Ethiopian Israelis mark muted Sigd, as holiday overshadowed by war

Traditional Jerusalem ceremony overlooking city limited, with many instead celebrating holiday at absorption center in north where members of community from Sderot are relocated

Ethiopian Jews take part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem on November 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
Ethiopian Jews take part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem on November 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

JTA — For years, the 50th day after Yom Kippur has been marked by the pilgrimage of hundreds of Ethiopian Jews dressed in white and carrying colorful umbrellas to Jerusalem to celebrate Sigd.

This year, that day falls on Monday. But with Israel at war, a traditional large public celebration of the Ethiopian Jewish holiday celebrating the acceptance of the Torah and yearning for Israel at a promenade overlooking the city was toned down, with only a few dozen community leaders on hand.

Another ceremony was held at an immigrant absorption center in the northern community of Nir Etzion, where many Ethiopian Israelis living in Sderot relocated, as that city was evacuated due to the war.

Many of Israel’s approximately 160,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin are reeling in the wake of the October 7 massacre, when Sderot’s large Ethiopian community was among Hamas’s targets.

“The Sigd holiday is a holiday that expresses unity and longing for Jerusalem,” Ophir Sofer, minister of aliyah and integration, said at the event in Nir Etzion, according to media reports. “Precisely these days, despite the grief and sorrow, the people of Israel are showing themselves in their unity. … I see it on the ground, the unity is only growing among us.”

The Sigd ceremony opened with a tribute to Ofir Libstein, the head of the Shaar Negev security council who died in battle with Hamas terrorists on October 7.

Hamas’s murderous rampage through Israeli communities last month saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border from Gaza, slaughtering some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages.

Firefighters at the site of a direct hit by a rocket from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on October 15, 2023 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Sigd was first celebrated in Israel in significant numbers in the 1980s, thanks to a wave of Ethiopian immigrants who had made their way partly by foot, through Sudan and countless hardships.

Advocacy from within the Ethiopian Israeli community led to Israel adopting Sigd as a national holiday in 2008. But it remained largely under the radar in other countries — and even to many in Israel — until the last few years, because of a growing appreciation for Jewish diversity.

Now, it is routinely marked in Jewish communities around the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, and new books and materials have been produced to facilitate the festivities.

Ethiopian Jews take part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem on November 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Recently, Israel’s population of Ethiopian immigrants has grown for the first time in years. In the latest development in a painful and protracted immigration saga, hundreds of Falash Mura — descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity about 200 years ago and who are relatives of the Jews who were airlifted to Israel in 1991 — were allowed to move to Israel last summer and earlier this year.

But Sofer said in August that no additional immigration was planned, even as Israel airlifted some of its citizens out of the country, due to a worsening civil war there. Hundreds of Ethiopians remain on a list of people approved to move to Israel.

As more recent immigrants, the families housed at Nir Etzion had experienced war in their home country before coming to Israel. Many of them had no idea that they would face further risks once they immigrated, concluding a process that for many was decades in the making.

New immigrants from Ethiopia play cards at the Nir Etzion Resort, northern Israel, October 15, 2023. (Sue Surkes/ Times of Israel)

“Nobody told us about any security problems,” Anagu Walle, who arrived earlier this year, told Times of Israel last month.

The war casualties include an Ethiopian Israeli paratrooper named Yehonatan Semo, 21, who died after being injured in combat in Gaza. He was buried Sunday, according to a Facebook post by a woman who attended the funeral.

“The Semo family are members of the Ethiopian community, who immigrated to Israel on foot via the desert in Sudan, to make their way home to Israel,” Noa Choritz wrote on Sunday in a post that has been shared widely. “Each year, the Ethiopian community gathers on a high point in Jerusalem to gaze upon the Old City and commemorate the journey they had to take to arrive here, and those they lost along the way. This holiday is called Sigd, and it should be celebrated tomorrow. The celebrations have been canceled this year, and as his family mourns his loss, do the Semos need to commemorate what they lost to make it to this point anyway?”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

Most Popular
read more: