Though the Ethiopian sun beat down on our necks as we layed mortar and brick for the school’s foundation in Gondar, Ethiopia, no suntan lotion could prevent the mark our ancient discovery would bring us as we made our way through buried past of our Jewish family, the Jews of Ethiopia…
Last winter I had the distinct pleasure of joining the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) cohort of twenty-five young professionals on a journey to Ethiopia. Charged with passion for social justice, and a commitment to peoples in need, each of us brought a unique perspective on Judaism, Ethiopians and the world of poverty. Each of us came with stories; each longed to heal the fractured world, but none shared the perspective of being an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student who is empowered by his dual heritage of both African and European descent; who proudly identifies as a Jew of Color. None, that is, except me.
I was captured in a state of knowing that a part of my family once originated just west of Ethiopia, I was entangled in a state of feeling that I was among the few who were lucky enough to explore the story of the African Jews of yesteryear, and I was saddened by the living conditions of the “Third World,” and wondered how it got this way.
After an entire day of supplying medication to dozens of shifts of schoolchildren who get repeatedly sick because of the disease infested water, our JDC cohort began a new and uncharted journey through the tall grass on the outskirts of the Gondar village. Soon we saw a large enclosed area in the middle of the field. We hopped in. Dan, a member of the JDC year-long fellowship was the first one in, I was the second. “I’m pretty sure this is the Jewish cemetery,” he murmured as we took our first steps. Dumbstruck, I stammered “wh-where?…” He turned around to look at me, and then at the ground, then back at me and said sharply “right. here.” I felt lost for a moment, and then notice a rectangular formation of rocks and realized we were walking over graves.
After coming to my senses, I called for the group to go around the enclosed field and meet us at the other side. Dan, myself, and the few others plowed through until we were at the peripheral area. As we reached the end of the field, there were four tombstones standing strong with Amharic chalked onto the stone. Maybe they were wealthy Jews? A rabbinic family? Recent deaths (within the last 200 years)? we had no idea. Like Jacob in the Torah (Genesis 28:17), we did not know the greatness of this place… it struck me.
Standing around these graves we looked to one another. I realized no matter how far the cultural and religious ties from the reality of most of our current communities, as a future rabbi, as the only clergy on the trip, I knew words must be shared, and the silence had to be broken.
“One of the most vicious ways to go to war against a people is through destroying their culture and way of life. Many cultures would bury total cities to erase their opponents from history, and yet, the very fact that there is knowledge that there is a Jewish cemetery shows the intense commitment of our ancestors before us. Despite religious practice, wealth or pressures from the outside world, these Jews in their hundreds, stuck together. Child after child, parent after parent joined in life and as we see, in death with their Jewish roots.
“In a world of so much fragmentation, we must not mistake that brokenness will not find itself in the strongest of families. As we the Jewish people engage in the struggle unify our communities, let this experience remind us that if our ancestors died together, through all the troubles of exile, then we, the living, must live together despite all that challenges to do otherwise.”
We recited King David’s Pslams 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall lack nothing…” and we began our walk back to the center where our Jeeps and JDC personnel took us back to civilization. As the cohort was in the distance, I walked slowly and I took one last glance at the graves of my people, and said “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
So the sun may wane, and the mark may fade, but the blessing in the Amidah to “gather the exiles from the four corners of the earth,” will forever include not just those close to my community, but also our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, thousands of years old.
This modern Passover Miracle story is perfect for sharing with friends and family at your Seder.
At Passover, every person is supposed to feel as though he himself left Egypt. For me and the Jewish community of Uganda, we do not need to imagine. In our lifetime, we were rescued from ‘slavery’ and saved by divine intervention in order to celebrate.
When Field Marshal Iddi Amin Dada took power in Uganda by way of the gun in 1971, he outlawed Judaism and confiscated our synagogues and most of the Hebrew books. Practice of Judaism was punishable by death. He was a modern day Pharaoh. He gave the community two alternatives, either to convert to Islam or Christianity, or remain unaffiliated. He murdered anyone suspected of opposing his rule and judicial executions were the order of the time. Many Abayudaya feared for their lives and converted to the two majority religions, Islam and Christianity. However, things did not go well for the Christians either. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda was run over by army trucks in a stage-managed accident; and the chief Justice, who was also Christian, was shot dead on Amin’s orders.
Growing up during this era was a hard pill to swallow. Adults and children would shout insults at Jews and no one did anything to stop them. We were not permitted to wear any Jewish symbols including kippot. Nor were we allowed to appear anywhere near the synagogue premises. We dared only to pray and learn under the cover of the night in our bedrooms. My father, Rabbi Yondav Keki, was caught studying Torah in the Sukkah that he had built in the back yard of our house and only survived after the arresting officer demanded a bribe. Three leaders of the community, including Yaakov Were and Yaakov Kasakya, were arrested and tortured for collecting iron sheets that had been blown off the roof of the Moses Synagogue in Nabugoya.
In that same year when a hijacked plane full of Jews was held at Entebbe by Palestinian terrorists with the permission of Amin, a fast was secretly declared and silent prayers were conducted, each family praying in their bedrooms. The daring rescue of the hostages gave hope to community members that soon or later Amin would go.
This came to pass on Wednesday 11, April 1979, corresponding to 14 Nisan, 5739, Erev Pesach when the new Government, comprised of Ugandan rebels and Tanzanian troupes, declared freedom of worship. This was considered a miracle from above and was celebrated in a special style. More than four cups of 80% proof Uganda banana wine were served making everyone excessively happy by the end of the Seder. No more than 300 of the nearly 3,000 earlier members remained steadfast and loyal to Judaism, which makes me think that had Amin’s regime continued for another five years, the community would not have survived.
Passover remains a special moment for all us. I will always remember my first Seder ever. It is amazing that the reign of terror ended and that freedom of worship was reinstated at the season of freedom. Each year as the community grows, Passover is the moment that we celebrate both our ancient and modern freedom. With the help of Jews from around the world the synagogue that was destroyed is being rebuilt to be better and stronger than ever and the numbers of our community have nearly returned to their earlier size. That Uganda would have been a Jewish state had Herzl’s proposal been successful, that the hijackers chose Entebbe airport as their final resting place, and that Amin like Pharoah was humiliated on the Eve of Pesach could not have simply been a mere coincidence. It was our Passover miracle.
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Israeli Maor Sanbata came to the United States this past summer to be a counselor at Camp Be’chol Lashon. Born in Ethiopia, his personal experience opens a new perspective on what it means to be Jewish.
Tell us a little about your childhood.
I was born in a small village in Ethiopia called Amder close to the provincial capital city of Gondar. Even though I was young, I worked as a shepherd. My family lived as Jews, observing Shabbat, celebrating holidays, and reading Torah.
My grandfather was a Holy Man, a Kes. He had a special way of talking to God. He could make miracles. I saw them with my own eyes. In our village the houses are built one next to each other in a line. And there is a fire for cooking in each house. Once, a young wild girl started a fire in her hut. There was no fire department and if it had spread it would have burned down the whole row of houses. My grandfather bowed down to God and prayed the fire would not spread. And it did not. Not to any other building. So strong was his connection to God.
How did you come to Israel?
I specifically remember the longing to go to Israel. I will never forget the stories my mother would tell me of a Holy Land flowing with milk and honey, and praying to go to Jerusalem one day. In 1991, my mother and father and three of my sisters and three of my brothers walked for a full month from Gondar to Addis Ababa. From there, we came to Israel.
When I came to Israel, I did not know one word of Hebrew. I had never been to school. Never. I did not know how to read or write. They sent me to school and for three years I did not understand anything. Anything. But I’m smart and hard-working. I became a commander in the Israel Defense Forces. After my release from the army, I decided that only through education could I play a key role in Israeli society. I studied law and now advocate for Ethiopians in Israel.
Why did you come to Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Despite academic achievement and integration, I sometimes feel like a stranger in my country and some of the Israeli public doubts my Judaism. I work towards a time when not a single person will be judged because of his or her skin color or outlook on life and that all human beings are treated equally before God that created us all.
I identify with the ideology of the camp, to accept who you are and where you are from and no matter what kind of family you come from – black, white purple – be proud of who you are and your identity. I connect with this approach. This is my approach.
What surprised you about coming to the United States and Camp Be’chol Lashon?
Well it is my first time in America so everything is surprising. It is also surprising that there is an organization like this, that wants to create unity between people but not be embarrassed of who you are.
What do you think that the campers learned from you?
Israel is a country for Jews of all colors. They also learned about my story and successes and struggles. It is not always easy to be Black, Ethiopian, Jewish or Israeli. Also they learned that wherever you are there are the same issues of acceptance.
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It is an incredible responsibility to raise a child. In choosing foreign adoption, we have become parents to a beautiful daughter and added a new culture to our family life.
Our daughter, Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin, became legally ours on Nov 18th, 2013. As part of our adoption hearing we promised to bring her up with pride in her Ethiopian heritage. This was a joyful promise to make as we have fallen in love with the beauty of our daughter’s homeland. However, the reality of making it happen must go beyond clothing and food and reach the core of Ethiopian values and pride.
The first time we met our daughter at the Ethiopian orphanage the nanny told us what a good baby she was. She was polite. “Polite” is the highest praise for children in Ethiopian culture. It means they are not demanding. They are patient. They are accepting. Eliyana Nuhamin is a pretty happy and content baby. When she is not laughing, a quiet serenity emanates from her.
I have always prided myself on my Jewish inquisitiveness. Questioning is talmudic value. How will this mesh with the Ethiopian values of patience and quiet acceptance? We will have to keep our eyes open as we navigate these waters.
The depth of poverty in Ethiopia is truly shocking. In America, where we have so much: It is a blessing but it spoils us. If we are to be true to our daughter’s roots, to the values of her country of birth, we will have to guard our daughter’s precious Ethiopian politeness and learn from her .
Love in Ethiopia is given to children with cuddles and caresses and layers upon layers of clothing. (Bundling children in clothing is a sign of love.) A school child often receives new clothing as a reward for school work. There are few toy varieties. Storytelling, singing, and dancing are the main entertainment and for children they always hold lessons of cultural value. The Jewish parallel here warms my heart.
Family togetherness is highly valued. Farm village children are still excused from school to help the harvest. Women wear their babies wrapped on their backs so that they are always together.
The Ethiopians are a beautiful people, very polite, usually smiling. Haggling in the market is just as often done with smiles and giggles as it is with serious concentration. Traditional meals are communal: Injera bread, coverered with stew is placed in the center of the group for all to enjoy. Time is taken every day to meet with neighbors and family over coffee and popcorn in the traditional coffee ceremony. Hospitality is important. These too are Jewish values.
These are a people of deep pride. Dinknesh, meaning “you are lovely,” is the Ethiopian name given to the 4 million year old remains of the first human. (The English world calls her Lucy.) Seeing her tiny skeleton surrounded by the tremendous pride of the Ethiopian people was very moving. This is the country from which emanated humanity.
Ethiopia, birthplace of coffee, is the only African country never to have been colonized. The Italians tried in 1935 but were ousted by 1940. The royal family traced it’s ancestry to King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Ethiopian church claims guardianship of the lost ark of the covenant. They are a people of deep pride and beauty. There are over 70 different Ethnic groups in the country each with their own distinct language. When I asked someone why the children of Ethiopia are so beautiful, he answered it was the blending of all that was best of these different groups.. then he smile and said, but mostly it is God.
Beauty and dignity are everywhere in Ethiopia. A church holiday gave us the treat of watching lines of Ethiopians in traditional white robes walking along the road to church carrying colorful umbrellas. The farm homes may have been quiet mud huts but the churches and mosques were elegant colorful buildings announcing their congregations joy. I loved the many groups of animals we passed in the countryside: cattle with desert humps on their back, spotted goats and sheep and donkeys driving carts of farm produce behind them. Often it was the children moving the animals from one place to another.
I know it pains the Ethiopian people to see their children adopted out of country. These children lose the blessings of belonging wholly to this beautiful country. But I also know that our longing for a child is matched equally by the orphan’s longing for parents. I pray that God’s holiness rest in this match: a mother from Toronto, a father from Brooklyn, a baby from Addis Ababa. May our cultures of Ethiopia, Judaism, and American blend in love and Torah.
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In my early 30s, I had exciting opportunities to visit and work with public health projects in Uganda several times. I was relatively young, dating and childless. It was pretty easy for me to pick up and oversee the work of Be’chol Lashon in Africa, to make my base with the Jewish Abayudaya community working to build infrastructure for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Six years after my last visit, I am married with a 4-year-old daughter, working full-time. So when I returned to Uganda for a 10-day visit to plan for a new community center, I was grateful for an egalitarian husband who’d take on more childcare responsibility during my absence, an excellent pre-school for working parents.
Feeling the full weight of the working mom’s dilemma, I wanted to better understand the Abayudaya women and their Christian and Muslim neighbors, and the types of childcare and working assistance needs they have. As more Abayudaya women receive educational grants to attend college, they emerge seeking employment, empowered to become economic contributors to their families. However, we were seeing signs of stagnation after college, and often a return to traditional gender roles for women. Educational assistance is a successful trend – but something needs to be addressed in order to make economic sustainability for women a reality. While I did not want to make assumptions about what might help, I was left wondering if childcare would be part of the solution.
Spending time at the Tobin Health Center in Mbale, I was daily confronted by the all female nursing staff and their brood of kiddies running around the health clinic. Interviewing the mothers, I asked why they have their kids at work with them. Most said they have family members who can sometimes watch their children, but often have to pass them off at inconvenient times to attend to their own work or household needs.
A couple of the nurses have hired part-time help to stay at home with their kids and the kids are brought to them at different time during the day for nursing. These women have husbands who are also well-employed so they can afford that luxury. That option was rare – and definitely ideal. The nurses were in effect creating their own childcare center in order to meet their needs.
I admired their ingenuity and even the sense of “work family” similar to the one I enjoy at Be’chol Lashon, but when I stopped to look around at the environment the children were being exposed to, it gave me pause. Many of the patients in the clinic during my stay were critically ill. Healthy children watched on with apprehensive looks. While I understood their lack of options, I was not convinced that they could thrive at their job while also trying to take care of their own needy children. In addition, while bonding with mom is crucial to child development, didn’t these kids deserve the same opportunity for stimulating and age-appropriate early childhood education that my daughter was receiving back home?
I wondered if a childcare center would be welcomed by these and other women in the community. Conducting interviews with women, both educated and uneducated, often with babes in arms, the overwhelming response was YES – we do need better and consistent childcare options while we pursue jobs, work in the fields, or in professional environments. The model for child care centers is not foreign to Ugandan women, but unfortunately it exists exclusively in the capital and not in their communities. Were it accessible to them, they would be glad not only for the opportunities it would open for them but for the education it would provide their children.
One of the main purposes of the trip was to help plan for the building of a new synagogue for the Abayudaya that will also serve as a community center; a gathering place for Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result of my conversations with the women Uganda, we decided to put in a day care center as well. Building and staffing the center is a long term project, and I’ll be blogging about it as it goes forward. Stay tuned, because I truly hope that it will be the game changer these women need.