Ethiopian immigrants here had reason to celebrate when the synagogue they have long awaited officially opened last week.
The synagogue, which is being funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the local municipality, was established to meet the special needs of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Inaugurated just a week before Rosh Hashanah, the shul — housed in an elementary school classroom — already has several hundred worshipers from the nearby Pladot absorption center.
It was at their insistence, in fact, that the synagogue was established in the first place.
Until last week, the immigrants had two choices for worship: the cramped absorption center, which does not have a Torah, or a local Sephardic synagogue, whose prayer service is unrecognizable to the immigrants.
“The Ethiopian service is very different from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi tefillah, so the immigrants feel uncomfortable in those settings,” explained Yossi Harel, a Jewish Agency official who helped set up the synagogue.
“Another source of frustration is the fact that their holy language is Geez, not Hebrew. We are trying to bridge the gap between the Ethiopian and Israeli communities, but it will take time,” he said.
Both the immigrants and government officials hope that the new synagogue will act as that bridge. Though there are at least 20 places of worship for Ethiopian Jews throughout the country, most of which are in absorption centers, the Ashdud synagogue is the first to combine elements of both cultures.
In an attempt to join the old and the new, services are being led by Kes Avraham, an aged and respected leader of the Ethiopian community, and his son Shmuel, 37, a graduate of an Israeli yeshiva.
Though some of the logistics have yet to be worked out, the plan is to begin Shabbat prayers in Geez, with commentary in Amharic, the Ethiopian spoken language. About halfway through the service, Rabbi Shmuel will lead an Israeli- oriented service in Hebrew.
“By combining the two, everyone is satisfied,” said Shmuel, who immigrated here 12 years ago. “The elders are able to pray in the way they are accustomed, and the young, who are more familiar with the modern Israeli service, are also catered to. The community is glued together, not divided.”
The special ties that bind the Ethiopian immigrants together were very much in evidence last week, during the synagogue inauguration.
Hundreds of olim, dressed in traditional white robes, were joined by several neighbors and government officials as they marched from the absorption center to a nearby school.
On the way, they danced with a Torah scroll that once belonged to a now-extinct Jewish community in Romania. They also carried two holy books from Ethiopia – - one more than 400 years old.
Once in the newly painted classroom, the men sat on one side, the women on the other. The children seemed to be everywhere — grabbing pieces of honey cake and apples dipped in honey. Together, they placed both the Torah and holy books in the wooden ark, then inaugurated the synagogue with prayers in Hebrew and Geez.
“This is great,” remarked one Ethiopian teen-ager, eating a strip of honeyed apple. “My family has lived in Ashdod for eight years, and we finally have a place to pray.”
In the swell of emotion, no one seemed prouder than Kes Avraham, dressed in a blue satin robe fringed with gold.
“This is a very happy day for us,” said the kes, whose eyes sparkled beneath his white turban. “In Ethiopia, I had my own synagogue. I dreamed that one day I would have a synagogue here in Israel.”
At a time when the Ethiopian community’s leaders are demanding the right to perform religious functions, such as weddings and divorces, starting a new synagogue is especially meaningful, he said.
“There is friction between the rabbinate and the kessim, but I think this can be resolved,” he said. “I am personally in favor of taking a course in Oral Law, if that is what is required.”
He was referring to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s insistence that the Ethiopian kessim, or spiritual leaders, undergo training in the Talmud, which is completely foreign to the Ethiopian Jewish religious tradition.
As he spoke, the kes grasped an object in his right hand that looked like a golden horse’s tail. Asked about its function, he replied that it symbolized power.
Then his face broke out into a big, wrinkly smile as he added: “It is also a very good fly swatter.”