Ethiopian Israeli rabbi a beacon for his people

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Rabbi Sharon Shalom, a university lecturer and leader in Israel’s Ethiopian community, experienced a strong connection to Jerusalem as a child.

“Everything was about Jerusalem. A stork flying in the sky was obviously flying there. As a 7-year-old, I asked my grandfather to show me where Jerusalem was. He pointed in the general direction. I set out in that direction and was lost for three days.

“As a boy I thought that Jerusalem was lined with gold. I pictured a country flowing with milk and honey, where everyone is Jewish,” relates the articulate 33-year-old, whose lectures about the history and tradition of the Beta Israel — Jews of Ethiopian origin — their yearning for Jerusalem and the challenges they face in Israel, fascinate audiences in the Jewish state and abroad.

In early 1980, with famine, disease and oppression rampant in Ethiopia, the clandestine rescue of Ethiopian Jews was high on Israel’s agenda.

“I remember a Jewish Agency emissary coming to our village,” says Shalom. “We called him faranji, stranger, but we wanted to meet with him since he was a Jew from Jerusalem.”

In 1981, Shalom and his family left their village in the Tigre region of Ethiopia for Israel and trekked for more than two months to Sudan. Exposed to bandits, hunger and disease, they thought they would shortly reach Jerusalem. Some Beta Israel, however, remained in the Sudanese refugee camps for up to six years.

With the child mortality rate in the camps extremely high, a number of parents made the heart-wrenching decision to send their children alone to Israel. That was how Shalom, then known as Zaude Taspei and his family’s firstborn, arrived in Israel on his own as part of the 1982 Bat Galim operation of the Israeli navy’s commando unit.

“We kissed the ground of the land of Israel with great excitement,” he recalls. “We felt we had come home. This was the realization of a dream because we had felt like strangers in Ethiopia.”

Renamed Sharon by the authorities, he was sent to a children’s home in Afula and shortly after received word that his parents had died. For two years he believed he was an orphan until one day the dormitory director informed him that his parents were alive and well in Israel.

“When I met my parents and brothers after their aliyah, I felt as if they had returned from the dead,” he says. His parents moved to Kiryat Gat in the south (where they still live), not far from the rabbi and his family.

Since very few Ethiopians were in Israel at the time, Shalom felt as if people were always looking at him. “I felt different, just as I had in Ethiopia.”

Over the years, however, he learned to take onlookers’ curious stares in his stride. “One must flow with the current and deal with it in a positive way,” he says. “It is a given in Israel that the veterans feel superior to the newcomers in every wave of immigration. Although it was hard to bridge the gap between the dream of Jerusalem and the reality, it was still easier for me than for the older people.”

He studied at a yeshiva high school and eventually became a regular guest at the home of Israeli-born dormitory director Rabbi Aryeh Shalom. “By being allowed into his home, my perspective changed. Ethiopian youth worry about doing things wrong compared to Israelis — they think their homes are very different. But once you go into Israeli homes you realize this isn’t true.”

Shalom served as an officer in an elite army unit (he was one of the first Ethiopian officers in the Israel Defense Forces), combining his army service with yeshiva studies. He later studied education and counseling at various colleges, and Talmud at Bar Ilan University, where he became the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to teach. He is one of the first Ethiopian-Israelis to be ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of the state of Israel.

He and his wife, Avital, a social worker who made aliyah as a child from Switzerland, have two sons. “Sometimes young women claim they’re looking to marry an Ethiopian because they’re nice,” he says. “I explain to them that an Ethiopian is not a project but a person.”

The rabbi has lectured abroad for the advocacy organization Israel at Heart, and he speaks for organizations that helped him as a youth, like Emunah Women (which ran the children’s home in Afula where he spent his first years in Israel) and World Mizrachi.

His lectures and courses at Bar Ilan and at various colleges in Jerusalem aim to shatter the stereotype of Ethiopian immigrants.

“Their image is often negative, especially on an emotional level. They’re presented as negative and needy. I try to throw light on the community and highlight its positive aspects.”

It was, for example, the only Jewish community since the destruction of the Second Temple to have its own Jewish monarch. In addition, since it was isolated from the Jewish world for many centuries, it is the only community with customs that date back to pre-talmudic times.

In rural Ethiopia, the kes (spiritual leader) was prominent. In Israel, however, this role has somewhat diminished, especially among younger Ethiopians. Shalom feels strongly that a rabbinical or spiritual leadership needs to be developed for the community. To this end he counsels students learning at the Or M’Ofir program at Yeshiva Or Etzion in Merkaz Shapira, which enables young Ethiopians to participate in a pre-army preparatory program, followed by military service and then yeshiva study towards certification as teachers and rabbis in the Ethiopian community.

“These young leaders will help Ethiopians integrate into Israeli society while preserving their traditional customs, which they have either lost or abandoned. After all, the traditions of the Beta Israel can only enrich the Jewish people.”