Members of the Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Young boys of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A member of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community lights the Sabbath candles before the Sabbath and Passover prayer service in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community wait for prayer service before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Members of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community recieve food packages before attending the Passover seder meal, in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Members of Gondar's Jewish community prepare matzah before Passover on April 20, 2016. The matzah dough hand-off has to be done quickly and efficiently so that the matzah can be cooked in less than 18 minutes. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
GONDAR, Ethiopia — It was the Bnei Akiva kids who started the dancing, of course, at the end of the Passover seder when we say “L’Shanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim” – Next Year in Jerusalem. These children, who have been waiting for years to make aliyah to Israel, sang the words with passion, dancing in wild circles, jumping with their hands on each other’s backs and hoisting the smaller kids onto their shoulders. One enterprising five-year-old stage-dived off the bima (platform) into the crowd of dancers and was raised aloft.
The words “Next Year in Jerusalem” are bittersweet for Gondar’s Jewish community. They capture moments of hope, but also decades of longing, countless frustrations, bureaucratic hurdles, the pain of family separation, and thousands of years of tradition. The Passover seder, which retells the story of the exodus from Egypt to Israel, from slavery to freedom, brings their struggle to become Israelis into sharp focus.
Some of the members of Gondar’s 6,000-strong Jewish community have been waiting for upwards of 25 years to move to Israel, stuck in limbo as they watch the political wrangling in Israel from afar.
About 135,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent are living in Israel. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1992. Since that time, 50,000 additional Ethiopian Jews have made aliyah to Israel, at a rate of about 200 per month.
A member of the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community carries her baby on her back before attending the Passover prayer service, in the synagogue in Gonder, Ethiopia. April 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
But there are still approximately 9,000 Jews left in Ethiopia, according to the community. The Jews still left in Ethiopia are called “Falash Mura,” descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, often under duress.
In November, Jews in Ethiopia celebrated the government’s decision to approve the aliyah of 9,000 Ethiopian Jews. The approval faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption was not part of the budget. Funding was found and the aliyah was again approved on April 7.
So the Passover seder on Friday for approximately 3,000 people in Gondar had a celebratory air, because many in the community believe that maybe this time, finally, they will be celebrating future Passover seders in Israel.
“You are not alone, people all over the world are thinking of you as they say the same words tonight,” said Rabbi Menachem Waldman at the start of the seder. Waldman, a Haifa rabbi who has acted as the rabbi of the Jewish community in Ethiopia for the past 35 years, now works for the Jewish Agency. He mentioned the names of MKs who visit or support the community, including Likud MKs David Amsalem and Avraham Neguise, who refused to vote with the coalition for two months until the Knesset approved the plan to bring the 9,000 to Israel.
Waldman reminded the community that the Jewish Agency was again sponsoring the seder meal for the first time since the it announced the “end” of Ethiopian aliyah in August 2013. And he told them that thousands of Jews around the world, in Israel and in America, were advocating for the resumption of aliyah, the reunification of families stretched between Ethiopia and Israel.
A seder for 3,000 is chaotic, loud, boisterous, exciting. It required two weeks of preparation to hand-bake 50,000 matzahs over the fire. Thursday was spent sweeping the dirt-floor synagogue from top to bottom, and Friday was for food preparation: boiling 2,000 eggs and 400kg of potatoes, crushing the peanut-date-banana mixture for haroset by hand with two large wooden mallets.
By early Friday afternoon, as the sun turned golden and the Ethiopian and Israeli flags fluttered in the breeze, the frantic preparations were at last completed.
People began arriving two hours in advance, women dressed in beautiful white shrouds and the children scrubbed clean and excited. Dozens of synagogue leaders worked all day on Friday to make “seder goody bags” for every participant, with a boiled potato, egg, piece of lettuce, and matzah. Perhaps the biggest miracle was that the bags were passed out more than three hours before the seder began, and almost no one, not even the smallest children, opened the bag for a pre-seder snack.
Around 50 children sang the Four Questions at the top of their lungs as the rest of the community clapped along
The evening began with Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) services, since Passover began on Friday evening. As the crowd began to sing the traditional local Friday night song “Sambuse, Sambuse,” the women broke out in ululations and the crowd went crazy, dancing and throwing their arms in the air.
It took community leaders a while to get everyone seated so Waldman could begin the seder.
As he ran through an abbreviated text — this is the bread of affliction, this is the bitter herb, this is the first cup of wine — people held the items aloft, a sea of boiled eggs raised throughout the synagogue. Around 50 children sang the Four Questions at the top of their lungs as the rest of the community clapped along.
The sweet homemade wine, made of 40kg of raisins fermented in two large trash barrels for a week, was the biggest hit of the seder, with children clambering to get a cup.
When the night ended with a singing of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, the mournful melody was transformed
A seder for 3,000 doesn’t leave much room for deep discussions or reflections on the themes of Passover. But perhaps it’s less about the words, and more about the reality of yearning for Israel, and hoping that this is the year their own exoduses will come to an end.
When the night ended with a singing of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, the mournful melody was transformed. It was a rousing chant shouted with resolution and strength. It was a promise, not a plea. And when they sang it, I couldn’t help but tear up.
Because I live in Israel, I know that it is not the perfect place of their dreams, or of anyone’s dreams. “Don’t you know how difficult it will be for you when you arrive?” part of me wanted to tell them. “Don’t you know that Israeli society can sometimes feature a bottled-up but commonplace racism that may try to erase your culture, change your name, deny you educational opportunities just because of the color of you skin? Don’t you know about the racism, violence, and senseless terrorism that Israel faces from its enemies?”
And yet. No matter how difficult Israel can be, there are also moments of beauty that take your breath away. “I will miss Ethiopia, but even more, my soul now misses the Holy Land,” one of the cantors in Ethiopia told me as he oversaw the preparation of matzah. And I understood.
At some point on Friday, almost every Jew in the world turned their thoughts towards a single place, Jerusalem, as they retold the story of the exodus from Egypt.
For the Jews of Ethiopia, these words are not a traditional story. They are a reality, a hope, a plea, a promise. This year we are slaves, next year let us be free. Now we are in our Egypt, but we have hope: Next Year in Jerusalem!