Safed’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.These Jews, Beta Israel, maintained their connection 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 millennia.
Ethiopian Jews yearned to return to Israel, and in 1983 and 1984, thousands of Ethiopian Jews trekked through Ethiopia to Sudan (about 4000 dying on the way), from where they were brought to Israel. Safed was one of the first cities to set up absorption centres for these new Israelis, and the municipality, schools, and social services in Safed 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 (Operation Solomon). Safed 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 Safed. The city has three absorption centers, and the infrastructure in Safed is recognized as being extremely hospitable.
The new immigrants find caring and helpful support from the local population, in particular from the Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed. The Committee has been functioning for over 24 years. A measure of its reputation may be gained from the fact that the Chairman, Dr. Yehoshua Sivan, received the President’s Award for Volunteering, 1995, “For work in absorbing Ethiopian new immigrants”, as well as (with his wife, Hilary) the Distinguished Citizen of Safed Award, 1999, and in 2001 the Absorption Award from the Jewish Agency “For your contribution and your work in absorbing new immigrants”. While these were in his name, in fact they were all for the work of the Committee. At the end of 2011, on the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon, the Mayor of Safed presented the Committee with a Testimonial:
“The Safed Municipality wishes to thank the Committee for Ethiopian Jews in Safed
for their contribution and action towards the social and educational advancement, and successful absorption, of Ethiopian Jews in Safed in particular, and elsewhere in Israel in general.”
The Committee aims
- to supply the physical and spiritual (cultural, educational, and religious) needs of Ethiopian Jews in Safed and elsewhere.
- to encourage their social and educational advancement.
- to intervene on their behalf with local and national authorities.
The Committee subsidizes
- home repairs/improvements, buying of appliances.
- nursery, primary, secondary school fees (between 33%-80%), and gives modest grants to college students, and supports professional training.
- bar/bat mizvas, maintenance of Ethiopian synagogue, expenses for gravestones and memorial ceremonies.
- dental treatment and paying for medicines.
Apart from subsidies, the Committee gives interest-free loans. In all cases, the aim is to preserve the recipients’ self-respect, by making them partners in the activity.
The 2014 expenditure was ILS 190,000 (₤32,000), of which less than 1% were running expenses (there are no paid employees).
Although devoted to Ethiopian Jews in Safed, the Committee continues to help those who have moved elsewhere, or to assist people referred to them by Safed volunteers who come across cases in other parts of Israel (this year: Bet Shean, Afula, Kiryat Yam, Holon, Rishon LeZion among others).
Safed is, indeed, a special place for Israel’s Ethiopian Jews.