the side and there is a rabbi who performs the marriage ceremony for his daughter. Why? Because the rabbinate does not let him sign. Ten years ago, we were not in this situation. The day will come when we will pay the price for this loss – the whole Israeli society is losing.”
Blumert agrees with this analysis, but aims his criticism at young members of the community who have abandoned their mother Torah. It is this abandonment, he says, that justifies the appointment of an Ashkenazi rabbi like him as the rabbi in the Ethiopian community.
“When you say ‘Rabbi from the Ethiopian community,’ the fact is there is no such thing,” Blumert says. “An Ethiopian who studies to become a rabbi leaves his forefathers’ tradition and becomes a rabbi. He is not a rabbi – there is no such thing as an Ethiopian rabbi. It’s an invention. It’s the biggest lie that this story contains. If he were appointed a kes, that would be something else. There were no rabbis in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian rabbi in Israel does not dress like an Ethiopian, does not think like an Ethiopian, does not behave like an Ethiopian, so in what way is he more of an Ethiopian than me? Because he was born there? Is skin color a consideration?
“Personally, the Ethiopian religious tradition is in my blood,” Blumert continues. “Why can my son be an Ethiopian rabbi but I can’t? What is the difference between me and an Ethiopian rabbi who, in the perception of the community, has left his tradition? In what way is he preferable to a rabbi who possesses the rabbinic traditions, like me, and studied in a yeshiva, and went to learn the Ethiopian traditions? From an Ethiopian point of view, what makes him preferable? That is the point.”
What went wrong? You are describing a shocking crisis, spiritual annihilation.
“I call it suicide. In Ethiopia, young people below the age of 30 were hardly involved in religious life. The kesim conducted the prayers, the old people joined them, others were passive. There was not even a conception of bar mitzvah. Young Ethiopians in Israel are not connected to religion; in the synagogues that are run by kesim, you will see worshippers aged 50 and above. This is detrimental to the young people twice over: the loss of their ties to the tradition, and because of what happened to them in Israel. It is precisely because the Israeli society was skeptical of their Jewishness that I would expect them to preserve the traditions more piously.
“Today a completely secular person came to me and asked me to accept him as a Jew. He himself doesn’t believe in it. Someone here in the city told me, ‘If you validate the ritual slaughter of the kesim, I will support you.’ He said, ‘You cannot throw a 3,000-year tradition into the refuse bin.’ I wanted to reply – but did not – ‘When your wife is in niddah, is she at home or in the gojo [a ‘purification hut’ outside Ethiopian villages]?’ You can’t have it both ways and say, ‘Accept me with my traditions, even if I do not uphold them.’ The older generation upholds them as a principle. They will not eat meat koshered by the rabbinate, in order to say ‘I am just as good a Jew.’ I take my hat off to people like that. I come from a place of respect, but the young people do not know who they are.”
What came first? When you and fellow yeshiva students came to the trailer camps brimming with good intentions, didn’t you yourselves abet this spiritual crisis?
“What happened is that the community became secular, and only a few became religious. We did not create a spiritual vacuum. I am certainly not from a place like that. I was the one who constantly fought so that the young Ethiopian would know his tradition, if only at the informative level. From my point of view, it is preferable for him to behave like that, and not according to the halakha. The crisis occurred without connection to us. It was just that the young people took no interest in their elders, they don’t care. Many turned to secularism. If the Ethiopian community had preserved its traditions, I would not even have competed. I would not intervene in their life. I would not perpetrate spiritual annihilation, as you call it. I would not do it.”
You are a symptom of a serious crisis in the community. Your very existence here is the consequence of a tragic spiritual crisis.
“That is so.”
Fraught with mystery
I held my third and final meeting with Rabbi Blumert in the Ethiopian community’s Beit Yisrael Synagogue in Bat Yam. The plaque says the synagogue was built “In memory of the members of the Ethiopian community who perished on their way to the Land of Israel.” It’s a regular-looking synagogue – benches, tables, a small women’s section, a Torah ark with a velvet curtain – but it is run according to ancient tradition and not like regular synagogues. Here, Rabbi Blumert is a guest and the headman is Kes Dineko Hadane, the spiritual leader of the Ethiopian community in Bat Yam. The kes conducts prayers here in the old style, in the Geez language – a long and prolonged prayer in which he raises his arms, and his voice fills the surrounding space, reciting words in an ancient tongue, in a lilting melody fraught with mystery. Sometimes he accompanies himself with a drum and bell.
We arranged to meet at the time of the evening prayers on a weekday. Apart from the kes and Blumert, only two elderly worshippers were in the synagogue, both of them wearing hats and with wooden canes. But the prayers were held without waiting for a minyan, as the rabbinical halakha demands. The kes says that on holidays the place is packed, but that three worshippers, including Blumert, is a normal turnout on weekdays.
The kes does not speak Hebrew but heaps compliments on the rabbi in Amharic. “When we came out of Egypt, God made us a ladder, through Moses, to receive the Torah,” he allegorizes dulcetly. “Part of the ladder that we have in the Land of Israel is people like the rabbi. There are many from the Ethiopian community who were born here in Israel, but someone who grew up here and studied here, and joined us even though he is not an Ethiopian – that is something we are not accustomed to. It is one of the rungs on the ladder.”
The kes himself completed his religious studies in Ethiopia, but was ordained by the elders of the kesim in Israel. He sends his children to an Orthodox school in Bat Yam, but hopes that “with God’s help, my boy will one day become a kes. For that, the first thing that is needed is piety.” What are the odds that the son of Kes Hadane will follow in his father’s footsteps? What are the odds that he will follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Yosef Hadane and Rabbi Blumert?
Blumert is a well-known figure in Bat Yam, in both the Ethiopian and the religious-Zionist communities. As he sees it, this is the time to switch gears: Initially he wants to be a sounding board for members of the Beta Israel and Falashmura who are undergoing conversion. To begin with, he is seeking the cooperation of the kes in an attempt to make the synagogue a meaningful community center.
“I do not make a move without the kes,” Blumert says. “I am very careful not to impose myself, and until a month ago I did not enter the synagogue for fear that people would think I was trying to undermine someone. My idea is to work parallel to the kes. Not to supplant anyone. I want this place to be a center for everyone, including the Falashmura, and for it to have an Ethiopian atmosphere. It should be a model of integrating the Ethiopian tradition with the halakha, the old with the new. I do not want to steal anything from anyone, and I know the way ahead is long.”
The Ethiopian community
Comprise 1.5% of Israel’s total population
119,700 Israelis of Ethiopian origin (as of 2010):
78,900 were born in Ethiopia
40,800 were born in Israel
70% of Israelis of Ethiopian origin live in 17 communities in Israel, most of them in low socioeconomic settings
0.7% of people who received B.A. degrees in Israel in 2009 were from the Ethiopian community
2,060 Israelis of Ethiopian origin have academic degrees (250 have master’s degrees)
14% of the community was unemployed in 2006-2007
10% of juveniles detained in Israel in 2006 were from the community
Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, Brookdale Institute, Knesset Research and Information Center