Ethiopian rabbi leads Israeli shul with Ashkenazi congregation

Rabbi Sharon Shalom

Rabbi Sharon Shalom can drop a Yiddish expression with the best of them. “A sach gesundt” (lots of health) he says as he ends a conversation.

As spiritual leader of a congregation consisting largely of Holocaust survivors and their families, it’s no surprise he’s able to speak “a bissel Yiddish” (a little Yiddish). He’s even heard the term “shvartze” a few times, when people discuss his role as rabbi of Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat.

As an immigrant to Israel from Ethiopia, he understands the skepticism that greeted his role as rabbi of an Ashkenazi congregation. “People ask,” he said with a phrasing that might be part Ethiopian, part Yiddish.

His answer, however, is entirely rabbinic. Nearly 2,000 years ago, during the Jewish revolt against Rome, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. At the time, he explained, “all the people were the same colour, [spoke] the same language, [enjoyed] the same culture. But the people hated each other. Each thought they were more important than the other.” It was “sinat chinam” (baseless hatred), he said, referring to the rabbinic explanation for the defeat and exile that befell the Jewish people.

When he reflects on his position at Kdoshei Yisrael, “ I tell them, when we came to be a people, like in Yiddish, menshlichkeit [is important]; to be a human being, a person, adam. It doesn’t matter if you speak a different language, have a different culture or colour…so, in the synagogue, before you come to meet God, one of the conditions is to know how to meet persons. It doesn’t matter if they are secular, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Moroccan. If you give them respect, they can meet and speak to God.”

Rabbi Shalom will be in Toronto this week as guest speaker at Congregation Darchei Noam. He will discuss “An Ethiopian Contribution to Jewish Life in Israel and Abroad” on April 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Rabbi Shalom, 39, hails from Zaoda Tapsai, a small village in northern Ethiopia that was entirely Jewish, he said in a telephone interview from Israel.

He studied Torah at an early age as well as other holy books recognized by Ethiopian Jews but considered Apocrypha by rabbinic Judaism.

The Jewish Bible consists of 24 books; the Ethiopians revered 68, he said.

The Talmud, the collection of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law and customs, was not part of Ethiopian Jewish literature. “All the traditions they take straight from the Bible,” he said.

When Ethiopian Jewry moved to Israel in two great aliyot, they were faced with more than culture shock. The religious traditions they had practised, from schchitah to taharah (ritual purity) were practiced differently in Israel.

“This is a big conflict and we find today a big confusion with this problem in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel),” he said. “Some want to stay exactly like in Ethiopia. Others say, ‘we are here and we must accept the commandments as in Israel, the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch (a code of Jewish law), everything.’”

Complicating the issue is that “a high percentage of the second generation has no connection with the Talmud or Ethiopian tradition. They’re actually secular.

“This is a big crisis,” Rabbi Shalom stated. “There are a lot reasons for that phenomenon. When Ethiopian Jews came here and the rabbis told them they may not be Jewish and need to convert, this request made them very, very angry.”

Ethiopian spiritual leaders were also upset by laws that prevented them from doing what they had done in Africa, such as officiating at weddings or performing schchitah.

“Ethiopian Jews are still looking for their way,” Rabbi Shalom said. “They’re struggling with their identity. They feel sometimes more black, more Jewish, more Ethiopian, more Israeli…. It’s still being resolved.”

Some Ethiopian Jews have travelled back to Ethiopia in search of their roots. “Most of them came back and [say] Ethiopia is not for me. They became more Zionist and more proud of their identity.”

Rabbi Shalom is trying to bridge the divide that makes it difficult for many Ethiopians to integrate into Israeli society. He recently published a book, From Sinai to Ethiopia, which is “like a Shulchan Aruch for Ethiopians,” he said.

He believes his own story can be a model for others. In the early 1980s, as a child fleeing Ethiopia without his parents, he was in south Sudan when he saw his first Israeli – a naval commando.

“Only today can I understand. I was a little child and didn’t understand then. I remember I was afraid and in big shock when they came to us, and they embraced us and they kissed me. I felt more comfortable and more relaxed.”

Rabbi Shalom was part of Operation Moses in which 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were secretly airlifted to Israel.

A second airlift, Operation Solomon, brought a further 14,000 Ethiopians to Israel in 1991.

Even on the telephone, Rabbi Shalom’s excitement at being in Israel is palpable. He is clearly impressed with the accomplishments of Israel in only 64 years of existence.

“The Jewish people come from all the world. It’s amazing. When I walk the street in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Kiryat Gat, it’s unbelievable how the state, with all its struggles, built beautiful houses, and succeeds. It’s an amazing country and makes me proud to be part of the Jewish people.”

 He recognizes, however, that Israeli society is not free of racism. Ninety per cent of Ethiopians share that belief, he said.

“I believe that Israel is like the world. What’s a danger in the world is to be alive. It’s very dangerous. If you believe that and ask God why do You make life so hard, you can scream all day and not find answers.

“[When] you wake up [you should] say, the world has nothing personal against you, this is the world and I have to find a way to struggle with what is going on in the world.

“I must be strong. If I look for an answer for success, I won’t find it in Israeli society. The answer is very deep inside me. So, I say Shalom, you must take responsibility and be proud and be strong. I’m sure with this way, Ethiopians can be integrated into the world.”