Walk just two blocks in Jerusalem’s city center and you’re likely to hear five different languages spoken; Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and Russian. On a recent Shabbat visit to learn more about the leadership, mission and this year’s Pesach plans at Jerusalem’s Ethiopian Jewish congregation, Amud HaEsh (Hebrew for Pillar of Fire), we were treated to the sounds of a sixth tongue. The congregation’s service, prayer, music and teaching were rendered throughout not only in English and Hebrew, but also in Amharic, the Semitic national language of Ethiopia.
“If one were asked to compare two modern Semitic languages, his choice would almost automatically fall on Hebrew and Arabic,” wrote Jack Fellman, Senior Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, in a linguistic article published by Indiana University in 1975, “for indeed these two languages and the peoples and cultures they symbolize are by now quite interconnected in twentieth-century consciousness … However … although the two languages are linguistically similar sociolinguistically they are quite different. … a closer partner for Hebrew might well be Amharic, the African-Semitic language of Ethiopia.”
As Fellman’s article suggests, Amharic speech sometimes sounds surprisingly like Hebrew to untrained ears, but the unlikely blending of two modern cultures, one from the Middle East’s only Jewish Nation, the other from a predominantly Christian country in the Horn of Africa, has created a crisis in Israel for Ethiopian Jewish youth.
The Ethiopian community has the highest suicide rate among youth in Israel; most Ethiopian Jewish families live in poverty; over six percent of Ethiopian students in Israel drop out of school between the ages of 14 to 17, double the national average; almost half the families of Ethiopian school children cannot afford to buy basic supplies and the arrest rate of Ethiopian youth is the highest in Israeli society.
How did this happen? The biblical narrative in First Kings of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Israel and King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago is considered by many scholars to be no more than a legend yet, according to Jewish historian, Josephus, in his history, Antiquities of the Jews, Sheba was indeed the queen of Egypt and Ethiopia who, among other things, carried specimens of balsam with her on her visit.
Exactly when and how it happened that a large community of real, Torah observant Jews came to live in the Horn of Africa is unclear, but French Jew, Joseph Halevy, visited Ethiopia in 1867 and provided an eyewitness account of Ethiopian Jewry from a European Jewish perspective. “Halevy described a community that followed legal sections in the Hebrew Bible and observed laws of purity surrounding menstruation, birth, and death. They observed Shabbat and believed in values such as respecting elders, receiving guests, and visiting mourners.”
Pastor Kokeb Gedamu and his wife, Menalu, founded Amud HaEsh in Jerusalem in October of 2015 after Kokeb completed educational requirements and served as an ordained Messianic Jewish Rabbi in the USA for 15 years. While in the United States, Pastor Kokeb founded House of Israel International Ministries through which Amud HaEsh works “to equip the Ethiopian Jewish youth with the skills that enable them to compete in the professional environment of Israeli society and help them meet the needs of their communities. This work will give them a powerful sense of accomplishment as Israeli citizens who will be vital contributors to the broader fabric of Israeli society.”
It appears that Amud HaEsh has made real progress. Friendly, cooperative young people seemed to be everywhere during the Shabbat meeting at which three congregants were ordained as elders. Young people, including a visiting group from Netanya, assisted with logistics, sat respectfully during the message and played instruments or sang on-stage during worship. Ordained were Pastor, Atanaw Beruk, Evangelist, Messeret Bedada and Menalu Gedamu, all of whom were lauded for their efforts to further Jewish Ethiopian youth, beginning with their commitment to their families.
Pastors from Jerusalem and across Israel appeared in support of Amud HaEsh’s mission and took part in the services. Among them were Pastor Revka Ayelegh and his congregation from Netanya who led opening prayer and Senior Pastor Chad Holland of Jerusalem’s King of Kings who presented a message in English while Pastor Kokeb translated into Amharic. A wonderful spirit prevailed as all involved seemed to worship unselfconsciously, filled with the Holy Spirit.
Then, Amud HaEsh served their guests an authentic Ethiopian lunch.
Meals were prepared and served by a smiling crew in three dining venues and, thanks to a procession of congregants bearing platters of rice, breads, sautéed vegetables and spicy meats, it appeared that no one went home hungry.
After a bit of research following the wonderful meal, it appears that many non-Ethiopian guests, stemming from ignorance of an Ethiopian staple called injera, committed a forgivable faux pas. It happens that injera, a spongy-textured, sourdough-risen flatbread made from fermented flour, is customarily torn in pieces then used like organic grabbers to handle food in place of utensils which, Wikipedia explains, “are never optional.”
So, asking, “Where are the forks?” did not go over well. No worries, after a bit of introspection our servers produced trays of plasticware and ample portions were consumed by all.
The best part of our visit came last. Pastor Kokeb made his way into our dining room and sat with his guests to chat. The day had nearly ended. Amud HaEsh’s plans for Pesach had not yet been discussed. “What does Amud HaEsh, as an Ethiopian congregation, do differently for Pesach? Do you have your own Haggadah? Special foods? Customs? Songs? Prayers?”
Pastor Kokeb listened patiently then answered with his thoughts, again, upon his congregation’s youth. “Our Haggadah is, of course, a Messianic Jewish version,” he said, “but we do not conduct a long seder as is done in many places; it is easier on the children to not take so much time.”
Pastor Kokeb’s response made perfect sense; youth is, after all, what Amud HaEsh is about. We followed him on a tour of his congregation’s facilities — a smaller meeting place within the same building — and he seemed most pleased to discuss two things. The podium from which he speaks each week is emblazoned with the Hebrew words, דע לפני מי אתה עומד, “Know before whom you stand.”
“It is important,” Pastor Kokeb said. “We stand before the Lord.”
The second important accomplishment was within a small office to the side, three computer workstations with full Internet access, three of five computers at Amud HaEsh which are continually accessible to youth. “Students who do not have access to a computer,” Pastor Kokeb explained, “can come here and do their homework.”
While praying for one of the future elders earlier that day, supporting pastor Joyce Jung of Love 153 International had quoted John 1:46 asking, as Nathanael had asked Philip, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
“Ethiopia!” Pastor Joyce then paraphrased, “what good can come from Ethiopia?”
Then she answered, as had Philip, “Come and see.”
With strong, capable and caring men and women like Pastor Kokeb, his wife, Menalu, many other supportive pastors and ministries in Israel and Amud HaEsh’s dedicated Elders and congregants, something good has indeed come from Ethiopia. Come and see.
This story appeared in substantially the same form in the March/April issue of The Messianic Times and is reproduced here with permission.
In addition to blogging here, at Standing By The Gate, Cliff Keller has authored five novels, the latest of which, The Lion or the Lamb, Samson, Ruth and Salvation, was released in September of 2018. He maintains a writing site at goodStories.pub and does freelance writing for magazines in Israel and the US.
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