Ethiopia’s Kechene Jewish Community

A History Lesson and Challenge

image: Ethiopia context map

I had always wanted to visit Ethiopia and meet members of the Jewish community there. The closest I came, however, was in the 80’s when I met Ethiopians in Israel during the airlift and greeted them at an absorption center in Ashkelon right after they landed on Israeli soil. One of the perks, you might say, of being at the time executive director of Hadassah. However, a visit to Ethiopia itself never materialized. That fact changed in January of this year when several Kulanu board members, myself included, traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to visit the newly emerging Jewish community living in the Kechene neighborhood of the city.

When I first heard of the Kechene Jewish community, which calls itself Beit Avraham, I was intrigued. First there was Amy Cohen’s excellent article The Long Road Home in the Spring, 2009, issue of the Kulanu newsletter. Then, there was The Kechene Jews of Ethiopia, prepared last summer by members of the community who are now living in the United States. I have excerpted some paragraphs from the latter as a way to introduce them:

image: Kechene Potter (Photo by Laura Alter Klapman)

Kechene Potter
(Photo by Laura Alter Klapman)

The Kechene Jews share ancestral origins with the Beta Israel and, like those Ethiopian Jews, most of whom are now in Israel, they observe pre-Talmudic Jewish practices. Separation of the Kechene Jews from the Beta Israel, however, began around 1855… (when the community moved from its traditional village homes in the Gondar region of Ethiopia south to the Northern Shewa region).

The community played a pivotal role in the establishment of the capital, Addis Ababa, providing crafts and manual labor. But despite their economic importance, they were regarded with distrust, fear, and at times, even hatred because of their Jewish faith. Faced with extreme persecution from their Christian neighbors, who called them anti-Christ, they lived as strangers in the region and were denied basic rights such as the ownership of land, which was granted only to those who accepted the Christian faith and underwent baptism…

…To ensure the survival of the community and its continuity to the next generation, and to minimize persecution and gain access to burial grounds from the church, the elders instructed the community to abide by the following rules:

  • Members of the community were encouraged to adapt outwardly to the environment in which they lived, including going to church.
  • Judaic practices would continue secretly…(In other words), the mode of religious practice was changed from open to secret.
  • Access was denied to outsiders in their quest to learn about the community. Providing information about the community was strictly prohibited.
  • Religious wisdom had to be passed orally from generation to generation. It was strictly forbidden to produce any written document until “The Day” when God favors the community and their true identity and their religious practice can be made public without persecution.
A large Jewish community felt forced to live underground.

The Kulanu mission to Ethiopia was planned in response to these articles and to requests by some youthful members of the Kechene Jewish community to help them reconnect with the worldwide Jewish community. Kulanu’s coordinator for Ethiopia Sam Taddesse, an Ethiopian-born Jew, had recently retired from an illustrious 40-year international career working as an economist and had returned to Ethiopia to contribute to the economic growth and success of his homeland. Sam would plan and lead this important introduction to the community. For me personally, the trip represented a monumental history lesson and a challenge.

Here was a large Jewish community (some say over 50,000), who felt forced to live underground like the conversos (crypto-Jews) of Spain. Outwardly, they lived as Christians. But inwardly, they remained true to the faith of the Jewish people. Again, as in Spain, Jews had contributed to the building (in this case literally) of the country and capital city, but, at the same time, they were a despised minority and rejected for their religious identity.

image: Young men of Kechene Jewish Community (Photos by Laura Alter Klapman)

Young Men of Kechene Jewish Community
(Photos by Laura Alter Klapman)

I had the good fortune years ago to hear a lecture on the Jews of Spain by the distinguished Jewish historian Professor Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, who held chairs in Jewish history at Harvard and later at Columbia University. Dr. Yerushalmi spoke about the Spanish Inquisition and the conversos experience. He admonished the audience not to romanticize the period and to think that “underground” Judaism was the same as the free, open embrace of Judaism, only transferred to the cellar. “It isn’t about Jews sitting in the cellar with Shabbat candlesticks and a white tablecloth,” he said. No, the Judaism of the cellar was compromised, rituals and laws forgotten, observance difficult if not impossible to maintain.

I couldn’t help but remember Yerushalmi’s words during my visit to the Beit Avraham. Here was a community of Jews that was so frightened of being exposed that it did not respond to overtures from its co-religionists in the Beta Israel community or attempt to join the aliyah (return) to Israel. Here was a community that was still under suspicion even when it attempted to blend in with its Christian neighbors. To this day, many members of the community are fearful of exposure within the greater Ethiopian society and are unhappy that some of the younger members want to practice their Judaism in public. They say, “It isn’t the right time.” But the young people we met are buoyed by the 1994 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, making all religions equal under the law. For them, the time to embrace their faith in public is now.

Members support synagogue with personal funds.

But again I must refer back to Yerushalmi… what kind of Judaism survives for over a century and a half underground? We learned the answers to this and other questions during our visit. How can I describe the joy with which we were greeted by the members of this small community of practicing Jews? When we arrived at the synagogue, Kechene Bete Selam-House of Peace, a group of young men was waiting outside to welcome us and to show us their synagogue. Their young leader Sintayahu Gezahegne proudly led us into the building. Though small by United States standards, perhaps more like the size of a shtibl (tiny synagogue), the building is able to accommodate about 30 individuals.

It was obviously decorated with great attention to detail and a concern for tradition. On the roof outside was a blue and white construct with a star of David on it. The inside had a small office, an area to display community handicrafts and a sanctuary that was divided into two parts to accommodate both men and women. A lovely crimson drape covered the wall behind the ark. Abraham Kifle Mariam, a young community member, had copied the design from a picture of a synagogue sanctuary he found in a book. A wooden ark was attached to the wall, in front of which was a small table with candlesticks, wine glasses, a menorah. The room had wooden benches to accommodate worshippers and a curtain that could be drawn to separate the two sides. The young men told us they contributed a portion of their personal income each month to pay for the rental of the building, to develop the property and to decorate the sanctuary.

image: Before the Ark (Photo by Laura Alter Klapman)

Before the Ark
(Photo by Laura Alter Klapman)

As part of our introduction to the Jewish community in Kechene, we attended a meeting in a local school with over 100 leaders, many representing community organizations. Some attendees represented the elderly, many of whom live in poverty; others represented craftsmen. (Women were nowhere to be seen at the meeting.) Some participants came to talk about the lack of a Jewish cemetery where Jews could be buried as Jews and not have to profess their Christian allegiance in order to find a place for burial; others just came to express their Jewishness in a communal setting. One man talked about the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child. Though now middle-aged, his voice quivered and his eyes filled with tears as he related his feelings of isolation and sadness. The meeting lasted a whole day.

Another day was spent visiting craftsmen in a pottery cooperative with 26 women (we were told there are four such women’s cooperatives) and a weaver’s workshop of just men. The pottery cooperative provided us with our first opportunity to interact with women. Throughout our visit, we had asked, “Where are the women?” In the synagogue, in the community meeting, in conversations, we had emphasized the importance of bringing women into the decision-making process and stressed the need to empower them.

Now that we had the chance to meet some of them, we asked about their specific needs and wishes. The pottery cooperative had no wheels, no kilns and no electricity. Children crawled in the clay at their mothers’ feet as there was no one to care for them at home. Yes, they could use modern equipment and electricity. But what they wanted most was what all mothers want: “a good education and opportunities for (their) children.” Would they want to study Hebrew if they could. The answer was “yes.”

image: Child at potting cooperative (Photo by Sheila Gogol)

Child at potting cooperative
(Photo by Sheila Gogol)

We learned during our visit that the pottery cooperatives have an elected board that oversees the business of all four pottery cooperatives and meets regularly to discuss problems; however, the needs of the cooperatives are overwhelming and money is not available for modernization. The interchange was heartfelt, and we invited the women to join us at synagogue services on Shabbat.

In the weavers’ workshop, we were struck by the makeshift quality of the equipment. Instead of manufactured looms, the weavers had constructed looms from the limbs of trees, which were cut, shaved of their branches and bound together by rope to create the looms. This was the reality in a community that is largely poor and has few resources. The weavers, all of whom used to work at home, had recently relocated to a government-built complex just for weavers. The facility was clean and well maintained. The weavers stood beside their individual looms and proudly displayed their work. In the government facility, workers must pay a rental fee for space, which further limits their ability to make money from their craft. As a result, some weavers choose to work in the confined space of their small homes.

One of the many highlights of our trip was participating in Sabbath services. We arrived just before sundown and the lighting of the candles. The young men were dressed for services and greeted us with warmth and pride. Services were led by Demeke Engida, who used a xeroxed booklet with prayers in Hebrew and Amharic (Ethiopian language). He told me the translation of prayers had been done with the help of a family member. A cantor on a CD announced the order of the service and sang introductory songs and prayers. Some of the congregants had learned the songs on the CD and joined in.

image: Making atarah (collar for tallit)

Making atarah (collar for tallit)

From conversations during our visit, we learned how much these young people are thirsting for instruction in Jewish rituals and practice and desirous of learning Hebrew. It was obvious the passing down of Judaism in secret had severely compromised their knowledge of their heritage. And they knew it. Again, I heard the words of Professor Yerushalmi. “Without an open expression of ones Judaism… there will be losses…” And so it was an emotional experience for us who have grown up with the freedom to practice Judaism, to see what these young people are trying to do to counteract decades of Jewish illiteracy and secrecy.

Young people thirst for instruction in Jewish ritual.

And the women? Can I tell you that 22 women came to the service, some with babies in their arms or on their backs. The women were all ages and most were unable to participate in the service as they had little if any knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish ritual. Why they came, we were not sure. Was it the attention they received from us during our visit to the pottery workshop? Was it the fact that we were mostly women? It was impossible to say. But there they were, crowded into the small sanctuary.

image: Kechene pottery drying in the sun (Photo by Sheila Gogol)

Kechene pottery drying in the sun
(Photo by Sheila Gogol)

At our final meeting with the young men before we left Addis Ababa, we talked about the community’s needs… religious/spiritual, economic, educational, medical, communal. As the community’s infrastructure is still somewhat fragmented, poverty rampant, living conditions difficult and leadership often in disarray, we all agreed on the following first steps in this new relationship.

First Steps

  • Generate publicity for the community to encourage awareness, tourism and volunteer efforts within the worldwide Jewish community.
  • Assist the community in seeking donations of Jewish books.
  • Help identify a volunteer who could assist the pottery workers in seeking resources for training and modernizing to upgrade their pottery-making equipment and facilities.
  • Help arrange a visit of a rabbi and/or Hebrew/Judaica teacher(s) to teach/train community members in Jewish rituals and observance.
  • Explore the possibility that a member of the Beit Avraham community could go to study at Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s yeshivah, near Mbale, Uganda.
  • Discuss the possibility of having a member of the community visit the United States as a Kulanu speaker on behalf of the community.

Our departure that evening was bittersweet. Friendships had been formed; relationships begun; addresses exchanged. Although we were uplifted by what this small group of young Jews was trying to accomplish, at the same time, we recognized the challenges they were facing. Unlike the descendants of the Spanish conversos, the Kechene Jewish community is not 500 years removed from its heritage. Nevertheless, the Kechene Jews have been cut off from their roots for a long time. A small core of courageous Jews is reaching out. We need to galvanize the Jewish community to meet the challenges posed by the Kechene Jews and to help them return home.