Israel Pulse

Ethiopian Jewish leaders make gains in Israel

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Article Summary
The government has accepted recommendations that the spiritual and religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community be permitted to perform holiday ceremonies and burial and purity rites, but stopped short of granting the authority to officiate weddings.

The Jewish Ethiopian community in Israel has been struggling with different forms of discrimination in the years since they arrived in the country. They are fighting for their spiritual and religious leaders (the kessim) to be recognized by the Israeli religious establishment to formalize their status as part of the system of religious services in Israel.

The kessim achieved another victory last week, when a government subcommittee recommended that the kessim be permitted to perform holiday ceremonies and burial and purity rites and administer synagogues. Nevertheless, they still have a long way to go for full religious authority, such as the right to conduct weddings.

The Ethiopian Jewish clergy served as the religious and spiritual leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community for centuries. They were responsible for the unique ways in which the community observed Jewish religious law as it appears in the Torah. When the Ethiopian Jewish community immigrated to Israel (mainly in the 1980s and 1990s), they discovered that the country’s rabbinic establishment would not recognize the religious authority of the kessim.

After years of struggle and angry demonstrations by Ethiopian immigrants in 2015, a ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was established to advance the community’s integration into Israeli society. This February, the committee decided to formalize the status of the kessim. Netanyahu said, “This community has a special status precisely because it kept this heritage even in complete isolation. I find this moving and close to my heart. Therefore, this is a historic undertaking."

After the February decision, the government created a subcommittee to outline instructions and recommendations for the implementation of the decision. The subcommittee recommends the establishment of schools to train the next generation of kessim and the creation of official positions for them within various religious councils. In the first stage, 28 kessim will be employed full time in key religious councils. They will apparently have the authority to provide religious services to the population at large, and not just the Ethiopian community. The process will conclude with the recognition of another 30 kessim, who currently serve as unofficial religious leaders of various Ethiopian communities in Israel. The exclusive authority to appoint new kessim will be granted to the meluksa, or supreme religious authority of the Ethiopian Jewish community.

Furthermore, the state will fund a project to document in writing all of the kessim's religious knowledge, which has been passed down orally from one generation to the next for 2,500 years.

Gadi Yavarkan, who heads the group struggling for recognition of the kessim, told Al-Monitor that the state had corrected a historic injustice. “Nevertheless,” he added, “it is important to remember that this is simply the restoration of our ancient rights.” He said that the committee’s recommendations “come to respect and appreciate the traditions of Israel and the religious authority of the kessim, who ensured the survival of the Torah and the traditions of Israel since Temple times.”

Despite Yavarkan’s optimistic remarks, the committee’s recommendations do not include allowing the kessim to conduct weddings and divorces and other Jewish rituals pertaining to marital status. This is one issue on which the rabbinate refuses to concede. It insists that these rituals can only be performed by rabbis who were ordained by its own institutions.

About six years ago, Rabbi Sharon Shalom published “From Sinai to Ethiopia,” the first compendium of religious law for the Ethiopian Jewish community. Shalom, who received official ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, told Al-Monitor that just as Jewish customs in Israel take the customs of other Jewish immigrant communities into consideration, Ethiopian Jewry should also be allowed to follow the customs that they brought with them from their country of origin. He went on to say that the rabbinical establishment in Israel is dominated by ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, and “all the other communities are forced to dance to their tune.” The rabbinate turned against him following the publication of his book, and he was summoned for a hearing before the Ethiopian community’s religious court. As a result, he says, the rabbinate will not allow him to perform weddings and other religious rituals even though he was ordained to do so and bears certification as a rabbi.

Ayano Perda Senbato is one of the most prominent activists on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, he said that until the kessim receive full recognition of their authority, including the right to conduct marriages, he considers the committee’s recommendations meaningless. He said that all that really happened was the technical formalization of the way kessim and rabbis are appointed to the Ethiopian Jewish community, based on regulations announced by the prime minister in February of this year. “As such, the role of the kess will be meaningless, since they are not being granted the full authority of religious and spiritual leaders like they had in Ethiopia.”

Nevertheless, the committee’s recommendations have set the process of recognizing other Jewish denominations into motion, even though their customs, rules and traditions may differ from the norms of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which dominates Israel’s religious establishment. Other Jewish denominations, such as Conservative and Reform Judaism, are caught in constant conflict with the religious establishment and can only dream of receiving the recognition that Ethiopian kessim now enjoy.

One leader of the Conservative community told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that it may be time for his community to learn from the Ethiopian Jews and to block roads like they did. “Maybe then we will gain recognition,” he said, adding that the measures taken on behalf of the Ethiopian community were simply intended to ensure that they vote for the Likud and ultra-Orthodox Shas in the next election.

Regardless, official recognition of the religious leadership of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community has corrected a longstanding injustice that has been in place since the community first began to immigrate en masse to the country. Yet the real test will be whether they are granted full, practical authority to administer and manage religious ceremonies for Ethiopian immigrants.

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Danny Zaken is a journalist who works for the Israeli public radio station Kol Israel. Zaken has covered military and security affairs, West Bank settlers and Palestinian topics. He was a Knight Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan and completed the BBC Academy's journalism program. Zaken lecturers on media and journalism at the Hebrew University, the Mandel School and the Interdiscinplinary Center Herzliya. He is the former chair of the Jerusalem Journalists Association.

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