12 men trained in Ethiopia as kosher meat slaughterers in first for the country

Until now Jews in Ethiopia could only get kosher meat around the holidays when ‘shochtim’ would be flown in; a recent initiative by a Modern Orthodox group worked to change that

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The 12 graduates of a program to train kosher slaughterers in Ethiopia so the Jewish community can have regular access to kosher meat, along with a rabbi from Israel who works with the community (center), in November 2022. (Ohr Torah Stone)
The 12 graduates of a program to train kosher slaughterers in Ethiopia so the Jewish community can have regular access to kosher meat, along with a rabbi from Israel who works with the community (center), in November 2022. (Ohr Torah Stone)

A dozen Ethiopian Jewish men received certification as ritual slaughterers this week, becoming the country’s only officially recognized kosher “shochtim,” following a months-long training program.

Thousands of Jews live in Ethiopia, mostly in the city of Gondar and the capital of Addis Ababa, yet they lack many of the basic services and infrastructure that are available in larger communities, including a full-time kosher slaughterhouse. Though ritual slaughterers would occasionally visit Ethiopia, particularly before holidays to ensure a supply of kosher meat, this situation meant that many observant Jews in Ethiopia were forced to keep a vegetarian diet.

To address this, Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who serves as a community rabbi in Ethiopia, reached out to Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, who trains rabbinic emissaries for Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network, the organization said.

Working with the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, Waldman and Birnbaum developed a training program, recruiting another rabbi and long-time slaughterer, Rabbi Netanel Ansani, who had experience working in remote Jewish communities.

A dozen young men from Gondar and Addis Ababa were chosen to undergo the training.

Though it is a relatively straightforward vocation to learn, kosher slaughter is a precise process, requiring both theoretical and practical training, as well as specialized equipment, notably a particular type of fiercely sharp knife with no pointed tip. Ritual slaughterers must be able to inspect animals’ organs to ensure that they don’t have forbidden blemishes or other indications of illness, as well as repeatedly practice the movements of slicing — not piercing — the animal’s neck in one fluid motion deep enough to cut through the arteries but without inadvertently decapitating it.

A participant in a program to train kosher slaughterers in Ethiopia inspects a special type of knife used in kosher slaughter in November 2022. (Ohr Torah Stone)

The first two and a half months of training were conducted over the internet, with the 12 participants studying the relevant texts.

“The specially manufactured knives and sharpening stones were shipped from Israel, and two weeks ago Rabbi Ansani arrived in the country to begin the practical part of the course,” according to Ohr Torah Stone.

This included slaughtering large numbers of chickens to learn the correct movements.

“The group studied from early morning into the evening hours. It was very important that each student train extensively in the hands-on methods so that they would have as much experience and confidence in the process as possible,” said their teacher Rabbi Ansani.

Last week, an examiner traveled to Ethiopia from Israel to test their knowledge and abilities, and all 12 passed the course and received their official certification to slaughter chickens.

(Though the overall concept is the same for all animals, the process is easier to perform on chickens than it is on larger mammals, which require far larger knives and more specialized training.)

“This is truly a historic moment that will significantly benefit the local communities in Gondar and Addis Ababa. Establishing a shechita infrastructure within the Ethiopian community is something we believe is extremely important, both from a food supply standpoint and no less so from the perspective of strengthening their Jewish identities and connection to our heritage,” Birnbaum said.

“With God’s help we will be blessed to see the remaining members of the community come home very soon to join us in Israel,” he added.

The participants of a program to train kosher slaughterers in Ethiopia meet with their teacher Rabbi Netanel Ansani, center, in November 2022. (Ohr Torah Stone)

Though the Israeli government has approved the immigration of some 3,000 Ethiopians eligible for Israeli citizenship, several times as many remain stuck there due to bureaucratic obstacles and political opposition. They are mostly from a group known as the Falash Mura, people who converted to Christianity or whose ancestors converted due to coercion or fears of persecution. While most have returned to practicing Judaism, the state does not view them as Jewish for the purpose of qualifying for citizenship under the Law of Return.

All new immigrants from Ethiopia must undergo a 10-month process of conversion to Judaism in order to receive full citizenship. Otherwise they are permitted to remain in Israel but only as permanent residents.

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