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Israel seeks to end ancient African Jewish custom

By Daniel Estrin

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 2:20 a.m. MST

In this Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012 photo, Abio, an Ethiopian kess, Amharic for priest, attends a wedding celebration in Ashkelon, southern Israel. Nearly three decades after Israel began airlifting Ethiopia's ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel's rabbis are now working to phase out the community's white-turbaned clergy, the kessoch, whose unusual religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate's Orthodox Judaism.

Ariel Schalit, Associated Press

ASHKELON, Israel — Israel is closing the books on a rare millennia-old Jewish tradition.

Nearly three decades after Israel began airlifting Ethiopia's ancient Jewish community out of the Horn of Africa, Israel's rabbis are now working to phase out the community's white-turbaned clergy, the kessoch, whose unusual religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate's Orthodox Judaism.

The effort has added to the sense of discrimination felt by Israel's 120,000 Ethiopian citizens. These sentiments boiled over this month after a group of landlords in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi refused to accept them as tenants, prompting a large rally planned for Wednesday across from Israel's parliament.

"We are just like all the other Jews. We don't have any other religion," said Kess Semai Elias, 42.

Descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan, according to Jewish lore, Ethiopian Jews spent millennia isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. In most Jewish communities, the priesthood of the Bible was replaced by rabbis who emphasized text study and prayer. Ethiopia's Jewish kessoch continued the traditions of Biblical-era priests, sacrificing animals and collecting the first fruits of the harvest.

The two traditions diverged so much that the first trickle of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to Israel were asked to undergo a quickened conversion ceremony to appease rabbis who were dubious about their religious pedigree.

When Israeli clandestine operations rescued large groups of Ethiopian Jews from war and famine in the 1980s and early 1990s, a rabbinic consensus was reached and the newcomers did not have to convert — except for a group known as the Falash Mura, whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity generations before.

The 58 kessoch who arrived in Israel in those early days maintained their leadership role in the Ethiopian Jewish community, and in 1992 successfully lobbied the Israeli government to grant them salaries and status similar to those of government rabbis. But as the aging clergy began ordaining a new generation of kessoch over the past decade, and those new leaders also wanted recognition, Israel's rabbinate objected.

After public demonstrations and a brief hunger strike, the newly ordained kessoch struck a bittersweet deal last month with Israel's ministry of religious services.

The ministry would finally implement a 2010 government resolution to recognize 13 of them and give them state salaries. But Israel's state rabbis made it very clear to the new kessoch: They would be the last.

"It's for the best," said Rabbi Yosef Hadana, 63, of the Israeli rabbinate.

Himself the son of a respected kess, Hadana long ago traded the shash, the white turban of his father's tradition, for the black suit and fedora of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"After 2,500 years of isolation from the nation of Israel, we have returned. Now we need to find a way to be one people," Rabbi Hadana said.

Hadana says he holds great respect for the kessoch. They were the ones who once spun tales of Jerusalem's splendor at evening storytelling sessions, keeping alive the Ethiopian Jews' religious tradition. But anyone in Israel who wants to continue that tradition, he said, must get rabbinic training. Streamlining their religious practice can help integrate Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society, he said.

Ethiopian-Israelis have long struggled in Israel, with literacy rates relatively low, the culture gap wide and rates of poverty and domestic violence well above the national average.

Many of the older generation work menial jobs, men as security guards and women as cleaners. Their children, most of whom grew up in Israel's Orthodox Jewish religious schools, speak fluent Hebrew, serve in the army alongside native Israelis and are increasingly studying engineering and sciences in Israel's universities. Despite these gains, the younger generation is still struggling compared to other Israelis.

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