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Ethiopian Jewish Religious Leader Visits U.S.

I initially learned about Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, the first Israeli-born qes, from an article written by Germaw Mengistu (“To integrate into Israeli society, but to preserve the way of our forefathers,” May 2012) in a then-several-months-old copy of the Amharic and Hebrew newspaper Yediot Negat. I very much wanted to meet this young qes (he is currently 27) who was raised and educated in Israel from birth, but nonetheless chose to become a traditional Ethiopian Jewish religious leader. It took a full year before I was able to do so.

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel (or House of Israel, as Jews there referred to themselves) did not have rabbis. Rather, the Jewish religious leadership comprised monks and priests. Since the community’s immigration to Israel, many Ethiopian Jewish men, like their co-religionists, have elected to become rabbis. To me, Qes Efraim’s decision to become a qes signified that the ancient Ethiopian Jewish religious tradition, including the institution of qessotch (plural of qes, which means priest or kohen in Amharic) might nonetheless endure in the state of Israel.

I sought out Qes Efraim when I attended my second Sigd celebration in Jerusalem in October 2013. When I arrived at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, where the main Sigd celebration takes place, I asked anyone I knew or met if Qes Efraim was there too, and requested that if they saw him to let him know there is a man from America who wants to speak with him. At one point during the celebration, as I walked around the Promenade, I turned and saw someone resembling the photograph of Qes Efraim I’d seen in Mengistu’s article. “Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Qes Efraim?” He replied, “Are you the guy who everyone tells me is looking for me?”

After Qes Efraim found out that I had come from the United States solely for the purpose of celebrating the Sigd and meeting with qessotch, he said to me, “Just as you have traveled here to celebrate the Sigd with us, I will travel to the United States to celebrate with you.” He also invited me to visit him and his family at their apartment in the city of Karmiel, in northern Israel. My brother Amir Afsai and I drove to Karmiel a couple of days later. There we were introduced to Qes Efraim’s mother, neighbor, wife and baby daughter. Together we talked, watched a DVD of Qes Efraim’s wedding and a DVD of his ordination ceremony, and looked at photographs and Jewish books from Ethiopia. As my brother Amir and I were leaving Karmiel some four hours later, he said to me, “If you had traveled all the way to Israel and only experienced this, it would have been worth the whole trip.”

When Newton-based author Len Lyons (perhaps best known for his 2007 The Ethiopian Jews of Israel—Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land) told me that the organizers of the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton, an annual event taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, had been trying unsuccessfully for a number of years to get a qes to attend, I realized that having Qes Efraim come to the Shabbaton could be a great way to get him to the United States, and specifically to Rhode Island, where I live.

After much back and forth between me and the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s CEO, David Weisberg, during which, among other things, he was able to assure me that the Shabbaton would accommodate the strict religious requirements of a qes, Qes Efraim agreed to attend. Qes Efraim also requested that his stay in the U.S. be extended for one week so that he could visit me and my community in Rhode Island. His plane ticket was paid for by an anonymous donor.

And so, in March, Qes Efraim traveled to Connecticut and Rhode Island, leaving Israel for the first time, and fulfilling the promise he had made to me when we first met in Jerusalem less than five months earlier. At the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton, Qes Efraim led portions of the Shabbat services, chanting traditional Ethiopian Jewish prayers in the ancient liturgical language of Ge’ez. We also gave a talk together about the Sigd holiday.

Following the Shabbaton, Qes Efraim spent the last week of March in Rhode Island. Accompanied by Congregation Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Barry Dolinger and by Israeli emissary to Rhode Island Matan Graff, Qes Efraim was given a special tour of Touro Synagogue by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Marc Mandel. Moved to be standing in the oldest synagogue in the United States and before a 500-year-old Torah scroll, Qes Efraim donned a tallit and chanted the shema in Ge’ez.

Dinners in Providence at the home of Dr. Michal Felder and Elissa Felder, who hosted Qes Efraim during his stay, were filled with lively discussions about Ethiopian and rabbinic Judaism. Qes Efraim explained that in Ethiopia Jews did not have all of mainstream Judaism’s oral traditions (such as many of those codified in the Talmud) because rabbinic Judaism developed while Ethiopian Jews were, for centuries, isolated from the wider Jewish world. In addition, just as with other Jewish communities across the globe, portions of the oral traditions Ethiopian Jewry originally possessed were lost over time. Thus, prior to the 20th century, Ethiopian Jews did not don tefillin, for example, nor did they celebrate Chanukah. They also retained very little Hebrew, instead preserving the Bible in Ge’ez.

Qes Efraim emphasized that as an Israeli-born qes he feels a special responsibility to keep alive the traditions and practices that Jews maintained in Ethiopia, while also explaining to the Ethiopian Jewish youth in Israel who now study Talmud why Jews in Ethiopia did not adhere to rabbinic Judaism but rather to their own unique Judaic system.

During a seudah shlishit (the customary third Shabbat meal) at Providence’s Congregation Sha’arei Tefilla, Qes Efraim spoke about how Jews may have arrived in Ethiopia, what their exilic experience there was like, and how Ethiopian Jews finally made their way to the state of Israel. The qes’s parents made aliyah to Israel as part of 1984’s Operation Moses, following an arduous journey from Ethiopia through the Sudanese desert, and after being stranded in a Sudanese refugee camp for eleven months.

Conditions in those refugee camps were precarious, and Ethiopian Jews concealed their Jewish identities and resorted to practicing Judaism in secret so as not to draw attention from their non-Jewish neighbors. Ethiopian Jews, who were part of a very devout community and who were particularly cautious about keeping the Sabbath, had to struggle in Sudan with the choice of either publically violating the Sabbath and other religious precepts or risking being discovered as Jews. When my brother Amir Afsai and I had visited Qes Efraim at his apartment, he showed us two Jewish books, handwritten on parchment in Ge’ez, which his mother, Ahuva, took from Ethiopia to Sudan, where she hid them before bringing the books with her to Israel.

While Matan Graff and I were driving Qes Efraim to JFK Airport at the conclusion of his trip, he phoned Germaw Mengistu. I was able to tell Mengistu that his article had led to my seeking out Qes Efraim, to our becoming friends, and to his historic visit to the United States. Mengistu was delighted to hear this, saying it was just such exposure that he hoped to facilitate by editing Yediot Negat and having articles appear in it in both Amharic and Hebrew. “The preservation of our religious heritage and the continuity of the qessotch are supremely important matters,” said Mengistu.

Since returning to Israel, Qes Efraim has called every day to update me on the response in Israel to his visit and on his thoughts about his time in the United States. “My community [in Israel] is very impressed and pleased that I traveled to the United States. They tell me that I have done holy work. My family is also very pleased.”

The qes says he now has a greater appreciation for the interconnectedness of Jews around the world. “On a personal level, I think that the importance of maintaining connections among Jewish people is a high ideal. It wasn’t a given to me that the Jewish community in the United States would open its heart and mind to learn about a different type of Jewish community. American Jews made me feel at home and that Jews around the world support one another.”

Given all of that, Qes Efraim considers his visit a great success. “I’m pleased that I was able to impart to people new information about the Ethiopian Jewish community, which was able to preserve an ancient heritage. I hope I was able to emphasize that fact, as well as its continued longing for the land of Israel. We see both these characteristics in Israel today, and in my own life, too,” the qes continued. “I am a son of olim [i.e., Jews who moved to Israel], was born in Israel, and grew up with a love of the land. I am also from a family of qessotch, have absorbed the traditions of Ethiopian Jewry, and have kept the traditions. These experiences formed my personality and allowed me to come all the way to Rhode Island to make a connection between Jews. That connection is the main thing in my eyes.”

The above article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on April 14, 2014. Shai Afsai is a writer living in Providence. His “The Sigd: From Ethiopia to Israel” will be appearing in the Fall 2014 issue of CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly.

By Shai Afsai

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