In a classroom full of restless Ethiopian children, Rabbi Yefet Alemo talks about the various nationalities that make up the Jewish people.
“What is a Russian Jew?” Alemo asks.
“A Jew from Russia,” they answer in unison.
“How about an Ethiopian Jew?” says Alemo, who is Ethiopian.
“He’s from Ethiopia!” they answer, giggling.
The point of the lesson, Alemo later explained, was to talk about the different communities that make up the Israeli melting pot.
But he also had another goal — to introduce Conservative Judaism to the Israeli Ethiopian community.
“There’s very little knowledge among Ethiopians of anything besides their brand of Orthodoxy,” said Alemo, who emigrated from Ethiopia at the age of 22. “Now that I’m a Conservative rabbi, I go out to the people and teach them. I answer questions.”
Alemo, 38, became the first Ethiopian Conservative rabbi in Israel in December, when he was ordained with seven of his rabbinical colleagues at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
This week he will be inducted in absentia into the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly during the group’s annual convention in Washington.
Although Alemo’s Conservative ordination is a first for an Ethiopian Jew, there are Ethiopians who have been ordained as Orthodox rabbis.
The Schechter Institute also has ordained three Russian rabbis, and two more currently are undergoing rabbinic training.
The movement wants to give these new rabbis the training necessary to go back to their communities and teach a tolerant approach to Judaism’s various religious streams.
“Our effort is to give them rabbinic training without trying to besmirch their other traditions,” said Rabbi Harvey Meirovich, dean of the Schechter rabbinical school. “Yefet’s struggle is how he’s going to do that.”
The path to the Conservative rabbinate has been a long and arduous one for Alemo, but he reminisces with humor and few regrets.
He describes himself as a man of great faith, who believes in God, miracles and people’s ability to overcome life’s obstacles.
“The thing that’s striking about Yefet is his determination to see this thing through,” Meirovich said. “It’s been an uphill battle, and that’s the story of his life.”
Born in the Ethiopian village of Ambombar, Alemo tended his father’s herd of sheep and dreamed of being a kes, an Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leader.
After finishing school at 17 and marrying, he was offered a scholarship to Brooklyn College through the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. Yet his goal was to reach Israel, as it was for many Ethiopian Jews in the early 1980s.
“The kes would yell during the Shabbat sermon, ‘Run away! Go to Israel!’ ” Alemo said.
For six months, Alemo tried to get a visa, to no avail.
Leaving his wife and two young daughters behind, he ran away to Addis Ababa. He was arrested there but escaped, making it to Gondar, Ethiopia’s northern capital, where his wife’s relatives lived.
During a nearly two-year journey from there, Alemo prayed hard.
“I always learned that when you are in distress, you pray toward Jerusalem,” he said, wiping his eyes as he remembered. “I prayed and I fasted. I called out to God. And he saved me.”
He made it to Sudan with the equivalent of $25 in his pocket, walking by night and hiding in the jungle by day, avoiding marauding soldiers. When Alemo reached Sudan, his luck held: He met a Jewish Red Cross director who got him on a plane to Israel.
But Jerusalem, the much dreamed-of holy city, wasn’t paved with gold. Nor did it look like what he had imagined from the biblical stories told by the kes in Ethiopia.
Moreover, the authenticity of Ethiopian claims to Jewishness had become an issue for the Orthodox establishment and some Israeli officials.
There are several theories regarding the roots of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Some believe they are the lost tribe of Dan or the descendants of King Solomon. The community could be a tribe that converted to Judaism long ago or descendants of Jews who left Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple.
Whichever theory is correct, the community continued to observe pre-talmudic traditions. Women went to the ritual baths, certain festivals were observed and the entire community followed the lead of the kes.
When Israel began making an effort to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the early 1970s, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel are Jews.
Between Operation Moses, in the mid-1980s, and Operation Solomon, in the early 1990s, more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel. However, the Orthodox Rabbinate demanded that all Ethiopian newcomers undergo a symbolic conversion ceremony before getting married in order to remove any doubts about their Jewish ancestry.
When the Ethiopians were also told by the rabbinate to undergo a symbolic circumcision, Alemo distanced himself from observant Judaism, trying to find a way to meld his religious practices with those he discovered in Israel.
He organized a group opposed to the rabbinate’s seemingly discriminatory practices against Ethiopians. For five weeks, he and his followers protested outside government buildings.
That’s where he met students from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, who said they had come to support the Ethiopians’ cause. When they told Alemo they were studying to be rabbis, he was confused.
“Where’s your beard?” he asked. “Where’s your long coat?”
They told him there was more than one type of rabbi, and Alemo — who at the time was in nursing school — soon decided this was his kind of Judaism.
After becoming a registered nurse and serving in the army, he began working at Hadassah — Hebrew University Medical Center, where he has been employed for the last 14 years.
He applied to study at Schechter after earning his nursing degree, but the institute requires all students to have completed an undergraduate degree — which Alemo didn’t have.
“I told them a kes doesn’t have a B.A.,” Alemo said.
He also had never studied Mishnah, Gemarah, Jewish law or any text beside the Torah. He began studying, under the condition that he would earn a degree while studying to become a rabbi.
Six years later, he completed his rabbinical training and his bachelor’s degree. Moreover, he had gotten a master’s degree in Jewish studies from Schechter, which also has a graduate school for Jewish education.
“He clearly represents for us a kind of triumph of will,” Meirovich said.
Alemo now is both a registered nurse and an ordained rabbi. His eldest daughter — his family eventually joined him in Israel — is a student at Haifa University and a second daughter just completed army service as a teacher.
The family lives in Pisgat Ze’ev, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood.
Now that Alemo is a rabbi, he wants to work as one — particularly with young Ethiopians who he feels are losing their faith.
“The young Ethiopians aren’t religious. They’ve moved away” from their traditions, he said. “I want to bring them a Judaism that fits with this period in their lives.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.