Walking back to my apartment from classes this past Tuesday night, I passed by what seemed to me like a scene from a movie. I grew up in the religious community of Monsey, NY, and had never seen anything like the traditional garb of the Ethiopian women, and was looking forward to experiencing their history and culture on Chag HaSigd.
A student from the Nishmat Ethiopian Women (N.E.W.) program came to an Alisa Flatow Program class the week before, and taught us about their story. Beta Israel, the Jewish Ethiopian community, is widely believed to be descendants of the lost tribe of Dan, sent into exile before the destruction of the second Temple,. While they had minimal contact with the rest of the Jewish Nation, there are several historical accounts of their existence throughout the years, most notably that of Obadiah ben Abraham Bartenura.
For thousands of years, this Ethiopian community held onto their faith with an unimaginable strength. Batya, the Maayan student who presented to us, explained how strong their commitment was, that what was most important was they were Israelites, and that they prayed to return to Jerusalem and to the Holy Temple.
Chag HaSigd was, for thousands of years, the renewal of their covenantal relationship with God. Sigd means “prostration,” and their prostration to God was a central focus of the day. The entire community would wear white, fast, and follow their leader up to the nearby mountain, where he would read the Orit (their translation of most of the Written Torah) aloud to them, and the entire community would bow in the direction of Jerusalem. Central to their faith was their prayers to return to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, a faith that was rewarded in the late 20th century.
The communities were contacted and thousands of Ethiopian Jews traveled by foot from to Sudan, leaving behind their homes and wealth. What they expected to be a journey of several days ended up being a journey of several months, traveling to a world of which they knew almost nothing. The journey was dangerous, and thousands died along the way. For the past two weeks, I have been unable to get the image out of my head of a community that stayed true to their faith and somehow continued on their journey despite the arduous conditions and loss of family members.
The last leg of their journey was entering El Al aircrafts with the seats removed to fit as many people in each plane as possible. For most of them, having never seen any sort of vehicle before, and being told to climb into an airplane that would take them to the Holy Land must have been nothing short of the fulfillment of the prophecy that we will return home on the “wings of eagles.”
While they must have felt an unparalleled joy at reaching their homeland, intertwined with their longing for Jerusalem was their desire to visit the Holy Temple, and so their joy was marred by devastation. Exiled before the destruction and isolated for thousands of years, the news of the destruction of the Holy Temple had not reached the Ethiopian community. While the loss of our Temple is an idea that I was brought up with, and something that is referenced in our daily prayers, I don’t think I quite understood the word “chorban” until hearing Batya describe her family’s devastation.
Moved to tears by Batya’s presentation, my classmates in the Alisa Flatow International Program waited with mounting anticipation for the Chad HaSigd and w