The Ethiopian Jewish community wants to integrate into mainstream Judaism – without giving up its unique traditions.
By Cindy Mindell
Qes Efraim Zion Lawi is the first Israeli-born qes, or traditional Ethiopian Jewish leader, the son of Qes Zion Lawi and grandson of High Qes Lawi Zeno. His parents made aliyah to Israel in 1984 as part of Operation Moses, after a long and arduous journey from Ethiopia through the Sudanese desert. They settled in the northern Israeli city of Karmiel, where Efraim was born in 1987.
In Israel, Qes Efraim’s father served as the religious leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community (the Beta Israel) of Karmiel and encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps. Accordingly, at age nine, Efraim began the studies necessary to be ordained a qes. When he turned 13, his father officially designated him as his future successor.
Qes Zion Lawi passed away three years later, but Efraim’s mother, Ahuva, urged him to carry on with his religious training, sending him to study with two prominent qessotch (plural of qes) in southern Israel: Qes Malke Azaria and High Qes Govesa Tesfahun, who continued to teach him the prayers, benedictions, laws, and customs of Ethiopian Judaism.
After completing his military service, Efraim married his wife, Fasika, and was ordained as a qes. He now serves the Ethiopian Jewish community of Karmiel and the northern district of Israel. He lives in Karmiel with his wife and three children.
The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires will bring Qes Efraim Zion Lawi to the Berkshires on March 2 when he the guest speaker at “Connecting with Community” at Congregation Knesset Israel. Tbhe program is co-sponsored by Berkshire Hills Hadassah.
Recently, he spoke with the Ledger about Ethiopian Jewish life in Israel today.
Q: What does qes mean and how is it different from rabbi?
A: A qes is an Ethiopian religious and communal leader, with traditional roles. In Ethiopia, a qes is a general name for a traditional leader of either the Jewish or Christian community. The Jewish community calls their leaders kahan, like kohen. My family is from a tribe of qessotch.
Q: How did you become a qes and what is does the job entail?
A: I grew up and was educated just like any other Israeli child except that we had a traditional Ethiopian-Jewish home. Until age nine, I didn’t know Amharic, my parents’ mother tongue, even though they spoke it at home. I have one brother and three sisters. I am second-youngest. My father chose me to follow in his footsteps and began to teach me Amharic, the mitzvot, halacha, and traditions.
In Karmiel, there are around 700 Ethiopian immigrants and one Ethiopian synagogue, which my father led. I am the current spiritual leader for the Ethiopian communities of the northern district: Karmiel, Haifa, Tzfat, Nahariya, and the Krayot [near Haifa], which represent approximately 30,000 people. I meet with all the communities and offer religious services.
Because Jews of Ethiopia were those who left Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, the Talmud and Mishna did not reach their community so they led a truly Biblical Jewish life, according to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and the Oral Torah, which was passed on from father to son and taught the Biblical halacha.
Q: What is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s attitude toward qessotch in Israel?
A: There are 56 qessotch in Israel. Forty are recognized by the government and 16 are not. “Recognized” means that you are registered by the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Council of a city, to receive a salary and administrative support. It’s a political decision. The Israeli government does not formally recognize or support my ordination or the services I provide.
The problem, I believe, is that the Chief Rabbinate wants to destroy the word and position of “qes.” The Ethiopian Jewish community needs and wants qessotch. My father was recognized and paid by the Israeli government as a qes, but the government decided not to replace qessotch once they died. In 2010, the government made a decision not to recognize qessotch anymore and instead to serve the Ethiopian community with rabbis instead. The Chief Rabbinate wants to tell us that our Jewish lifestyle in Ethiopia was okay, but now that we are in Israel, we must change and give up our approach to Judaism and our traditions and join the “unified track” of Judaism.
As qessotch, we say that we have no problem integrating and uniting, but we are not willing to give up the tradition we received. The Rabbinate tries to weaken us, but thank God, we are growing and developing spiritually and are leading the Ethiopian community. Some of the old qessotch don’t need to change but the younger ones need to complete some of the Chief Rabbinate’s courses to be recognized by the government and receive a salary.
Now we are in a struggle with the government and Chief Rabbinate. I am supported in my work by my wife and the Ethiopian community and I know and I hope that one of my [two] sons will replace me in the future.
Q: Have Ethiopian Jews integrated into Israeli society since they began immigrating in the late ‘70s?
A: I know that the diaspora Jews did a lot in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s to bring the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel. At first, my parents and a lot of their generation suffered from cultural and traditional problems because they came from the villages to the cities. After 40 years, a lot of the Jewish community has integrated very well. But we still see that we have a problem with racism in Israeli society and we need to think together how to improve that. For me, an Ethiopian Israeli born and raised in Israel, my job and mission is to take my community and bring them to the middle of Israeli society – in education and culture – and to be one part of all the different Jewish communities that we have in Israel.
Q: This is not your first trip to the U.S. What was your experience like the first time — and what do you hope to accomplish this time around?
A: My first time in the United States was in 2014, when David Weisberg invited me to the annual Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, where I met members of the Ethiopian Hebrew community from New York. This time, I will spend time with the leadership of the Ethiopian Hebrew community in New York. Prof. Josef Halévy was a Polish researcher who went to Ethiopia in the mid-19th century. He met a group of Jews and told them that he was Jewish, but they told him that he couldn’t be because he was white and that there are no white Jews in the world. The Ethiopian Hebrew community in New York believes that they have Jewish roots but not everyone believes them. I want to speak with them and see what I can learn from them. Being a Jew doesn’t depend on your country of origin or your color – it’s a feeling in your heart.
Before I came to the U.S., I was very limited in my scholarship. I grew up in an Orthodox community and that’s all I knew. When I spent time at Isabella Freedman, I was exposed to many other Jewish communities and I discovered that are Jews who practice and pray differently. When I come to Connecticut, I just want people to know that there is an Ethiopian Jewish community who lives, behaves, and speaks differently – but who is a Jewish community after all.
Jewish Federation of Berkshires “Connecting with Community” with special guest speaker Qus Ephraim Zion Lawi, will take place Thursday, March 2 at Cong. Knesset Israel, 16 Colt Road in Pittsfield. The program, co-sponsored by Berkshire Hills Hadassah, will feature hot kosher lunch, 10:45 a.m.-noon, RSVP for lunch by 9 a.m. March 2: (413) 442-4200. $2/suggested lunch for adults over 60 years of age; $7/all others.