On a rabbinic mission to Israel last week (see related article), I met some people who are in some ways very different from me and you, and in other ways very much like us.
The encounter took place in Rishon Letzion in a large, well-lit room with a concrete floor that resembled a warehouse. Our group sat around rows of long tables placed end to end that functioned as the synagogue of our hosts. Our common language was Hebrew, and we exchanged our personal stories for the better part of an hour. But when the most senior person among their group rose to bless us, he spoke in his native language. The blessing was especially long and softly spoken with words that had a cadence of their own. Though I could not understand any of the words being spoken, they soothed me, and I felt blessed.
After the blessing, we shared the food that had been placed on the tables. Another long blessing was offered before eating, this one to express gratitude for the earth’s bounty. Again, I could not recognize or understand the blessing, but it was clearly offered with kavana, a spiritual feeling that could be discerned. We shook hands and embraced, wished each other well, and continued on our way.
The people we met were Ethiopian Kessim, the rabbis of this ancient Jewish community that came to Israel in two daring operations — Moses and Solomon — that made it possible for them to start a new life in Israel. The Ethiopian community in Rishon Letzion is supported in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. This project is only one of several partnerships in Israel undertaken by our federation that make it unique among other federations, and we should be deeply proud of the work that’s being done on our behalf in Israel.
The Ethiopian Kessim who met with us come from towns where they each serve as rabbi for hundreds of families. Their Jewish customs are different from ours, as they do not follow Rabbinic Judaism in the same way we do. They pray not in Hebrew but in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopic language. Their Shabbat morning tefilla begins at 4 a.m. and lasts five hours and they stand for every word they pray. Despite the differences between our communities, the Jews from Ethiopia are also very much like me and you. We have in common two very potent and enduring elements: a love of Judaism and a powerful connection to Israel.
For much of the time I was in Israel, I tried to identify the core message of the visit. The briefings and site visits arranged for us seemed to range across a wide spectrum of topics, including religious pluralism, the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, the BDS movement and its efforts to delegitimize Israel, the threat from Iran, illegal migrants from Africa, and the legacy of Theodore Herzl. Was there a common thread to these experiences?
That common thread is the yearning and determination of the Jewish people to build a home in the Land of Israel where the national aspirations of am Yisrael can be fulfilled and where we can live in peace and safety. That dream has of course become a reality in our time but it is a reality that is still evolving. That the Jews of Ethiopia live in Israel today is a true fulfillment of Herzl’s vision. That they still face significant disenfranchisement and discrimination (Ethiopian rabbis are not fully recognized by the Chief Rabbinate and, like Masorti and Progressive rabbis, cannot perform marriages for their own community) is a sign that Israel is struggling to build a society that is true to principles of justice and its democratic foundation. Life in Israel is remarkable and diverse, hectic, and productive. It is also complex, bearing the signs of the challenge of solving problems that emanate from a place that is deep within the soul of this magnificent place.
The Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, reflecting on the final words of the Passover seder — L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim: Next year in Jerusalem — once said, “Don’t say it unless you mean it.” One of the presenters on our mission reinterpreted that sentiment to say, “Don’t say it without meaning.” That’s the challenge of Diaspora Jews. We, too, can be part of the Zionist dream. We can help fulfill that dream by becoming active in the work of our federation, by becoming knowledgeable and skilled advocates for Israel in an environment that is hostile to the very idea of her existence, by prioritizing Israel in our philanthropic giving, and by visiting Israel often.
In April we will gather at the seder table and offer the familiar refrain of L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim. For centuries, those words have served as a powerful inspiration for our people who yearned to live in the land so fundamental to our identity as a people. Let’s commit ourselves to saying them with meaning.