On the first Sunday in September – racing against Israel’s (still!) impending lock-down – the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University (TAU) held an orientation day for five exceptional students poised to begin a ground-breaking new MA in Ethiopian Jewish Studies. All the photos below were taken (by me) on that day.
TAU’s new MA is called Orit Guardians. The Orit is the Torah of the Ethiopian Jews. As well as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, it contains the books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth. It’s written in Ge’ez, an ancient language that’s no longer spoken and understood by only a fraction of the Ethiopian community and a handful of scholars.
The Orit Guardians MA is dedicated to the academic study of the Orit – its history, language, interpretation, and transmission. The course was the vision of Professor Dalit Rom-Shiloni, designed for Ethiopian-Israeli students who are determined to deepen and disseminate knowledge of their community’s little-known contributions to Jewish history and culture, courageously preserved over centuries by their ancestors. You can read about the miraculous journey of one copy of the Orit from Ethiopia to Israel’s National Library here.
Too few Israelis have been exposed to the rich heritage and history of Ethiopian Jews and their heroic efforts to reach the Promised Land. And too many young Ethiopian-Israelis are growing up without knowledge of their cultural legacy, especially their sacred texts. The Orit Guardians MA gives Ethiopian-Israeli Jews the academic tools to study, share and help preserve their sacred texts and traditions.
Alongside courses that are foundational for all Biblical Studies degrees, students will follow a study track dedicated to the scriptures, oral traditions, and languages of Ethiopian Jews. They will also learn the crucial skill of conducting and recording oral interviews. Knowledge of the translation and interpretive practices used in the oral transmission of the Orit lies almost exclusively with a small number of ‘kesim’, traditional Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders. The Orit Guardians MA, with the blessing of some of those leaders, will perform the valuable service of broadening this knowledge base.
At the same time, the MA will increase the presence of Ethiopian Jewish Studies, Ethiopian scholarship, and Ethiopian-Israelis in Israel’s academy and beyond. The immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel is an ongoing story of immense bravery and determination, but their integration into Israeli society reflects myriad challenges. Today’s Ethiopian-Israeli community includes women and men who, having survived perilous journey to Israel as infants and young children, went on to thrive in higher education and leadership roles. But a significant proportion of Ethiopian-Israelis still struggle with poverty, discrimination and barriers to their entrée into the mainstream.
For a sense of precisely the kind of students the MA was designed to attract, you need look no further than the five inspiring men and women who will begin their studies in the Orit Guardians MA in October 2020. Their histories are impressive and moving, and so too is the strength of their connection to their tradition and their determination to safeguard it for the future.
My name is Wanana Abrams. I am 32 years old, married and the mother of three sons. I was born in Bilbuhah village in Ethiopia and made Aliyah with my family in 1991, when I was 3 years old. I grew up in the southern city of Ashkelon and studied in religious schools throughout my high school education. Today I live in Netanya and my main occupation is as a business consultant. I am also a volunteer at Negat, an organization that works to place young Israelis of Ethiopian origin in key positions in the Israeli business ecosystem. Additionally, I recently founded LAB, Lomdim Amharit B’yachad, a private Facebook group that encourages people to learn Amharic. As of today, the group has grown to over 1,600 members. It is an incredibly rewarding experience to build, manage and engage with this community. My academic education includes a BA in Communication with a focus on public diplomacy from the Sammy Ofer School of Communication at IDC Hertzliya (2017); an MBA from IDC’s Arison School of Business, where classes were held in English (2018). I am thrilled at the prospect of playing a key role in bringing the Orit to academia. I see this as an important opportunity to learn and transmit the deep wisdom of Beta Israel’s religious leaders. Without academic programs such as this, the knowledge of Beta Israel’s elders might pass on without reaching the next generation and broader Jewish world.
My name is Tejitu (Taje) Asfawu Daniel. I’m married to Bantehun Mesafint Bymot Daniel, who is training to be a Kes. I am the mother of eight, and I have been living in Yavne since 2005. I was born in Ethiopia in 1981 in Zagra-Wenz village in Gondar, the eighth of nine children. After the failure of our first three attempts, starting in 1984, to walk through Sudan, we came to Israel through Addis Ababa in 1991. I had my first learning experience at age ten, in the Public Religious School in Nazareth Illit, where we lived in an Absorption Centre (1991 to 1993). Later, we moved to Herzliya, and I attended a religious public school in the city (1993 to 1994). I studied at the Talpiot boarding school in Hadera (7th to 9th grades), and at Tzfira Ulpana in Moshav Tzafria (10th to 12th grades), where I completed my Bagrut (matriculation). I did my national service duty at the Talpiot boarding school, in gratitude to the institution that laid the foundations for my future development. Through my pregnancies and births, I studied for a BA at the Women’s College in Bayit VeGan, Jerusalem. I received it after the birth of my second son in 2004. In 2010, I received an MA in Educational Counselling. I have worked as an educational consultant for 16 years: as a facilitator in the “Know Where You Came From” program; a coordinator of educational and cultural resources for Ethiopian Jews in The Settlement Education Administration; and a Mindfulness-based NLP trainer. I have also volunteered in the Ethiopian community in Yavne since 2007, and from 2015 to 2018 in community centres in the Central and Southern District, on behalf of the Association of the National and Regional Community Centre, in a project called Road Stories, stories of Ethiopian Aliyah. I shared stories of my own journey in private homes throughout Yavne, Ra’anana and Gan Yavne. The Orit Guardians MA will help me to fulfil my personal dream and my late father’s last wish: to study and explore the Orit, which he loved so much and was for him “bread to eat and water to drink,” and to study the ways of the spiritual leaders who fiercely preserved the Ethiopian Jewish community. This is my opportunity and I intend to seize it with both hands.
My name is Addisu Kassa. I’m 33 years old, married and a father of two, and I live in Netivot. I hold a BA in Special Education and Oral Torah and a Teaching Certificate from Hemdat HaDarom College in the Negev. In 1992, aged 5, I made Aliya to Israel from the village of Dado in the Amhara District of Ethiopia with my entire family – twelve people. At first, we lived in the Shalom Hotel, Jerusalem, and later in public housing in Ofakim. I was educated in a state religious elementary school, and at Ofakim’s high school yeshiva. As part of my yeshiva studies, I devoted my time to Jewish Studies, but I always felt that I had nothing to bring from my own tradition. Something always seemed to be missing. After graduating from high school, I studied at the Hesder Yeshiva in Netivot. There, I met rabbis and friends who were seriously engaged in practical Torah studies that lead to social involvement. One of the fundamental goals of the yeshiva was to encourage us take responsibility for our society, with an emphasis on the social periphery. The yeshiva showed me who I was by encouraging me to know myself and my community and created in me a passionate desire to learn about the older generations of the Ethiopian-Jews community. After yeshiva, I took on leadership roles in Netivot’s Ethiopian Jewish Heritage Center, which I’ve held for the past five years, working to change the community’s narrative in many significant areas. The Orit Guardians MA will enhance my knowledge and understanding of the scriptures of Ethiopian Jews.
My name is Tamar Mengistu. I am married and the mother of six. I was born in the village of Dzihun in the Gondar district of Ethiopia, and made Aliyah in 1984, aged 9, with my parents and two brothers and our extended family. We came to Israel via Sudan where, unfortunately, my two other brothers died; one was 14 at the time of his death and the other 9 months. In Israel, we were placed in the absorption center at Nazareth Illit. Five years later, my parents moved to Rishon Lezion, where I lived until I got married. My husband and I moved to Herzliya and have lived there ever since. My high school education was at the Neve Michael boarding school in Pardes Hanna. After I completed my Bagrut (matriculation exam), I needed to improve my grades to enter a BA program at Ariel College. I also enrolled in extramural studies, including courses that were later recognised for my degree. In 2005, I received my BA in Criminology and Education from Ariel University, which operated then (1998-2001) under Bar Ilan University. Since 2000, I have worked for the Herzliya Municipality, first as a mediator between Ethiopian-Jews and the municipality in areas of education and welfare. In 2005, I was moved to the Human Resources Department to work in welfare. In 2014, I was promoted to be a secretary in family therapy in the Welfare Division of Matya Herzliya-Sharonim. This year, I became supervisor of escorts and commutes for children under the care of the Welfare Department. For many years, I have wanted to study for an MA, but the time was not right. Today I am ready and eager to start Tel-Aviv University’s Orit Guardians MA. I hope that in my studies, I will be a role model for my children and that I will have a role to play in preserving knowledge of the Orit, the holy Torah revered by our ancestors.
My name is Mulualem Tameyet. I am 47-years old, married to Michal and father of three. I was born in Ethiopia in the Abantonis village, near Gondar. I made Aliya in 1987 with my family through Addis Ababa at 11, to join my older brother, who was already in Lod. I studied first at Hofim boarding school, followed by four years at Yemin Orde studying Electricity and Electronics, and continued study at Kfar Batya boarding school. After my IDF service, I completed a BA degree in Sociology and Political Science at Bar Ilan University. In 2000, I spent 3 months in the USA mentoring in summer camps on behalf of the Jewish Agency and Yemin Orde. That was an unforgettable experience. On my return, my friends and I established an after-school program for youth in Lod. I worked in this program from 2000 to 2003, and for the North American Organization of Ethiopian Jews (NACOJ) from 2003-2005. I had responsibility for foreign relations. In 2005, I moved back to Yemin Orde with my family to work as an educator. In 2007, I returned to Lod, where I became the director of an absorption centre for Ethiopians, a joint project of the municipality and the Ministry of Absorption supporting Ethiopians in the fields of education, welfare, and employment. I now work in Quality Assurance. Today I live in the Elyashiv Garin Torani (Torah-based) community. Life in the community resembles the life we had in the villages of Ethiopia. We took two foster babies, now aged three and two (they came to us as babies), a challenging yet rewarding experience. I chose to join the Orit Guardians program for personal reasons. My late father was a Kes in Ethiopia. His community activities often jeopardised his life and led to his imprisonment. In Israel, he continued his activities until the day he died. Currently, I am learning to be a Kes, and in that context I look forward to a formal education in the language of Ge’ez and the scriptures of the Ethiopian Jews.
The Orit Guardian MA students will be taught mainly by faculty from TAU’s Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies’ Department of Biblical Studies, in co-operation with the Department of Hebrew Language and Semitic Linguistics. One of their future lecturers, Dr. Anbessa Teferra, an expert in the languages of Ethiopian Jewry, has his own inspiring story that you can read here. Born and educated in Ethiopia, Anbessa made history in 2015 as the first ever Ethiopian-born academic to be appointed as a Senior Lecturer at an Israeli university!
The role of part-time administrator for the MA will be fulfilled by Selamawit Fsha. Selamawit’s story too is moving and inspiring. When she was 10 and her brother 7, their mother decided that the family should move to Israel. That was six years after their father’s attempt to walk to Israel through Sudan. He never made it, but they are here. Selamawit holds a BA in History and an MA in English Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and hopes to progress soon to doctoral research. She is a teacher and a translator between three languages—English, Hebrew, and Amharic.
It’s been challenging during the times of Corona to raise the money needed to guarantee the success of our new MA, and to get our new students off to the best possible start. As well as covering tuition, we are committed to providing our students with modest stipends so that they can afford to dedicate the time required for this demanding degree – one or two days per week for classes, plus time for preparation. You can find more detailed financial information here. You can read a Hebrew version here.
We still need to raise US $18,500 to cover costs for the first academic year of the MA. Please consider helping us — donations small and large will be deeply appreciated. You can find detailed information about how to donate at the end of the document here.
Thank you so much and Shanah tovah!