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First Seder in the Homeland

ethiopian model seder

Mivasseret Zion, Israel (April 2, 2012) -- The little girls stood on stage holding up a child’s painting of the Ten Commandments, quietly but confidently singing “Who Knows One,” the traditional Passover song about Jewish icons such as the Five Books of Moses, the Four Matriarchs, the Three Patriarchs, the two Tablets that Moses brought from Mount Sinai, and the Oneness of God.

It could have been a scene from any number of school Passover presentations, but these children were new immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia, demonstrating their Jewish knowledge for family members who, with them, are about to celebrate their first Passover in Israel.

This Friday night, an estimated 5,500 members of the “Falash Mura,” the extended family members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community, will hold seders together in absorption centers throughout Israel, sponsored by The Jewish Agency and by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In groups, they will celebrate both Passover and their new lives in Israel, for the first time using a Hebrew haggadah – and, in many cases, experiencing their very first seder.

To prepare, this week, the olim (immigrants to Israel) held model seders in each absorption center, including in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion. With its apartment units stretching out for blocks – punctuated by playgrounds and communal buildings such as a library and auditorium – the Mevaseret Zion absorption complex is by far the largest of The Jewish Agency’s 22 such centers, including 16 that cater specifically to new olim from Ethiopia.

Among the dignitaries who greeted the immigrants were Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Founder and President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel; Colonel Zion Shankur, the highest-ranking Ethiopian in the Israel Defense Forces; Ambassador Belaynesh Zevadia, Israel’s first Ethiopia-born ambassador; and prominent Ethiopian-Israeli singer-songwriter Maski Shabiro, who entertained the group of approximately 100 immigrants with a heartfelt rendition of an Ethiopian folksong.

In fluent Hebrew accented heavily in Russian, Sharansky related his memories of making a seder while imprisoned in Siberia, using water instead of wine and bread instead of matzah (“because what can you do”), and reciting as much of the haggadah as he could from memory. Later, after his release and his own immigration to Israel, he flew to Ethiopia to escort a group of Jews there on their own flight home.

“I didn’t understand a word anyone said,” he remembered, “but when the pilot announced that we were over Jerusalem, everyone cried ‘Yerusalem! Yerusalem!’ and I realized I was part of a modern-day exodus, the return of Jews from every direction – toward Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Eckstein, whose organization is a major donor toward programs that assist Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, earned enthusiastic applause from the participants by sometimes breaking from his Hebrew address to speak in Amharic, Ethiopia’s native language.

Addressing the veteran Ethiopian olim in attendance, such as Colonel Shankur and Ambassador Zevadia, Eckstein said, “It’s not just that we are proud of you, you are also role models. You show the next generation of new immigrants that with hard work, they too can succeed. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.”

“Your job is to work hard,” he told the assembled Ethiopian-Israelis. “And our job is to accept and love you and help you all we can.”

In 2010, when the Israeli government decided to permit the remaining 8,000 members of the extended Ethiopian Jewish community to immigrate, it turned to The Jewish Agency to help prepare the group—made up largely of farmers – for their journey into the modern world. The next year, The Jewish Agency began administration of a complex in Gondar Ethiopia, where future emigres to Israel study Hebrew and learn about modern plumbing and how to shop in a supermarket.

Now, living at absorption centers all over Israel, the adults study Hebrew and Judaism, while the children – after attending classes at regular local schools in the mornings – receive extra academic help in the afternoons through a Jewish Agency program called Yesodot (“foundations”). In their courses, the 5,500 recent immigrants have been studying the stories and symbols of the Passover holiday, learning the haggadah along with an Amharic translation.

In Mevaseret Zion, many of the olim attended the model seder dressed entirely in white, the traditional Ethiopian attire for festive occasions. Colonel Shankur said that although it has been 30 years since he himself lived in an absorption center, the model seder “is still the most meaningful seder I attend.”

After briefly experiencing the highlights of a seder, the participants broke into dance, gesticulating their shoulders in a uniquely Ethiopian dance style.

“In Ethiopia, they ate matzah all year round,” said Yehudah Sharf, Director of Aliyah and Absorption for The Jewish Agency. “Here, it is only on Passover that they eat the ‘lachma anya’ – bread of the poor – because they have so many more opportunities. For them, now, eating matzah truly makes it a night to ask ‘what is different tonight from all other nights.’”

In the photo: Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency (left), and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, President and Founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, with Ethiopian Olim.
Photo credit: The Jewish Agency for Israel