“You must tell them the truth, the reality of the situation”, said my Ethiopian friend, when I asked her what she wanted the world to know about Ethiopian Jews in Israel. And it’s a tough reality, but not one without hope.
God is at work in every part of Israeli society, and the gospel is reaching Ethiopian Jews in all sorts of ways – especially the younger generation.
How come there are Jewish people in Ethiopia?
There have been communities of Jewish Ethiopians following the the Torah for centuries. Even back in Acts 8 we see an Ethiopian Eunuch, the treasurer to Queen Candace of Ethiopia, no less, trying to understand Isaiah 53, when God suddenly brings Philip along to explain it to him, as he traveled back home from Jerusalem by chariot. Other Ethiopians include the wife of Moses, Zipporah, and the Ethiopian who rescued Jeremiah from the pit he had been thrown into, and of course, the Queen of Sheba.
There are several theories about the origins of the Ethiopian Jewish community; most Ethiopian Jews themselves believe that when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, they conceived a son named Menelik, and his descendants were raised in the ways of the God of Israel. Another theory holds that they are the descendants of Jews who fled when the Babylonians conquered Judah in 586 BCE, traveling through Egypt, down the Nile, settling in Ethiopia. Another is that some of the Jewish diaspora traveled from the Arabian peninsula (near Yemen) to the Horn of Africa established new Jewish communities, perhaps intermarrying with local tribes.
The reality of racism
Approximately 140,000 Ethiopian Jewish people live in Israel today, about a third of whom were born in Israel. The majority came in the massive airlifting operations of 1985 and 1991 – Operation Moses and Operation Solomon – helping them to “Make Aliyah” (return to Israel) collectively in the thousands. However, the culture shock and transition has proved extremely challenging, exacerbated by the racism they have been subjected to when they finally made to Israel. There have been some significant problems such as poverty and unemployment among many Ethiopian families and communities as a result. The truth is that the blight of racism is an inescapable fact for the Africans who make it to Israel, whether they are Jewish or not. It affects Jews and non-Jews, asylum seekers and Israeli citizens, Messianics and atheists alike.
On arrival to Israel many have found the rabbinic Judaism that most follow in Israel today rather alien to their own practices. Not only is the expression of Judaism different, but the whole way of life in Israel is different, the culture is different, the language is different, and the values of the society are different. The landing can be rough, and many have come with nothing at all, some even making the journey by foot. Yet it should be a source of pride that against all the odds, and despite multiple hurdles, barriers and obstacles, Ethiopian Jews are now finding places of significance in Israeli society – lawyers, teachers, police officers, doctors and recently a pilot. Those who experience racism know that these achievements are hard fought for, and worthy of celebration.
An enduring love for Jerusalem
Throughout the generations, Ethiopian Jews have longed to return to Jerusalem. Each year, fifty days after Yom Kippur, the Jewish community in Ethiopia celebrates the festival of “Sigd”, which means “worship”. They climb a mountain and celebrate the giving of the Torah to Moses at Sinai, and also the rediscovery of the Torah in the times of Ezra and the revival after the Babylonian exile. In Ezra’s time, the people were called as a nation to celebrate Passover in response to hearing God’s law again, even though it wasn’t Passover time, and in reference to that event, the community also then celebrates a Passover together. There is traditional food and dancing, and heartfelt love and longing for Jerusalem and the Promised Land.
For those who have now returned to Israel, Sigd is a time of great rejoicing that the dream of return has been realized. I attended such a celebration in an absorption center for new immigrants, and enjoyed the fabulous Ethiopian food, the unique dancing, and the contagious joy of a dream fulfilled. This particular feast is not emphasized so much in the Messianic community, who have found the One toward whom the entire Torah points – Yeshua the Messiah.
“More and more Ethiopian young people are coming to faith in Yeshua”.
There are many Ethiopian Jews who believe in Yeshua here in Israel. We have Messianic Ethiopian staff and students here at Israel College of the Bible, and there are Messianic Ethiopian ministries and congregations operating in the Amharic language, running some great outreach programs and initiatives designed to meet the specific needs of the community.
Additionally, younger Ethiopian Israelis who do not know about Yeshua are hearing the gospel from Messianic believers around them in society – especially in the army. Many younger believers in Israel are emboldened now to share their faith without shame, wherever they may be – in the army, at work, school, or wherever. And people are responding, including some in the Ethiopian community.
Like the journey from Ethiopia to Israel, the journey to integrate into Israeli society has been long and hard. However, the younger generation are seeming to navigate their way more successfully than the older generations who came such a distance both physically and culturally. A great emphasis is being placed on education for the younger generation, as a key to succeed and find their place in Israel. We are glad to be contributing towards that important goal as the Ethiopian students at our Bible college become proficient in their study of the Bible, and equipped to lead and teach others.