Shai Afsai

First Israeli-born qes to visit Rhode Island for one week in March

Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, with his wife Fasika and their daughter. Photo – Shai Afsai

Qes Efraim will be participating in activities connected with the Providence Community Kollel (Center for Jewish Studies), Congregation Beth Sholom, Touro Synagogue, and the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island (JCDSRI).

Before heading to Rhode Island for one week, he will attend the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut from March 21 to 23.

All of the traditional religious leaders of Ethiopian Jewry, called kohanim or qessotch (priests), now reside in Israel. They currently number only several dozen men and it is rather rare for a qes to travel abroad. This will be Qes Efraim’s first time traveling outside of Israel.

According to Congregation Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Barry Dolinger, the qes’s visit to learn about the Jewish community of Rhode Island and to teach about Ethiopian Judaism is “an incredible and rare educational opportunity.”

Israeli shaliyach (emissary) to Rhode Island Matan Graff describes this as “a very important trip.” He believes having someone of Qes Efraim’s stature come to see the Rhode Island Jewish community will strengthen the ties between it and Ethiopian Jewry in Israel. “We can learn first-hand about this unique Jewish community in Israel and its traditions, while he will see our American Jewish community in Rhode Island.”

Qes Efraim is the son of Qes Zion Lawi and grandson of High Qes Lawi Zeno. He was born in 1987 in the northern Israeli city of Karmiel. His parents made aliyah to Israel as part of 1984’s Operation Moses, after a long and arduous journey from Ethiopia through the Sudanese desert.

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 Qes Efraim began the studies necessary to be ordained a qes (i.e., kohen or priest). When he turned thirteen, his father officially designated him as his future successor.

Qes Zion Lawi passed away three years later, but Qes Efraim’s mother, Ahuva, urged him to carry on with his religious training, sending him to study with two prominent qessotch in southern Israel, Qes Malke Azaria and High Qes Govesa Tesfahun, who continued to teach him the long-standing prayers, benedictions, laws, and customs of Ethiopian Judaism.

After completing his military service, Qes Efraim married his wife, Fasika, and was ordained as a qes. He now serves the Ethiopian Jewish community of Karmiel and its environs, teaching and facilitating the community’s traditional observances, including weddings, funerals, and memorials, as well as the ritual slaughter of animals.

I first met Qes Efraim this past October, while I attended the celebration of the Sigd holiday of Ethiopian Jewry in Jerusalem for the second year in a row. After learning that I had traveled from the United States to Israel for the purpose of celebrating the holiday, Qes Efraim told me, “Just as you have traveled here to celebrate the Sigd with us, I will travel to the United States to celebrate with you.”

The qes also invited my brother Amir and me to Karmiel, where he hosted us at his apartment and introduced us to his family. As we left his home late that night, Qes Efraim repeated that he would strive to soon visit Rhode Island.

The organizers of the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton have extended Qes Efraim’s stay in the United States so that he might come to Rhode Island and interact with its Jewish community following his weekend in Connecticut.

Speaking from Israel in anticipation of his New England visit, Qes Efraim said, “After the Shabbaton, I will visit the Jewish community of Rhode Island. I will be pleased to meet there with whomever it is possible to meet. This entire visit, in my view, is one of getting acquainted and becoming familiar with another Jewish community. I hope that in Rhode Island I will be able to tell my story and in that way expose its Jews to the Beta Israel community from a traditional religious perspective. I hope, with God’s help, to learn and to teach.”

About the Author
Shai Afsai ( lives in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to fiction and poetry, his recent writing has focused on the works of Thomas Paine, Zionist historiography, “the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man” stories, Jews and Freemasonry, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Jewish thought and practice, religious traditions of the Beta Yisrael Jewish community from Ethiopia, Jewish observance and identity in Nigeria, aliyah to Israel from Rhode Island, Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, Jewish-Polish relations, Jews and Irish literature, and Judaism in Northern Ireland.
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