Passover: Ethiopians in Israel celebrate first seder

The little girls stood on stage holding up a child’s painting of the Ten Commandments, quietly but confidently singing the traditional Passover seder song “Who Knows One?”

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, all of whom were looking forward to celebrating their first Passover in Israel.

On Friday, April 6, 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 the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. They will celebrate both Passover and their new lives in Israel, using a Hebrew haggadah — and, in many cases, experiencing their first seder.

To prepare, 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 — the 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 Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel; Col. Zion Shankur, the highest-ranking Ethiopian in the Israel Defense Forces;  and prominent Ethiopian-Israeli singer-songwriter Maski Shabiro.

Many of the olim attended the model seder dressed entirely in white, the traditional Ethiopian attire for festive occasions. After experiencing the highlights of a seder, participants broke into dance, gesticulating with their shoulders in a uniquely Ethiopian dance style.

“In Ethiopia, they ate matzah all year round,” said Yehudah Sharf, the Jewish Agency’s director of aliyah and absorption. “For them, now, eating matzah truly makes it a night to ask ‘what is different tonight from all other nights?’ ”