The History of Ethiopian Jewry

Piecing together legends and stories.

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Like today in Israel, Ethiopian Jews celebrated Sigd, a festival which commemorates the giving of the Torah. On this holiday, community members would fast, climb the highest mountain in the area, and listen to the kessim chant passages of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Nehemiah. In the afternoon they would descend, break their fast, and rejoice in their renewed acceptance of the Orit.

Missionaries and Trying Times

At the time of Halevy's report, one of the biggest challenges facing the Ethiopian Jewish community was European missionary activity. Though the community had frequently been pressured to convert by Ethiopian authorities, missionaries from abroad--with large-scale, organized missions--presented an even stronger threat.

European missionaries, well-versed in the Old Testament, were educated and skilled in debate. The Beta Israel's clergy could not compete. By providing schools and bibles written in the local language, Amharic, the missionaries challenged the community's practice and faith.

On a number of occasions the Beta Israel's monastic clergy tried to escape the missionaries' influence by leading their communities to the Promised Land. By and large, these journeys were disastrous. One particular attempt in 1862 ended in large-scale starvation and death.

Between 1882 and 1892 the regions of Ethiopia where the Beta Israel lived suffered from a famine that killed an estimated one third to one half of the Beta Israel.

The World Jewish Community

Halevy's student, Jaques Faitlovitch, was the first Jewish foreigner to work in earnest on improving conditions for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Arriving for his first visit in 1904 and returning several times in subsequent years, Faitlovitch created tiny schools in Addis Ababa for Beta Israel members, hand-picked 25 young leaders for education abroad, and acted as an emissary on behalf of the world Jewish community.

Faitlovich secured two letters from rabbis abroad acknowledging the Beta Israel as fellow Jews. The first letter, written in 1906, called the Beta Israel "our brethren, sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who dwell in Abyssinia" and "our flesh and blood." The letter, which promised to help the community in its religious education, was signed by 44 world Jewish leaders including the chief rabbis of London and Vienna and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

The second letter, from 1921, was written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He called on the Jewish people worldwide to save the Beta Israel--"50,000 holy souls of the house of Israel"--from "extinction and contamination."

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Atira Winchester

Atira Winchester is a journalist who worked for many years as an editor for The Jerusalem Post. She currently lives in London, England where she works as a freelance writer, specializing in arts, culture and contemporary Israeli life.