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Ethiopian rabbi celebrates his own journey

Rabbi Sharon Shalom, of Kdoshei Israel synagogue in Qiryat Gat, Israel,supervising a Bar Mitzvah candidate this week.

Heidi Levine

Passover, the story of the Jews' flight from Egypt, is always a big deal for Sharon Shalom, one of only a handful of Ethiopian-born Jews to be ordained as a rabbi in Israel.

It was as a nine-year-old that Rabbi Shalom made his way to Israel in 1982, part of a trickle of Ethiopian Jews to be spirited across the Red Sea to the Promised Land, the advance guard of a larger exodus of some 8,000 that would be known as Operation Moses, intended to safeguard a community several times that size from drought and religious persecution. Other operations followed until some 80,000 members of Beta Israel, as they were known in Ethiopia, had been brought to Israel.

"Until then, we were the Jews left behind [in Africa] Rabbi Shalom said. "Now, we celebrate our own journey every Passover."

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In the early 1980s, Ethiopian Jewish families were urged to make their way west to Sudan where Israeli and U.S. agents, acting in secret with Sudanese security, airlifted as many Jews as they dared to Israel. (Sudan was turning a blind eye as long as there was no publicity of the emigration.) Rabbi Shalom's family walked for two months to get to Sudan where they were told by Israeli representatives that Sharon, their first-born, would have a better chance of success if he went on his own to Israel with other children.

About 1,000 of these young, black "orphans of circumstance" were settled in Israel, with the intention that the rest of their families would follow later.

Sharon Shalom, the name he was given on arrival, (until then he was known as Zaude Taspei) was raised in an orphanage in Afula in northern Israel, and told that his parents and siblings perished in Sudan.

Two years later, he was informed the family had survived and was living in Israel.

"You can imagine my joy when I saw them," Rabbi Shalom said this week.

Standing outside his small synagogue in this southwestern agricultural corner of Israel, Rabbi Shalom, 38, supervised the preparation of a steel drum of hot water in which his congregants would wash their pans, cleansing them for Passover.

"The dream of Jerusalem kept us going," he said, recalling how hard it was to escape from Ethiopia in those days. "And it kept me going," he said, referring to his drive to become a rabbi, just the second Ethiopian rabbi ordained by the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

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His congregation, mostly European Holocaust survivors, loves him. "He may be black, but we have similar histories," said Moshe Schwartz, a Czechoslovak Jew who also came to Israel as an orphan, in his case a five-year-old, the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust.

And while Rabbi Shalom loves his congregation, Kdoshei Israel wasn't his first choice as a synagogue.

"I wanted to lead my own people," he said, referring to Ethiopian immigrants.

It was not to be.

Rabbi Shalom recalls the shock he experienced in his job interview five years ago when Qiryat Gat's Chief Rabbi told him he was "not black enough," to have an Ethiopian congregation.

It was a reference to the fact that Rabbi Shalom had trained in an Ashkenazi (European) religious school, rather than in a Sephardi (or Oriental) yeshiva.

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The city's Chief Rabbi is Sephardi and, Rabbi Shalom said, an ardent supporter of Shas, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party comprised almost entirely of Sephardi Jews.

He wanted to "make sure the rabbis got the Ethiopian community to vote for Shas," Rabbi Shalom said; so he was only going to appoint Sephardi rabbis to the posts.

"I was stunned to hear that," Rabbi Shalom said, shaking his head at the crass politics that was played.

Encouraged two years later to apply for a position at Kdoshei Israel, Rabbi Shalom was quickly accepted. The appointment of an Ethiopian to lead a European synagogue was big news. "How could you hire a black rabbi?" a reporter for the popular Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot asked Mr. Schwartz, then a member of the synagogue's hiring committee.

"I just looked at him [the reporter]" Mr. Schwatrz recalled. "'We were looking for knowledge, not colour,' I told him."

"We chose the right man."

With a foot in each culture, Rabbi Shalom sees his role as bridging the gap between the 5.8 million Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish Israelis, and the 125,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent.

There is a lot work needed to build that bridge.

Ethiopian-Israelis find local school boards that bar or segregate their children, neighbourhoods that won't allow them to buy homes, and employers who pay them 30- to 40-per-cent less than Arabs, the previous occupant of the country's lowest economic rung.

Many Israelis question the Jewish credentials particularly of the 30,000 so-called Falash Mura who are among the Ethiopian immigrants. These are Jews who, a century or so ago, converted under pressure to Christianity, and who recently said they wanted to return to Judaism. Israel has officially accepted them, but not so society at large.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time with a delegation of Ethiopian community leaders. He told them he was "shocked" by the racism he had learned about, but "happy to see that we're intent on addressing these issues."

"Many people just can't accept the idea of black Jews," said Rabbi Shalom, noting that previous waves of immigrants, from Yemen, Morocco, even from Russia, have been viewed with suspicion by those who came before.

In fact, the Rabbi admitted, with a twinkle in his eye, he likes to surprise people. "Once, at a wedding I was to perform, I was sitting with some of the guests when the man next to me said he couldn't understand why the rabbi hadn't arrived yet. I had a good laugh."

Many are surprised also to find that Rabbi Shalom's wife, Avital, an art therapist, is white, having immigrated from Switzerland. But, said the rabbi, the couple and their four children have found almost no criticism from the white community in Israel – the Shaloms are the only Ethiopians in their neighbourhood. Rather, said Rabbi Shalom, "it's Ethiopians who don't like the idea of intermarriage."

"New communities must change their ways to fit in better," the rabbi said, "just as the older communities must accept people who are different. We teach our children to be Israeli, not Ethiopian or Swiss."

"The Mishnah," Rabbi Shalom said, referring to a rabbinic collation of oral lessons, "tells us why God created only one man from whom to start the human race, instead of 60,000 or some other big number. It was so no one could ever say he's better than anyone else, since everyone came from the same forefather."

As he celebrates his 30th Passover in Israel, Rabbi Shalom prays that more people will learn that lesson.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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