By Reena Kronitz with Samuel Taddesse
Small communities, living in groups of fifty, sixty five or ninety people: these are the Beta Abraham Jews of the hidden synagogues of Ethiopia.
Westerners are most familiar with the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews, the majority of whom were airlifted to Israel during the 1980s and early 1990s in Operations Moses and Solomon. There are varying theories about the origins of Ethiopia’s Jewish community, although there is general agreement that they have lived in Ethiopia for millennia.
History of the Beta Abraham
The Beta Abraham are a splinter group that left the larger Beta Israel community in the nineteenth century. At that time, there was a substantial Jewish community centered around the city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia. In the 1850s, the future emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik II, was imprisoned in Gondar but ultimately escaped with the assistance of Beta Israelis he had befriended. His Beta Israel supporters followed him south to the Shewa region where he was crowned King of Shewa by then-Emperor Yohannes IV. Eventually, in 1889, Menelik himself became emperor.
Under Emperor Yohannes, the Jews began experiencing religious persecution. The emperor decreed that anyone who did not accept Christianity must be beheaded or enslaved. That decree caused the Beta Israelis to disguise themselves as Christians. They tattooed crosses on their children’s foreheads and cheeks. The men pretended to be Christian priests and men and women began to attend church on Sundays. Their land was appropriated by the Coptic Church. However, many remained on their land and continued their Jewish tradition and rituals and met for Shabbat at the homes of the elders. Elders determined that outsiders should not have access to the community and prohibited members from providing information about the community to others, to prevent their exposure as Jews. Thus began the secret synagogues.
Subsequently, during the reigns of both Menelik II and, later, Emperor Haile Selassie I, the Coptic Church remained very powerful. The Church did not tolerate Judaism or other forms of Christianity. Consequently, the secret practice of Judaism which started during the reign of Emperor Yohannes persisted, continuing to this day. Many of the descendants continue their 3,000-year-old Jewish practices in secret while maintaining their Christian cover. Their synagogues, hidden in remote areas and unknown to most, remain a refuge. There are now only fourteen or fifteen such synagogues which house a largely elderly and infirm population living in abject poverty. Typically eating only one meal a day, they somehow survive–and survive as practicing, hidden Jews.
The Beta Abraham Community Today
Most of the Beta Abraham community now lives in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They, too, have remained hidden, albeit within an urban context. Their ancestors followed Menelik to Addis Ababa when he moved his capital there, settling near the emperor’s Grand Palace in the neighbourhood of Kechene. Today it is estimated that the Kechene Jews number approximately 150,000, although not all continue to actively practice Judaism. It is difficult to determine numbers and the nature of their practices accurately, given the secrecy of the community. It is only within the last twenty years or so that a small group of younger Jews in Kechene has gone public, revealing their existence to the world and attempting to connect with Jews in the West and Israel. Nonetheless, they continue to describe persecution, and report that others believe they have the “buda,” or evil eye, and that they turn into hyenas at night. Indeed, I had a personal experience in which a driver refused to take me to Kechene; he was too frightened to go there. The group has established a small synagogue in Addis Ababa that welcomes visitors, and whose community members are eager to learn about modern Judaism. The Judaism they have practiced has been pre-Talmudic, a continuation of the ancient religious practice of their ancestors. I was fortunate to join them for a Passover seder. It was a remarkable experience in many ways, enhanced when they showed me the spot where they sacrificed a lamb earlier that day and then pointed out the lamb’s blood spread around the door frame leading into the synagogue.
Members of two hidden synagogues, together with the small group in Addis, were featured in a 2016 film, “Bal Ej: The Hidden Jews of Ethiopia,” directed by Israeli filmmaker Irene Orleansky. This film reveals the history, traditions, and plight of this community. Significantly, other hidden synagogues would not participate, refusing to reveal their existence, and believing firmly that it is only their secrecy that has allowed their community and their Jewish practices to survive.
How We Can Help
The Beta Abraham communities in the secret synagogues of Shewa live in dire poverty. Their Kechene cousins offer support, but they, too, are poor and have limited resources. Kulanu provided funding for one hidden synagogue to purchase a mill ($3,500), which allowed them to grind grain, providing both a relief from the drudgery of grinding by hand with stones and as a source of income, as they can now grind for others. This winter, we responded to a request for funding to help the same group purchase food.
With reduced rains, food costs increased and the community indicated that food was a priority. They also revealed needs for clothing and roof repairs ($2,300) so their synagogue will not leak during the rainy season. The two synagogues that participated in the Bal Ej film similarly are in need of food supplies. We are also working with them on developing self-sustaining initiatives. Specifically, we hope to fund the purchase of sheep and chickens (a flock of sheep costs $525); these are good investments in rural Ethiopia for generating income, while the raising of such livestock is not too demanding for the elderly.
It is a fascinating and moving story. In their commitment to survive as Jews, the Beta Abraham communities have chosen to remain hidden for generations. Yet their devotion to Judaism and Jewish practice remains unwavering, even in the face of grinding poverty and fear of persecution. It is Kulanu’s hope that with our assistance now, these communities will become self-sustaining.
Your support is needed to help provide basic needs for these frail elderly communities. For specific needs, see kulanu.org/ethiopia-wish-list. Please donate at kulanu.org/donate, and write “Ethiopia” in the comments. To fundraise for this as your mitzvah project, contact us (kulanu.org/contact).
Reena Kronitz is a psychologist in Toronto, Canada, who periodically teaches at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University. She is one of Kulanu’s Ethiopia coordinators and a member of the Board of Directors of Kulanu Canada.
Samuel Taddesse is an Ethiopian-American who now works and lives in Ethiopia. He’s been one of Kulanu’s Ethiopia coordinators since Kulanu was founded.