ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Jun. 7)
Finding this city’s lone synagogue is a hit-or-miss affair, with few street signs to point the way.
Set back off a mud-lined street, through a dusty courtyard and up a steep flight of stairs, the Sukkat Rachamim synagogue is the last remnant of a dwindling Jewish community on the verge of extinction.
Built more than 60 years ago, the shul has long been the center of Jewish life for the Adenites, a tiny community of Caucasian Jews who immigrated to Ethiopia from Aden, the one-time capital of the former South Yemen, several decades ago.
At its height in the 1950s, the community numbered about 200; today, there are less than a dozen permanent residents, plus a handful of Israeli diplomats and Jewish relief workers.
It came as a surprise, then, to fine the synagogue filled to overflowing with worshippers on a recent Shabbat morning. It was an even bigger surprise to learn that, despite the presence of hundreds of men and women at Shabbat services every week, it is difficult to muster a minyan.
The problem: the vast majority of the worshippers are Falash Mora — Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity in the recent or distant past — and thus are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.
In late 1990, the Israeli government, with the help of various Jewish organizations and bodies, encouraged Jews living in all parts of Ethiopia to move to Addis Ababa in preparation for the Operation Solomon airlift of May 1991.
After checking the religious background of the 16,500 people awaiting evacuation, Israeli officials informed 2,800 of them that they were not eligible to immigrate to Israel on the grounds that they or their ancestors had converted to Christianity.
RANKS OF FALASH MORA IN ADDIS SWELLING
Today, these 2,800 Falash Mora continue to live in Addis Ababa and another 1,200 have swelled their ranks. At the request of the Israeli government at the time of the 1991 airlift, the American Joint Distribution Committee has continuously provided the 2,800 left behind with food, medical care and monthly stipends.
The remainder, who moved to the capital after the airlift against the express wishes of the Israeli government, receive emergency medical care and vaccinations but no food or stipends.
An Israeli government committee, headed by Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, last month established guidelines for admitting some of the Falash Mora to Israel.
According to the guidelines, the 4,000 Falash Mora now in Addis Ababa, as well as an estimated 30,000 living in the countryside, are eligible to immigrate to Israel only through family reunification, the Law of Return or a “return” to Judaism.
The Falash Mora at the synagogue on Shabbat morning “are finding their way back to Jewish life,” are Rabbi Menahem Waldman, an expert on Ethiopian Jewry and the Falash Mora.
Waldman, who heads the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s Commission on Falash Mora, was here last week to perform a wedding in the Adenite community.
Over the past two years he has spent several weeks with the Falash Mora in Addis Ababa in an attempt to determine whether their return to Jewish ritual is motivated by a sincere desire to be Jewish, or — as some critics claim — an attempt to escape from the poverty of Ethiopia by feigning a love of Zion.
“If you ask me whether the Falash Mora of Addis can count in a minyan, I have to say no,” said Waldman during an hour-long walk to the synagogue on Shabbat morning.
“Nor do I consider them fully Christian. They are in the process of returning to their Jewish roots, and are therefore not considered converts.
“I have lived with them, prayed with them, and have seen their community change its behavior from Christian to Jewish. These people pray every day, they do not work on Shabbat and they do not eat non-kosher meat,” he said.
The rabbi makes a distinction between those 2,800 who have been in the capital under the auspices of Jewish organizations for the past three years, and those who have arrived more recently.
“I cannot vouch for people who I do not know firsthand,” said Waldman.
Despite a decision two years ago by the Chief Rabbinate to set up a program of Jewish study for the Falash Mora, it has not yet been instituted.
In the meantime, said Waldman, “The community does what it can to learn about Judaism.”
“They receive three hours of religious instruction a day, funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. It’s not enough, but it’s a start,” he said.
According to halachah, said Waldman, “those who can prove that their mother and grandmother were Jewish and who seriously, honestly want to be Jews — who leave behind Christian practices and embrace Jewish faith, prayer and learning — can return to Judaism with the approval of three recognized religious leaders.”
Waldman acknowledged that “there have been many mistakes in the past.”
“We must now be very careful to verify that all who claim a desire to return to Judaism are telling the truth,” he said.