Addis-Ababa is home to the Beta Israel community of Jewish craftswomen who hid for hundreds of years, forced to practice Judaism in secret to escape persecution, but as a result, have been overlooked by the worldwide Jewish community. A little over fifteen years after members began to practice in the open, the community-made large strides in community and economic development. The COVID pandemic could have dealt a large backward blow. Instead, it acted as a catalyst.
While Kechene, the Jewish suburb of Addis Ababa saw some of the highest rates of COVID-19 outbreaks, only one person in the entire Jewish community tested positive. This was in large part thanks to the fast response to provide free masks and thermometers by an international group of donors (headed by a refugee from the community, Sint Garedew and myself) and local community organizers Michael Moges and Belayneh Tazebku and sewing machines provided by Temple Israel in Detroit. This was necessary because a mask can be the equivalent of $100 for us and having free masks ensured that the community was protected. The efforts helped the morale and helped the community leaders to motivate the community to create the possibility for big changes.
As Andrew Westenhlome said “Never waste a good crisis”, and this in fact happened in Kechene. Major changes occurred within the community as a result of this mobilization in a time of crisis. Donations for the manufacturing of masks from abroad benefited the mask makers in the community by providing income that would not otherwise be possible due to closed markets during the pandemic. This is important because the financial impact has been heavy, with up to 70% worker reductions in some workshops. At the same time distributing masks saved many elderly and showed the power of working together and the importance of international Jewish collaboration.
A more important change occurred between the Jewish community and the Christian and Muslim neighbors. The effective management of the pandemic led to the recognition of the community leaders for their actions on COVID by the mayor of Addis Ababa. As a result, for the first time, news organizations came to Jewish Kechene to interview Balayneh Tazebku as well as film and present a different story of Jews to the Ethiopian people. For the first time, they were presented not as “Hyena” people who can cause disease, but as craftspeople who are integral to the Ethiopian economy. This change occurred with the help of Dr. Malka Shabtay (an Israeli applied anthropologist and long-time activist in the interests of the community), the community is now working with her to create the very first boarding school to be built in the Simien Shewa town of Debre Berhan.
The changes in the community were also integral in allowing Dr. Shabtay to get the Israeli Ambassador and the High Kes of the Israeli Ethiopian community, Kes Aviyu, to make their first official visits to the Kechene Jewish community. Ambassador Morav visited the synagogue and donated masks and meals to the community in Kechene, Debre Berhan, and local schools. Kes Aviyu was able to visit one of the remote hidden secret synagogues and meet with many community members during his two-week visit. Some of these synagogues required long journeys to areas without paved roads and had never seen an outsider before. Kes Aviyu describes his visit on i24 News and the visit paves the way to the community being recognized by Israel. If the progress continues, 2021 may be the year that Jews of Simien Showa are no longer overlooked by their Jewish family around the world.
However, not all is perfect in Kechene. The bright future can only be bright if diligence and hard work remain on part of the community and its allies. There is still much discrimination from locals that community members face. Some of them even received death threats prior to the Kes’s arrival.
At the same time, the second wave of COVID is a real threat. There is also a need for continuous pressure and work to get the government approval of the very first Jewish cemetery in Addis Ababa. Burial rights is one of the primary concerns which keep members of the community from coming out and practicing Judaism in the open.
Like any other Jewish community, the Brit Olam community of Addis Ababa and Simien Showa is looking for allies and friends in raising funds to fight the second wave of COVID, to raise funds for further developments and their strategic plans, and continue their efforts for equality in Ethiopia and economic stability through help in education and economic opportunities. To help, you can contribute via a GoFundMe page with all proceeds going directly to the community.
Credit to Dr. Shabtay and LOZA for the photography.