Part of a Series – Hanukkah 2020 – Nes Gadol Haya Po – Be’er Sheva and the Negev
Once upon a time, there was Jewish community in Ethiopia, the Beta Israel. That community grew and flourished through hundreds and thousands of year. It developed traditions, marked holidays, and designated holy places. But they never forgot Jerusalem. They never forgot Jerusalem, but Jerusalem forgot them. Until the modern era. Even as far back as 1864, the Ethiopian leadership under Abba Sharga, reached out to the rabbis in Jerusalem.
“Blessed is the God of Israel, the Ruler of all flesh and spirit…Peace to you!…Has the time come when we must (indeed!) return to you. To our land, yes, the Holy Land and the Holy City, Jerusalem. We are a poor people, with no Cohen and no prophet. If indeed the time has come, please send us a note on this matter because we trust you in this matter more than we trust ourselves. To this end please advise us what will be and what should happen in the upcoming days because we are very confused. There are those who already say the time has come to separate ourselves from the Christians and come to you, to the land of Jerusalem, to rejoin with our brothers and offer sacrifices together to the God of Israel in the Holy Land.”
It would not be the time; world Jewry didn’t know what to do with these Jews who were so different – different looks, different customs. They even asked if they were actually really truly Jews. Through all this, the Beta Israel Jews didn’t forget. They had a holiday, the Sigd, to remember Jerusalem, which they celebrated every year for hundreds and thousands of years. Finally, in 1974, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef decreed that according to Jewish law, the Ethiopian Jews are, indeed, Jews like all the rest. But because of politics, they could still not come home to Israel. Beginning in the 1980’s and continuing through the 1990’s, after many deaths on the way in the desert, and many hours of negotiating on the part of the Israeli government, and clandestine flights to rescue Jews who had made their way into the Sudan and not a little bit of hutzpa, most of the Beta Israel community finally came to Israel.
But where did they settle? In the Jerusalem of their dreams? Mostly not. Many came to Be’er Sheva which today houses the second largest Ethiopian community in the country. And the streets were not paved with gold but with challenges. Turns out, bringing a subsistence rural farming population to modern Israeli cities doesn’t always go so well. Poverty, lack of education, family strife, and loss, characterized the Ethiopian community. Even discrimination raised its ugly head.
Be’er Sheva has many non-profits and governmental programs to help the Ethiopian community, but one special one catches my eye. It focuses on a population which may never “catch up” – retired women. These older women have come to Israel as fulfillment of a dream and for a better life, but they are not entering the work force. How do you engage even this population? In Be’er Sheva there is a center for Ethiopian Arts. This center preserves the heritage of the community through providing these older women a place to gather and to create. The statues and the baskets they make reflect the traditional crafts of Ethiopia. But besides preserving ancient occupations their art contains an element of storytelling. The story of the arduous journey and life in Ethiopia are depicted through these works. The traditional family life and the personality of individual people comes out in the statues. Even immigrants who will not enter the work force, or graduate high school, have a story to tell of their life journey to pass on to the next generation.
I think it tells a lot that Be’er Sheva, the town of Abraham, has welcomed Ethiopian Jews and has tried to help them integrate. Ethiopians are a big part of the po – here of Be’er Sheva. Be’er Sheva, the town of Abraham, has welcomed this community and given them expression as they live out their dream of rejoining their brothers.
At Hanukkah we remember the Great Miracle that happened Here – Nes Gadol Haya Po. But when we look around Be’er Sheva and the Negev, we see that even now there are miracles all around, in Start-ups like Sonya’s and Desert Management techniques in semi-arid Lahav Forest. There are great people to look up to, like David Tuviyahu and Yitzhack Rager. Lots of history to learn from Abraham and the Nabateans. And awe-inspiring populations like the Bedouin and the Ethiopian Jewish community in the here and now. I hope you have enjoyed this series as much as I enjoyed writing it. Happy Hanukkah to all!