The baggage claim at the airport in Gondar, Ethiopia is still by far the most humorous way I have yet to collect my luggage after flying. A massive crate is hauled from the plane and dumped into a heaping pile of blues, blacks and greys, with all the creative markings to let each person know which bag belonged to them. As we all pushed and pulled bags aside looking for our own, I noticed other farengie–Amharic for light skinned people, claim their belongings. Though a few glared at my kippah and Tzizit in perplexity, I was used to it, and smiled in return. Later that night, as I walked from my hotel-room for dinner I passed by an open room and looked inside while passing. I noticed some of the same people from the airport! Before I was even a meter away from their door, one calls out “execuse me, man from the airport!” I turn back and stand at their doorway and begin interacting with them around global service.
It turned out they were on service trip as a part of their church from New Orleans, and the room that I was neighboring was the pastor herself! She exclaimed “I didn’t know that Jews like yourself do work like this!” I told her all about the organization my cohort was representing, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and how this organization has been honored by many high ranking officials for their work in the region, she was delighted. We exchanged words of Torah, discussed the power of religious values in helping the underserved populations around the world. Before leaving, I shook her hand and kissed my own. When asking me why I kissed my hand, I asked her: “what does one do when they drop the Bible on the floor?” she quickly responded with a smile and thanked me. I said the Bible has God in it, and so do you, to that I turned to leave and said “we are in this together.”
It is by way of logic that Mankind understands the importance of one another. Everything from scientific discoveries within medicine to your community shopping center involves your fellow human being. We share the same air and benefit from the billions of organisms within nature. With all this in mind our religion, language, and personal egos drives us away from one another, limiting the opportunity to connect to other souls of G-d (Jewish and non-Jewish). But that is not the Jewish way…
“Rabbi Yehuda Ben Levi said if you see a black, red, white, fat, or short person, say Blessed are You our G-d King of the Universe who makes his creations different (Brachoat 59a).”
Regardless of our religious or political preferences, morals are at the core of our family framework and even societal practice. We are reminded of these morals on a day to day basis, because they are fueled by logic and common sense. The laws introduced to us in this week’s Torah portion are not only the focus of nearly one third of the Talmud, many of them are not dependant on ethnicity, religion, kind or creed. “These are the laws that you should set before them (21:1).”
In the heart of this week’s Torah portion the verse states “do not oppress the stranger amongst you for you know the essence of stranger-hood since you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” This is a law so significant that it is the essence of mankind, despite all this ritual purity triumphs, haughtiness penetrates and loneliness overcasts. Is this commandment logical? “To not oppress the stranger amongst you,” if one were stuck on an island with a total stranger, there is a greater chance of survival if the stranger becomes comrade. Unfortunately thought, these teachings placed before us have become a secret to the masses, and the disconnect between what we believe and what practice is still present.
Whether we shame ourselves for our ancestry because of evil’s undying power, or we believe that doubt and isolation is the cornerstone of our existence, we must remember that our continuous desire for clarity and comfort amongst each other, and even those who are foreign to us is acquired through common ties, and universal morale, stating clearly, that even in Gondar, Ethiopia, we are in this together.
Our very existence depends on the stranger amongst us. Remember you too are a stranger if not in your comfort zone, you too have been challenged by your neighbor and cast into isolation. Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud lived in a time when Torah was forbidden to be learned or even practiced, and he was murdered because of his desire to find residence within a time of chaos, to create a place for all strangers to go to. As he took his last breathes, his last words were “echad,” one. Rabbi Akiva brought all people together regardless of who they were, why? Because he too was a stranger — his last word: unity (Echad). There is not enough time in the world for us to remain divided. Unity is what will save our micro and macro, community and national identity.
Recently, über-quaint San Miguel de Allende– named a UNESCO World Heritage city in 2008– was picked as the #1 City in the World by Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine. Yes, we beat out Paris, Prague, New York, Budapest, and Florence. But one overlooked jewel in this city is its Jewish community.
According to some estimates, there are perhaps 10,000 “gringos” living in San Miguel de Allende, (SMA) Mexico, which would mean Americans and Canadians make up a little less than 10% of the population of this small colonial city in the geographic center of the country. North Americans have been settling here since right after WWII, lured initially by the GI Bill /SMA’s art schools and its colonial charm, friendly locals, temperate climate, and relatively inexpensive cost of living (well, if you live on US dollars, that is). Artists, writers, and the “bohemian bourgeois” have flocked here in the past few decades, as well has hordes of tourists, both foreign and national.
It’s hard to guess how many Jews live here in SMA, especially since many are part-time residents, and the vast majority are not affiliated with anything overtly Jewish. But let’s say a conservative estimate could put it at about 10% of the foreigner population; that would easily place us within the top 10 largest Jewish communities in Mexico (there are 45,000, of which 90% live in Mexico City.) Most of the Americans and Canadians are retired folks, here to take Spanish and/or art classes, do yoga, soak up the sun and tequila, and enjoy the myriad cultural activities available here. It would be fair to state that the majority of Jews here don’t come to San Miguel to identify with Judaism. And yet, for many years there has been a core of ex-pats who met for a Hanukkah party, prayed together on the High Holidays, and celebrated Passover at a local restaurant. This had eventually morphed into “Shalom San Miguel de Allende”, a group of 30-40 members who formed a legal asociación civil to promote Jewish culture and religious services in our adopted town.
About 6 years ago a most unexpected thing happened: a few Mexican nationals started to come to services. We didn’t think twice about it; our doors were naturally open to everyone. We had no real idea how difficult it was for non-Jewish Mexicans to be accepted into a synagogue or Jewish event here in Mexico. Some claim Jewish ancestry (hard to prove, and often not matrilineal), and others are simply drawn to Judaism intellectually and/or emotionally. For whatever reason, these dedicated young people were seeking to learn more about Judaism, be accepted into a welcoming Jewish community, and many wanted formal conversion—something not well accepted in the mainstream Mexican Jewish communities. Our first wave was taught for several years by lay-leaders of our community, and eventually 3 Conservative rabbis, including Bechol Lashon’s very own Rabbi Juan Mejía, came down from the US to form a Bet Din to formally and halachically convert 7 people.
Since then, Rabbi Mejía has taken the initiative to educate and guide the conversions of subsequent candidates, and in total has helped 36 souls in our neck of the woods to find their spiritual home in Judaism. Aside from doing this great mitzvah for the sake of the gerei tzedek, these young people have greatly enriched and re-vitalized our aging demographics. Although there are still a few cultural and language barriers to be negotiated, the integration of these newest members of the community has proceeded well. Diversity is, was, and will always be a wonderful strength of the Jewish people everywhere!
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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.
For Adat Israel in Guatemala City, Passover is a special celebration. We are a community with 30 members, with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein who is our rabbi. We all feel like going out from Egypt being released and we are not slaves any more. The first step is to gather the money. We have to buy our matzah in Guatemala there is only one store where we can buy it, so we wait until they have the price. We also have matzah ball mix and Passover cake from Canada. Delicious!!
The menu is important. This year we want salmon and we will try to extend our budget to get it, but if we cannot afford it, we will have tilapia, which is also a good fish. The ladies from the community share the work in the kitchen. One cooks the main dish, another with the side dishes, another the soup, another the dessert and another the elements for the keara, the seder plate. Someone is in charge of the haroset. Last year we made a special Guatemalan version with apple, wine, honey, almonds and red beans! It was a big hit.
All the cleaning tasks are also distributed among the members. Two of us have to clean the windows, another two the floor, the stairs, the bathrooms, the rugs, the kitchen. Too much work to do, but together as a big family, we get done quickly and efficiently.
We know that in the blink of an eye, the holiday will be with us, Nisan 14. The first night we celebrate Pesach in our own houses, with our families and some friend that want to share with us the ceremony. The second night, Nisan 15, we celebrate it with the whole community and many friends. Some of them live in Guatemala and work for the embassies, others are visitors. We don’t close our doors. Everybody that wants to share with us that special occasion is invited and welcome.
For the seder we follow an adaptation for Latin America Una noche de Libertad de Mishael Zion y Noam Zion, a beautiful book full of color and music.
The great night finally comes. We wait for our members, our visitors and we set the tables as beautiful as we can.
Last year we added one new element, Miriam’s cup, suggested by a dearly friend of our community. After a special blessing all the women take a sip of water from that cup.
For Adat Israel this celebration has a very special meaning. We are Jews by choice. In our past there was too much slavery, full of deceit, lies and false hopes. Now that we are Jews we feel really liberated. We are still walking with the help of God and our beloved Rabbi Elyse. If you are in the neighborhood, we hope you will come and join us!
For more about Passover around the world visit bechollashon.org
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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As part of a gap year between high school and college, I spent six months in Santiago, Chile. I was there partly to improve my Spanish, and partly to study music. I wasn’t expecting to meet any other Jews while in Santiago, Chile—the country is predominantly Catholic, and the Jewish population is vanishingly small compared to that of the US. Through a stroke of luck (and some of those Jewish connections that pop up where you least expect them), I ended up finding a home stay with a Jewish family in Santiago just a few weeks before arriving in Chile – and of course I immediately took the opportunity.
Just a few days after arriving in Chile, I went to my first Shabbat services with my host family, not really knowing what to expect. For Adon Olam the Rabbi sang a mariachi tune (complete with sombreros and guitars), which was by far the weirdest yet most entertaining rendition of Adon Olam that I’ve ever heard. I was fully prepared to accept this as Chilean Judaism, but, as I eventually figured out through my garbled Spanish, the mariachi was just a pre-Purim special. (In general services were much more similar to what I was used to from home, but now I’m starting to wish that home had a special pre-Purim Adon Olam performance too).
Before going to Chile, I’d only ever been a part of the Jewish community that I grew up in, so I can only guess which parts of my experience were uniquely Chilean and which were just a part of Judaism I had yet to see. For example, I suspect that there are not very many Jewish wedding receptions with all-night dancing outside of Chile. (My host mom told me ahead of time that it would be rude to leave much earlier than 3 am). I may be wrong about that, though, since the only other Jewish weddings I’ve been to were as a little kid. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, since I already found out that Hashkiveinu is not in fact a lullaby unique to Chile. (Imagine my surprise showing up at the my first Shabbat in college only to hear them singing a Chilean melody!)
Having already found this unexpected connection between Judaism in Chile and at home, I’m hopeful I’ll rediscover many of my Jewish experiences from Chile: meeting new friends at every Shabbat dinner; accompanying Shabbat melodies on my violin; celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut el Estadio Israelita (think Chilean JCC); going to the spunky, 100% student-run Chilean branch of Hashomer Hatzair. It’s a fantastic thing to have a thread of shared experience that connects me to others living in a country halfway across the globe, and I’m still discovering just how deep the connection goes.