Tzfat's Ethiopian Community
History of Ethiopian Jews
Thousands of years ago, a portion of the Jews of the Land of Israel were separated from the mainstream Jewish community and somehow made their way to Ethiopia. Some say that they were sent by King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba's land after she visited Solomon in Israel. Others believe that they fled Israel during the upheavals following the destruction of the First Temple. Other theories abound as well.
What is known is that these Jews, Beta Israel, maintained their connections to the Torah and customs of their heritage, and although they weren't aware of Rabbinic Laws, their dedication to their religion carried them through more than two millennium.
Ethiopian Jews yearned to return to Israel, and in 1983 and 1984, thousands of Ethiopian Jews reached Israel by trekking through Ethiopia to Sudan, where Israelis waited to bring them to Israel by boat. Tzfat was one of the first cities to set up absorption centers for these new Israelis, and the municipality, schools, and social services in Tzfat have always gone above and beyond what's "necessary" to assist their absorption into Israeli Society.
Again in 1991, a large wave of immigrants arrived when Israel airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a lightning, one-night operation. Tzfat continued its tradition, begun in 1984, of hosting large numbers of these immigrants during their absorption phase.
Since then, Israel has continued to bring new immigrants in small groups, and many come to Tzfat. The city has two absorption centers, and the infrastructure in Tzfat is recognized as being extremely hospitable.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, Tzfat in general is known as the "Berkeley of the Middle East" - a place where eccentrics gather, but also, as a place which is accepting and open to all.
Secondly, Magbit Brittania, the Jewish Federation of the UK, is involved in assisting the immigrants, specifically with a yearly Bar and Bat Mitzva celebration for the Ethiopian youngsters reaching that age. The children are invited to participate in special activities which teach them about Judaism and then, at the culmination of the year, they travel to Jerusalem with their parents to celebrate at the Western Wall. The activities take place with local teachers and counselors; a rabbi and his wife travel to Tzfat frequently to add educational content and spiritual support, and the children are treated to new clothes and the ritual items necessary for a proper Bar and Bat Mitzva.
Finally, however, the new immigrants find caring and helpful support from the local population. Led by Dr. Yehoshua Sivan, the Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed raises money to try to help the immigrants with some of the basics that the government does not provide. Dental care, eyeglasses, school expenses, winter clothing.....these are just some of the "extras" that Dr. Sivan tries to help with through his organization. "72% of all Ethiopian Israelis live below the poverty line" the Committee's annual newsletter reminds donors. "65% of Ethiopian families don't have a breadwinner". Each small donation adds up to the Committee's ability to help the new immigrants get through their first few years in Israel and look forward to a new future as Israelis.
Tzfat is, indeed, a special place for Israel's newest population of immigrants.
To assist Dr. Sivan in his work, contact him at [email protected]