GONDAR, Ethiopia — When the congregation at the HaTikvah Synagogue in this northern Ethiopian town rises to sing Israel’s national anthem at the end of every service, the mournful melody is transformed into a rousing chant, a determined shout to the heavens — and to the doors of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset — that their prayers to immigrate to the land of Zion are heard.
In 2013, the Jewish Agency announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah, with a celebratory last flight and ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky said they had “closed the circle” on Ethiopian aliyah after 3,000 years.
While Sharansky celebrated at the airport, left behind in Gondar — as well as in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa — were approximately 9,000 Ethiopian Jews who did not qualify for aliyah according to standards from the Ministry of the Interior, but still deeply identify as Jewish.
In November, the government approved the immigration of 9,000 Jews from Ethiopia. The decision faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption process was not in the state budget. Two Likud MKs, Avraham Neguise and David Amsalem, refused to vote with the coalition until the government funded the decision to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, which they finally did in April. However, a Knesset shake-up in late May meant that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a larger majority in the coalition, and Neguise and Amsalem’s tactics will not work again.
The Ethiopian immigration was supposed to begin in June. But as Netanyahu flew to Africa on a four-day tour this week, his office refused to comment on reasons why the process has not started.
Netanyahu is touring Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and he will arrive in Ethiopia on Thursday. There, Netanyahu will meet with politicians and businessmen, and take a tour of the national museum, but his official schedule does not include any meetings with the Jewish community.
The Jews left behind in Ethiopia are classified as “Falashmura,” a term for Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. But most Jews in Ethiopia today reject this term. They are willing to go through the conversion process when they arrive in Israel, as some are not matrilineal Jewish, but they bristle at the suggestion that they are not ethnically Jewish.
(video courtesy of Lior Sperandero)
Falashmura and those still in Ethiopia are not considered Jewish under the Law of Return, which requires one Jewish grandparent and disqualifies someone who has converted to another religion, even if the conversion happened a long time ago.
Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer stressed that while the agency facilitates the process of moving Ethiopians to Israel, the Interior Ministry is the body that makes the lists of those who are eligible.
“Since the individuals in question have not been found eligible for aliyah [under the Law of Return] by the Ministry of the Interior, their ability to immigrate to Israel is subject to ad hoc decisions by the Israeli government, made on a humanitarian basis,” Mayer said. “The Jewish Agency will carry out any decision by the Government of Israel pertaining to immigration from Ethiopia to the best of our ability, as we have over the past six decades.”
Ethiopian Israelis were not willing to let their relatives be forgotten, and launched an extended fight to reunite families torn apart by the bureaucratic policies of aliyah.
So now, after three years of negotiations, false starts, and dashed hopes, the first new Ethiopian Jewish immigrants are praying that their plans to being arriving at Ben Gurion this summer will still come to fruition. Neguise declined to comment on an expected timeframe, citing ongoing negotiations with the Prime Minister’s Office.
The long period of limbo, of being unsure whether they when or if they will move to Israel, has plunged many Jewish families in Ethiopia deeper into poverty. They left their villages behind 20 years ago, destroying the social fabric that holds families together in order to move to Gondar or Addis Ababa to be closer to the Jewish Agency offices. As such, they haven’t started businesses because they are always expecting to leave; they rent instead of saving to buy a home, leaving them poorer each month as rents increase.
The Jewish Agency used to run a feeding program for the Jewish community, for nursing and expectant mothers and children up to age 6, but that program ended in 2013 when they announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah. Although the Jewish Agency has recently returned to the area, including sponsoring a Passover seder in April 2016, the feeding program has not resumed. In 2011, researchers found that 41% of the Jewish children in Gondar were malnourished, and in the 12-23 month age range, 67% were malnourished. The average urban malnutrition rate in Ethiopia is 30%.
Who are these Jews, the ones left behind Ethiopia? The following are eleven personal stories of heartbreak, waiting, and ultimately, hope.
Eyayu Abuhay, 28, committee member, Addis Ababa
“We are the last ones left,” said Eyayu Abuhay, 28, one of five elected committee members who leads the community in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. “I have no family here. We don’t know why we’re left. They say we’re Falashmura but we reject this name.”
The 3,000-strong Jewish community in Addis is spread out over the outskirts of the city as members can no longer afford to live near the synagogue, which is next to the Israeli Embassy. Now, community members find themselves traveling up to two hours by public transport to reach the synagogue. Shabbat services attract only about 100 people, though hundreds come on Sunday mornings over the weekend.
Abuhay says the reason he is still in Ethiopia is dirty politics and racism.
“They are ignoring us by our color,” he said. “We are Ethiopian Jews, so yes, we look like Ethiopians. Yemenite Jews look like Yemenites, and Dutch Jews look like Dutch. What do they expect?”
Ambanesh Tekeba, 32, head of the community, Gondar
In Ethiopia’s patriarchal society, community head Ambanesh Tekeba is an anomaly, a woman elected to lead the Jewish community of Gondar. Tall and striking, she projects calm and competence as she oversees the logistics for all of the community, whether it is directing 3,000 people for the seder or giving a tour to Ethiopian soldiers who have been assigned to protect the synagogue.
“After the Jewish Agency closed everything here [in August, 2013], we started the congregation anew,” she said. Tekeba was one of the 15 people involved in restarting the synagogue community, renaming it “HaTikva” or “The Hope.” She still smarts from the Jewish Agency’s treatment of her and other members of the Jewish community from previous years, and said that in previous years she wasn’t even able to attend the community seder because she wasn’t “on the list of Jews.”
Tekeba said she wasn’t on those lists because her mother is not Jewish, though her father is Jewish. She is also married to a non-Jewish man, though believes the issue with aliyah is tied to her patrilineal Judaism.
In addition to her work at the synagogue and her job as a community liaison to the English children’s charity Kindu Trust, Tekeba is also balancing the demands of her family in a society where female leadership is rare.
“I’m a mother and a wife, but I don’t have time to care for my kids and husband,” she said. “It’s also hard to manage people when you’re female. It’s very unusual, and sometimes I’m afraid [to manage them].”
“Sometimes people make conflicts, but she makes peace,” said Gashaw Abinet, a cantor who works closely with Tekeba. “She works hard to get what’s necessary for people.”
Tekeba is serving her second two-year term as the head of the community. Previously, she also served as a secretary under the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. NACOEJ provided assistance to the Ethiopian Jewish community in Gondar from 1982 to 2011.
Though she is excited to go to Israel after 17 years in Gondar, there will be some bittersweet moments leaving the place she’s worked so hard to rebuild after the Jewish Agency withdrawal. “I will miss everything about this synagogue,” she said, “especially the prayers, praying all together.”
Gashaw Abinet, 29, cantor, Gondar
It was the language of the Jewish Agency withdrawal in 2013 that made Gashaw Abinet, one of the cantors of the Jewish community in Gondar, the angriest. “How could they say there’s no more Jews in Ethiopia?” he asked. “They know us! Asher [Fentahun Seyoum, the former Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia] knows me. I was a hazzan, I was a Judaism teacher when he was here.”
Abinet thinks he was not on the lists for aliyah because his mother was raised by a Jewish stepmother, but his biological grandmother may have been Christian, though the family is not sure. His mother’s stepsisters, who feel like sisters to her, are in Israel.
Abinet serves as an unofficial tour guide for many visitors, since he has excellent Hebrew and English and lives just steps from the synagogue with his wife, Adanech, and two-and-a-half-year-old son, Alieazar.
“We’re continuing to explain to all the tourists who want to hear our story, and I want to tell them our story,” he said. “It was a sad story but because of these people we are succeeding,” Abinet said, citing MKs Neguise and Amsalem, the Jewish Agency’s Rabbi Menachem Waldman, and strong local leadership. “Soon, aliyah will start, and this is so exciting.”
As for those who are stalling the process of Ethiopian aliyah, Abinet hopes they will soon change their mind. “We are all the nation of Israel… Now with God’s help this is the time to return to Israel, and they can’t stop the nation of Israel from bringing us together. I know that God made a miracle for the Jews in Egypt, now he should do it for us as well.”
Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, cantor, Gondar
“I see the pictures in Israel [of Ethiopian Israelis protesting], and they’re holding up our pictures,” said Simegnew Yosef Naga, 34, who has been waiting in Gondar to make aliyah to Israel for 18 years. On the mud wall of his rented home in Gondar, where he lives with his wife, Tigest (Patience) Kasi Tagenyi, 26, and their three children, he hangs a photo of his grandmother, Yerumnesh Werku, who moved to Israel in 2001.
“She’s 90 years old now,” said Naga, who also has an uncle in Israel with nephews and nieces that he’s never met. “We’re only in touch by phone. I hope to see her before she dies.”
Naga says his mother, who is still living in Gondar, is Jewish, but his father is not, and he blames corruption for the reason he’s still in Ethiopia. His wife is Jewish from her father’s side.
Naga serves as one of the HaTikvah community’s five hazzans (cantors), an elected position he’s held for the past 15 months. When he’s not leading services from the bima for the twice-daily minyan or Shabbat, he patrols the kids section with an official stride, shushing all chatter with nothing more than a stern look and a “shh!”
Naga learned Hebrew from the Jewish Agency’s Jewish school, and has taught himself conversational Hebrew. When he strolls down the street in Gondar, everyone knows who he is, from the young schoolgirls to the older shopkeepers. But still, Naga takes care to remove his kippah when he leaves the synagogue grounds.
“In Ethiopia, it’s really hard for Jews,” he said. “In the villages, people called us ‘falasha’ [the derogatory word for Jews].”
“In this whole world we are all one, it doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, Jewish, Christian,” he said. “But in Genesis, the Jews were the ones who got the Torah.” This same promise means that the Jews belong in Israel, he said. “With God’s help, whoever has family should go [to Israel]. Others wait until God only knows when. But we believe that within five years we’ll be there, too.”
Alementu Lake, 25, drink seller, Gondar
Alementu Lake barely remembers her village in the Gojam region of Ethiopia, more than a day’s journey from Gondar. For the past 18 years, she has lived next to Gondar’s central piazza, an urban neighborhood that is a riot of sounds and colors, horse-drawn carts bringing vegetables and jerry cans down dirt streets. The mud houses are painted bright colors, and children dart from open doorways into the street, weaving between horses and motorcycle tuktuks and minibuses.
Her two brothers and sister moved to Israel three years ago, and are still living in an absorption center. “It’s politics, I try not to think about it,” she said of the government decisions that have left her behind in Gondar.
Lake runs a small drink business from her home, selling cold Cokes and Sprites. She is married with two children, though her husband is not Jewish, and she thinks perhaps that is the reason her family was not on the lists for aliyah.
“The Jewish Agency said that everyone who has family will get there,” she said. “Aliyah needs to happen. There are people in Gondar for 10, 20, 26 years. We’ve been waiting and now it’s time for us to make aliyah.”
Almenesh Ytagew, 18, student, Gondar
Alemnesh Ytagew, 18, is anxious to get to Israel as soon as possible so she can serve in the army. “In Israel, I want to go to ulpan [Hebrew language classes], and then go into the army in order to protect Israel,” she said. After her army service, she hopes to become a teacher, and would like to teach Judaic subjects in public school.
Ytagew has lived in Gondar for nine years with her mother, grandmother and two sisters. Her father died a number of years ago. She is from the village of Singisam, in Gojam region. Other family members from Singisam gave up after a period in Gondar, and returned to the village.
“It was hard for them in Gondar. They had no money, they were here for a short time but went back,” she said. Jews were already in the lower class in Ethiopia because they could not own land. When the Jews left their villages and moved to Gondar to await aliyah, many struggled to make ends meet among higher rents and few options for work. Leaving the villages also meant the intricate social networks that supported them collapsed in the urban environment.
It’s unclear how many Jewish Ethiopians are still in villages in the Gojam region, though their distance from Gondar and lack of participation in the Jewish community may render them unable to make aliyah in the current wave of 9,000.
In the meantime,Ytagew is waiting. “They said that hopefully we will come soon,” she said. “I came with other people from the village who have made aliyah. So why not us?”
Tigabu Worku, 27, cantor, Addis Ababa
When Tigabu Worku, the cantor of the Addis Ababa population, leads the community in song, he closes his eyes and his whole body sways, taken over by the music. Over the past years, with the help of YouTube and visiting Israeli volunteers, he has taught the community dozens of songs, both in Amharic and Hebrew. He spends hours scouring YouTube for Hebrew songs whose message speaks to a community yearning for Israel. He likes everyone from Ashkenzi Haredi singers to Sarit Hadad, with a special affinity for Eyal Golan’s “Mi Shemaamin Lo Mifached” (“Whoever believes will not be afraid”).
The youth group loves to sing and meets before services to sing as they wait for the community to gather for Kabbalat Shabbat. As the thunder rolls across Addis Ababa, bringing a much-needed downpour, the rain pounding on the tin roof provides natural syncopation to the familiar Hebrew melodies. But Worku hopes that the songs about Israel and faith and God’s compassion for the Nation of Israel will soon be more than just hopeful words.
“I read that Jews are happy to help Jews, that Jews live for Jews,” said Worku. “So what about us? We are bleeding here.”
“They in Israel know we’re Jewish, but they don’t take me. My grandmother and grandfather are there – it’s nonsense. What does Jewish mean, if you’re only going to leave us here? Is it because we’re black? Who created us? We didn’t choose black or white. God created us, and if they believe in God they have to respect the creation of God – all of God’s creations.”
Samuel Araya, 32, motorcycle taxi driver, Gondar
“The problem is that I don’t have any evidence that I’m Jewish,” said Samuel Araya, 32, who drives a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi in Gondar. Araya’s family history is complicated. He said his mother was a secret mistress to his father, who had a separate family. Araya’s mother died when he was a baby, and his father arranged for him to live with a neighbor in Gondar, but had little contact with him. Araya did not have a good relationship with his stepmother and left home at age 12, living on the streets and doing whatever odd jobs he could do to survive.
“When I was 14, a guy from my mother’s home talked to me and told me lots of things about my real mother, and that she’s Jewish,” said Araya. “I tried to verify things about my real mother with my father many times, but he said he has another family and he’s not interested. He said if they knew about me – both that I was his son and also about the Judaism – it would be very bad.”
Without proof of Judaism, Araya knows his chances of making it to Israel are slim. He has not registered with the Jewish Agency, meaning he is not on the list of 9,000 Jews approved to make aliyah. He hopes to locate his birth mother’s grave, to see if perhaps it is in a Jewish cemetery or has other markings that show her religion.
In a country with no birth or death certificates, proof of Judaism can be difficult to obtain. And as extended families and out-of-wedlock children further complicate matters, the challenge of sorting through who is Jewish is even more difficult.
“I am always feeling in my heart that I’m a Jew,” said Araya. But since he only started attending synagogue two years ago, he also knows that people are suspicious of his motives. “If I go to the synagogue, since I’m shy, in my mind I’m worried that most people think that I’m going to synagogue just because I’m trying to go to Israel.”
Slowly, he said, as he gets to know members of the Jewish community, he’s starting to feel more accepted, though often he prays at home instead of the synagogue because he feels closer to the religion by himself. “If you’re a Jewish person, they expect you to go to synagogue,” he said.
Araya was raised as an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and taught that “Falasha” or Jews were evil and dirty. Now, his motorcycle taxi is decorated with Israeli flags, a fact that often brings unwanted attention when he is in the majority-Muslim marketplace. He wears shirts emblazoned with the flag as well.
“One hundred percent definitely I will go to Israel,” said Araya. “This is God’s promise to me. I just don’t know how He’ll do it.”
Ermias Gebrie, 17, Bnei Akiva leader, Gondar
The hour before the Bnei Akiva kids perform “Ehad Mi Yodea” (“Who knows one?”) before 3,000 community members at the annual Passover seder, Ermias Gebrie is jumping up and down in the back room, trying to get the youth excited. “Sing loud! Do the hand motions! Smile!” A dozen members of the youth group are wearing the blue-laced white Israeli Bnei Akiva shirts, helping to arrange the 50 children in lines and assisting with the hand motions.
Gebrie is the new leader for Bnei Akiva, and he takes his position seriously.
“We work hard,” he said. “When our chanichim go to Israel, we know it will be hard, but they can say, ‘I’m going to go to Bnei Akiva,’ and maybe it will be less hard.”
When everything in Israel is strange and new, there will still be vestiges of home, words like “chanichim,” “madrichim,” or the same Bnei Akiva shirt, he said.
“If I go to another place it will change me, but the goal of Bnei Akiva is to prepare for going to Israel so we will be together and succeed in our lives in Israel,” he said.
Gebrie has been overseeing Gondar’s Bnei Akiva for the past six months. He has 180 “chanichim,” or participants, and 10 “madrichim,” or counselors, who are between the ages of 15-19.
While Bnei Akiva Israel hasn’t yet sent financial support, they have sent volunteers from Israel to help Gebrie get the youth group off the ground and troubleshoot the challenges of starting a group for teenagers.
Gebrie thinks his family was left off the list for aliyah because they cannot count seven generations of matrilineal Judaism. His mother is Jewish, but his mother’s father is not Jewish. The family recently located estranged cousins in Kiryat Shmona, through the help of an Israeli Bnei Akiva volunteer, so are hoping that filing papers in Israel for family reunification will help speed up their aliyah process.
“We meet Tuesday and Thursday, and we have a really good connection,” said Gebrie. “On Shabbat and on Sunday, we teach the kids. We have Bnei Akiva shirts. We helped the kids prepare for Pesach. We do their classes as best we can, using what’s in the library. We work hard.”
Atenkut Setataw, 25, teacher and cantor
Atenkut Setataw is one of those millennials addicted to Whatsapp. In between directing the successful operation to hand bake 50,000 pieces of matzah before Passover or leading daily services, he’s constantly hovering over the device, sending messages and pictures back and forth. But the Whatsapp messages are not just chatter with local friends — it’s his only connection to his family.
Setataw’s mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who he considers to be like his parents. But his aunt and uncle moved to Israel nine years ago, leaving a teenage Setataw, and Setataw’s older brother, behind in Ethiopia. Because Setataw and his brother are not part of his uncle’s biological immediate family, he was not approved for aliyah with the rest of his cousins.
“Now we meet on Whatsapp,” he said. Setataw’s quick grasp of Hebrew while studying at the NACOEJ school in Gondar made him a natural hazzan (cantor), and he has also taught Judaism classes at school and the synagogue.
The distance from his family has proved challenging, especially when Setataw wanted to get married. Traditionally, marriages in many of the Jewish families in Gondar are arranged or approved by the bride and groom’s families. All of Setataw’s family was in Israel, except for his older brother and grandfather. Setataw’s uncle, acting in the role of father, ended up approving the marriage by phone from his home in Jerusalem. Last year, Setataw married Alesa Netere, 20.
Netere also has family in Israel, an aunt and uncle. “Alesa’s uncle, her mother’s brother, went to Sudan 34 years ago and then to Israel,” said Setataw. “A few years ago, he called Alesa’s mother and said ‘we thought you died because you haven’t been in touch for so long!’”
Now, with the help of technology, the families are in regular contact. But Setataw says it is not enough. “We’ve been waiting such a long time,” he said. “Hopefully with God’s help, this year, we’ll go to Israel and we’ll all be there together.”
Mulu Lagese, 74, grandmother, Gondar
After 74 years in Ethiopia, Mulu Lagese knows that moving to Israel will be a big shock to everything that she knows. Still, she holds out hope that after 18 years of living in a rented mud-walled shack in Gondar, she will be able to join her nieces and nephews in Israel.
Her husband died waiting to make aliyah, and she hopes she and her two grown children will also get the chance to see Jerusalem. She shares the courtyard with other Jewish families waiting to move to Israel, drying hot peppers in the sun that give Ethiopian food its special kick.
“I miss my family,” she said, simply. “I want to go to Israel.”