two ethiopian children holding israeli flags
New Jewish immigrant children after arriving in Israel on a flight from Ethiopia, Oct. 29, 2012. (Photo/JTA-Uriel Sinai-Getty Images)

Hearing the unheard voices of Ethiopian Israelis

Too many Jews of my generation see Jewish people, as a whole, as being primarily privileged and white. However, there are plenty of Jewish groups, particularly within Israel, that do not have the privilege and wealth that many of us in the Bay Area enjoy.

One of these groups is the Ethiopian Jewish community.

During my senior year at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, I researched the Ethiopian community in Israel and communicated with Ethiopian Israeli teens through a pen pal program that I organized. Hearing the voices of this unheard group has been worthwhile and important to me, and I believe it is ultimately important for everyone.

The Ethiopian Israeli experience is important for us to learn about because it is crucial to know about the culture and traditions of Jewish communities other than our own, and because the struggles this community faces must be acknowledged and remedied. If we truly care about tikkun olam, repairing the world, we must prioritize helping less privileged Jewish communities worldwide.

The Ethiopian Jewish community has a long and little-known history that is sometimes obscured by the miraculous journey of most of the community to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. There has been a Jewish presence in Ethiopia for thousands of years, since before there was a Christian or Muslim presence. Legend has it that Ethiopia’s first ruler, Menelik I, was the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopian Jews have been traditionally regarded as the descendants of the tribe of Dan.

Due to the pre-Talmud origins of the Ethiopian Jewish community, they have practiced an older form of Judaism (which has included sacrifices and different prayers and rituals) than what is practiced by rabbinic Jews. Despite the ostracization to which these Jews were subjected in Ethiopia, and the frequent efforts of Christian and Muslim Ethiopians to convert them, the Ethiopian Jewish community has maintained its beliefs and practices in an unbroken chain of tradition for countless generations.

Judaism is not a monolithic entity, and the Ethiopian Jewish experience certainly attests to that fact. Yet many Jews have little awareness of Jewish communities or practices beyond their own.

It is important for Jews around the world to learn about the Ethiopian Jewish community because knowing about the history and culture of other Jewish groups can enhance communal connection between different, far-flung communities.

If we truly care about tikkun olam, repairing the world, we must prioritize helping less privileged Jewish communities worldwide.

Additionally, this knowledge can inspire curiosity about the history and experience of other Jewish communities that can foster a greater connection to and understanding of Judaism and Jewish history as a whole. Ethiopian Jewish culture is a unique and significant hue in the rainbow of Jewish culture.

For most of modern history, the Ethiopian Jewish community has endured significant hardships. Many walked through the desert to Sudan and endured terrible conditions in refugee camps waiting for flights to Israel. Once they arrived in the Holy Land, they faced discrimination in everything from housing to policies that seemed to invalidate their Judaism. Kessim, the Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders, have never been recognized in Israel the way rabbis are. Blood donations from Ethiopians were discarded. Though there have been some improvements, many of these problems persist today.

A disproportionate percentage of police investigations are against Ethiopian Israelis. There have been several high-profile cases of police brutality against Ethiopian Israelis. One-fifth of Israeli soldiers of Ethiopian heritage are jailed at some point in their Israel Defense Forces service. Just last year, Israel’s highest-ranking police officer claimed that police discrimination against Ethiopian Israelis was justified because they are more likely to commit crimes.

In the workplace, the average Ethiopian Israeli’s salary is 35 percent less than the average Israeli’s salary. A disproportionate percentage of Ethiopian Israelis work menial and unskilled jobs. According to a 2011 survey, 39 percent of Ethiopian Israeli families live below the poverty line — a staggering statistic. The percentage of Ethiopian Israelis with a university education (20 percent) is half the nationwide average. This systematic disadvantaging and discrimination follows many Ethiopian Israelis from youth to adulthood.

Living lives of relative privilege and ease here in the Bay Area, we may not notice the experiences of other Jews who are not so lucky. There are concrete things that can be done to spread the voice of this under-heard community.

When traveling to Israel, particularly with school groups or on other education-oriented trips, you can arrange to meet with Ethiopian Israeli teenagers or adults to hear about their personal experiences, learn about their beautiful traditions and see for yourself the circumstances that they face. You can donate to Israeli organizations that advocate for the Ethiopian community, particularly those that are run by Ethiopian Israelis, such as the Ethiopian National Project. Other organizations can be found at friendsofethiopianjews.org/resources.

And while donating is good, learning more does a world of good, too. Ultimately, the most important thing is knowledge of the history, culture and struggle of the Ethiopian Jewish community. By listening to them tell their own stories, we can learn more about their place — and ours — in the global patchwork of the Jewish community.

Talya Sandel
Talya Sandel

Talya Sandel is a recent graduate of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. She will be spending a gap year in Israel learning at Nishmat, an Orthodox women’s seminary in Israel.