THE UNEXPECTED RABBI
He comes from a long line of ‘kesim.’ But after 16 years in Israel, alienated by the Orthodox establishment, Yafet Alemu is about to become the first Ethiopian non-Orthodox rabbi.
AS A BOY LIVING IN THE village of Ambober in northern Ethiopia, Yafet Alemu dreamed of becoming a kes, or priest, just like his teacher, Uri Ben-Baruch. A kes was both the spiritual and temporal leader of his village, organizing prayers, mediating disputes and intervening with the authorities when a poor man had been excessively taxed.
Every morning Yafet sat with a dozen other children in a circle on the ground, repeating after Ben-Baruch the prayers written in Ethiopia’s sacred language, Ge’ez. Soon Yafet knew the entire Book of Psalms by heart, chanting the words with a rapidity that discouraged mistakes. Then Ben-Baruch would explain the way of a kes: to receive every person graciously, even if you disagree with his ideas; to speak firmly but softly; to always respect your elders and never interrupt them; and most of all, to draw people close to God with patience and love.
Ben-Baruch recognized in Yafet an unusual refinement and intellectual strength. And he told his student that some day he would become a great kes, not just for one village but perhaps for the whole of Ethiopian Jewry.
Now, at age 40, Yafet Alemu is completing his studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school in Jerusalem, and in June 2000 he will be one of 21 rabbinic graduates – the first Ethiopian non-Orthodox rabbi. Some may see irony in Alemu’s journey from the traditional Judaism of Uri Ben-Baruch’s circle to the study hall of Schechter, where Alemu sits beside young women in Bukharan caps, learning Talmud along with Biblical criticism. But Alemu says that, at Schechter, he has found the way to reconcile the innocent faith of his childhood with his shattering encounter with modernity and the State of Israel.
Alemu is short, broad, goateed, with oriental-looking eyes stretched by a generous smile. Through all the upheavals of his life he hasn’t forgotten those early lessons of Ben-Baruch: He is soft-spoken, relentlessly gentle and refuses to criticize even those who attack him, like the young Ethiopian Orthodox rabbis who’ve spread the word that Alemu is “Reform” and a distorter of Judaism. “They don’t know anything about Conservative Judaism or Reform Judaism,” he says quietly. “They only repeat what they’ve been told by others.”
Alemu decided to go his own way while still in Ethiopia. Shortly after turning 14, he told his father that he no longer wanted to study to become a kes and wished instead to attend the local elementary school. The children in Ben-Baruch’s circle all wore white robes; Alemu was attracted by the colorful clothes at the state school.
At first his father was adamant: Yafet had come from a long line of kessim, and he would maintain the tradition. Ben-Baruch was devastated. But Yafet’s mother sided with her son, and finally his father relented. And so at age 14, Yafet Alemu began first grade. Half the day he studied, and half the day he watched his father’s cows in the field, using those solitary hours for prayer.
Within two years, he completed elementary school and won a scholarship to a high school in the city of Gondar. Before leaving the village, he went to see Ben-Baruch, who told him: There are many good things among the gentiles, but also many temptations. Remember that your senses are meant for serving God.
In 1981 Alemu entered medical school at the University of Addis Ababa. Two years later, Ethiopian Jews began leaving their villages and walking toward Sudan on their way to Israel, and Alemu decided he, too, wanted to reach the Holy Land. American Jewish activists in Addis arranged a student visa for him to enter the U.S., from where he planned immediately to proceed to Israel. But on boarding a plane for New York, he was removed by police and taken for interrogation on suspicion of trying to flee the country. His papers were confiscated, and he had to report to the police daily. Fearing imprisonment, he fled on a bus heading in the direction of Sudan.
Soldiers repeatedly searched the bus along the way. Alemu, who lacked the travel documents to move from one region of the country to another, managed to evade them. “Every encounter was a miracle,” he says. “I fasted and prayed to God.”
Undertaking the last part of the journey by foot, Alemu was attacked near the Sudanese border by robbers who stole what little money he had, as well as his shirt and pants, leaving him stranded in his underclothes. Hungry, almost naked, lost and alone, he cried out to God, “You always revealed Your power when the people of Israel needed you. I need Your power now.” A few hours later, he met a trader who took pity on him and brought him to the local strong man, who ordered his loyalists to find the bandits and actually retrieved Alemu’s money and clothes.
In Sudan, he connected with other Ethiopian Jews, and was flown to Israel in 1983, enrolling in a nursing program in Tel Aviv. Israeli secular culture – loud, restless, contemptuous of tradition – baffled and disoriented him. But so did Orthodox Judaism. Ethiopian Judaism was based on the Bible, not the Talmud, and the Israeli rabbinic establishment was ambivalent about accepting the Ethiopians as full Jews. Initially, the rabbis demanded that immigrants undergo a “renewal of the covenant,” which included ritual immersion and the drawing of blood in a “symbolic” circumcision, even though every Ethiopian Jewish male was already circumcised. Outraged, Alemu helped lead the protest campaign against the rabbis, including a five-week encampment outside the Chief Rabbinate’s headquarters in Jerusalem, in 1985. The encounter with Israeli Orthodoxy so disillusioned Alemu that, like many young Ethiopian immigrants, he became secular. He lost his faith not in God, but in Judaism.
“The religious establishment isn’t about religion but politics,” he says. “The Torah has many faces, but the establishment only recognized the face it knew. They managed to alienate a community whose whole identity was the simple and pure love of God.”
During one demonstration, a group of Schechter students came to express solidarity. Alemu became friendly with a French rabbinical student who invited him to visit Schechter. He was reluctant, wary of religion. Shortly after arriving in Israel, he had approached a yeshivah and had been told by one of its rabbis, “We’ll teach you how to be a good Jew.” That patronizing attitude infuriated him. But at Schechter he received a very different response. When he described the ritual bathing central to Ethiopian Jewish practice, a rabbi opened a Bible and cited the passage that had inspired that observance. “For the first time I met Israelis who were interested in my customs and gave a Torah value to my religious practice. I felt at home immediately.”
Didn’t the Americanness of Conservative Judaism feel strange to you?
“Just the opposite. Among Ethiopian Jews there is a very warm feeling toward American Jewry. We know that they did more than anyone to help us come home.”
Alemu felt attracted to the communal singing common in Conservative synagogues, which he found preferable to the hurried pace of a typical Orthodox service. Even mixed seating during prayer was familiar: “In my synagogue in Ethiopia, there was no separation between men and women. Families singing together to God – this is how Ethiopian Jews prayed.”
Inspired by this tolerant Judaism, he returned to religious observance. For the first time since coming to Israel, he says, he felt as though he’d finally reached Jerusalem. Throughout his rabbinic training, which began in 1995, he has continued working as a nurse at Hadassah hospital. His wife, Adna, is also a nurse, and they have four children, including two daughters now serving in the army. His two younger children attend liberal Orthodox schools.
His plan upon graduation is to open a beit midrash, or study hall, that will offer young Ethiopians a synthesis of normative halakhic Judaism with their own rapidly fading traditions. “Why should we lose our beautiful prayers? Why shouldn’t our young people be taught the way of love and respect we learned in Ethiopia?”
The day I met Alemu happened to be the Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of fasting and longing for Zion. In Israel, the Sigd has become a social and sometimes political gathering with little religious content. Alemu wants to transform it into a day of thanksgiving for the return to Israel, creating a new service for the event.
ALEMU IS NOT AT ALL CERTAIN about his future affiliation with the Conservative movement. Last year, at the movement’s invitation, he began teaching 25 Ethiopians in the southern town of Kiryat Malakhi. Then, in September, he happened to meet a Conservative official on the street, who told him, almost incidentally, that the movement was canceling funding for his class. That “undignified” treatment, Yafet says, makes him wonder whether the movement is really interested in reaching out to Ethiopians.
Yafet, you didn’t have enough problems with the rabbinic establishment as an Ethiopian? You had to become a Conservative rabbi too?
He throws back his head and laughs. “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform: These names don’t matter to Ethiopian Jews,” he says. “We’re in a state of spiritual emergency, and we need all the help we can get. I don’t want to fight anyone. I want to teach people to love religion, the way I was taught as a boy. Criticism doesn’t worry me. You serve God and go on.”