Austinites Connect with Ethiopian Jewry through British Organization
By Tonyia Cone
Austinites Sigrid Levi-Baum and Michael Baum recently toured Africa's oldest independent country and connected with its Jewish community when they traveled with Meketa, a Maidenhead, England-based nonprofit that supports the Jewish community in Gondar, Ethiopia.
The couple connected with Meketa through the organization’s founder, Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, who Levi-Baum met in Bolton, England, when she was an exchange student in the early 1970s. Link Ethiopia, an educational nonprofit, organized the tour for Meketa.
According to Ethiopian beliefs, the Queen of Sheba went to Israel to see if King Solomon was really as wise as was rumored. She returned pregnant with his son, Menelik I, first emperor of Ethiopia. When he was 18 years old, Menelik visited Solomon, which is when Solomon learned of his son, and Solomon sent the Ark of the Covenant – the case built for the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written – back to Ethiopia with Menelik.
Ethiopia’s Jews are typically described as Beta Israel or Falash Mura. The Beta Israel, said to be Menelik’s descendents, have lived in Ethiopia for many centuries; Falash Mura are those who, facing famine and conflict, converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Falash Mura, also known as Zera Israel, now alive in Ethiopia descended from those who converted to Christianity under duress and have returned to Judaism.
In 1984, through Operation Moses, the Israeli government airlifted 8,000 Beta Israel who had sought refuge in Sudan, and as Ethiopia’s Civil War came to an end in 1991, brought 14,000 more from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, through Operation Solomon. Beta Israel continued to make aliyah over the years until, in August 2013, the Jewish Agency announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah.
About 9,000 people remained in Ethiopia who identified as Jewish but did not qualify as such by Israeli Law of Return. Many are closely related to the Beta Israel families in Israel.
Meketa’s website explains that while the Zera Israel are not considered recognized Jews by the law, they are eligible under the Law of Entry designed for non-Jews applying for Israeli citizenship, which requires a year in an Israeli absorption center and a token conversion before receiving Israeli citizenship.
“However, emigration was only offered to those Zera Israel who could prove Jewish descent through the mother – even though in Ethiopia Judaism traditionally passed down through the father,” the website states.
Many Jewish families gave up rural livelihoods to move to Gondar to register for emigration to Israel through the Jewish Agency. After years of waiting to leave, most still do not have a means to support themselves in urban life and live in extreme poverty.
Baum said, “It’s shocking that they’re living in this very economically poor and very hard life. They are yearning to get to Israel. Whatever we can do to support them, to make their life easier and facilitate their yearning to get to Israel would be important.”
Founded in 2013, Meketa, means “support” in Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia.
The organization’s child sponsorship, after-school club, summer activities, microloan, bakery, carpentry, hairdressing, and craft creation livelihood projects are intended to help the community help themselves. Meketa recently created an additional program, Lift, which gives direct support to elderly and infirm members of the impoverished community.
Baum and Levi-Baum explained that Meketa’s microloan program has an 85 percent payback and success rate, with recipients starting small businesses and making enough money to feed their families.
What is called an after-school program for administrative and legal reasons, supplements the half-day government school. While in the government school there are 70 to 90 children per classroom and the teacher has the only text book, Meketa’s school has 30 students per classroom, text books for everyone, computers, a library and a school nurse. Students at Meketa’s school study the same subjects as in government school, as well as Hebrew, taught by Israeli volunteers.
Meketa recently opened a second school to serve the rest of the Jewish youth population who live in another part of town that is not within walking distance of the original school.
While in Gondar, Levi-Baum and Baum visited the Jewish school Friday morning, during Kabbalat Shabbat. They explained that the group said prayers by repeating each word after the leader said it.
Before going to Ethiopia, Levi-Baum and Baum asked Meketa what types of donations the school needed most. When the couple put a call out for school supplies at Congregation Agudas Achim, they received way more than enough to fill up a 50-pound suitcase and $800, which they donated while visiting the school.
“We are extremely grateful to the community here, to Congregation Agudas Achim and others who heard and contributed, and supported Meketa,” Levi-Baum said.
The couple also noticed that the Jewish cemetery was different from a Jewish cemetery in the United States. Instead of an open space, this cemetery is located on a hillside with many trees, they explained. When a community member dies, people carry the body, wrapped in a shroud, about 3 miles to the site. Family members do not choose the burial site and are not allowed in the cemetery until after the body is buried. Afterward, they are invited in for a meal.
While in Gondar, the tour group visited the Ploughshare Women Crafts Training Centre, where Levi-Baum and Baum bought some Judaica before visiting Meketa’s carpentry shop and weaving cooperative, where they saw community members making tallitot.
One of the other stops in Gondar was Shabbat services at the HaTikva Synagogue, a building with open sides and a tin roof. Levi-Baum and Baum explained that the services were three-hours long because of the language difference. The 400 men and women at the service were separated by a mechitza and they sat by age, with the oldest in front and youngest in back. Women there did not pray; they said “amen” and sang.
Levi-Baum pointed out that it is a challenge for the Israeli government to contend with a population once converted to Christianity but still practicing Judaism. One of these people may have a cross tattooed on his or her forehead, but walks miles to attend Shabbat service.
“How many of our rabbis would love to have 400 at services on a Friday night?” she asked.
The tour group saw Jewish influence throughout the country while visiting Ethiopian Orthodox churches and other buildings. Since Ethiopian emperors all claimed lineage from King Solomon, the Star of David was used to symbolize their power and ordination. When Christians converted Ethiopians to Christianity in the fourth century, they incorporated the Star of David into the architecture and artwork.
The trip gave the couple the opportunity to enjoy Ethiopia’s historical sites, natural beauty and wildlife as well. Just a few stops on their extensive schedule included the National Museum, home of the 3.3 million year old skeleton of Lucy; Bahir Dar, where they saw the Blue Nile Waterfalls and Lake Tana, with hippopotamuses, many types of birds, papyrus boats and the Entos Eyesu and Azewa Mariam Monasteries; the Simien Mountains, where they saw Gelada baboons; and Lalibela, where they visited monolithic rock-hewn churches.
Sheridan is planning to lead two more Jewish trips to Ethiopia, one to Southern Ethiopia in November 2018, and one to Northern Ethiopia in November 2019. For more information on the trips or info on volunteering with Meketa, visit www.meketa.org.uk. ■
For more information about Link Ethiopia, visit www.linkethiopia.org.