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A museum highlighting the culture and heritage of the Ethiopian Jewish community is to be built in Rehovot. The museum, planned as a research, interpretive and spiritual center, is the brainchild of Tomer, an association whose members are veteran Ethiopian immigrants and former Mossad agents who took part in the first operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

"The Jews of Ethiopia have a rich cultural heritage, and are the only Jews who strictly kept their Judaism although they were entirely cut off from the Jewish people," says Tomer chairman Moshe Bar-Yuda. "The museum will present Ethiopian Jewish culture to Israelis who are not familiar enough with it, and also to young Ethiopians who fall between the cracks - on one hand they are not connected to their parents' culture, and on the other, they sometimes find it hard to become part of the dynamic of life in Israel. When they see the ancient culture of their forbears, they will be filled with pride, and it will be easier for them to become part of veteran Israeli society," he says.

Plans for the museum, expected to cost some $4.5 million, include a model Ethiopian village, a herb garden, an artificial stream, an amphitheater, classrooms and a memorial to Ethiopian Jews who died in Sudan on their way to Israel and Ethiopian Zionist activists.

"We view the conservation of the past as very important and believe the museum will attract young people and adults alike," Rehovot Mayor Shuki Forer says.

Six-dunam complex

A large number of Ethiopian Jews make their home in Rehovot and surrounding towns, the reason for its selection as the site of the museum. The city has set aside six dunams, 1.5 acres, of land for the museum complex.

"All 21 members of the Rehovot City Council, both coalition and opposition, voted for the establishment of the center," says Abai Zaudeh, a council member and a member of Tomer's board of directors. "It's the first time they all agree and leave politics behind to focus on the reality that the establishment of the museum will assist the absorption of the Ethiopian community a great deal," he says.

One of museum's founders is Baruch Tegegne, who pioneered escape routes from Ethiopia via Sudan and fought for the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Other founders include veteran Ethiopian rights activist Babu Yaakov, a former member of the Ramle City Council, and Shetu Barehon, who worked in the transit camps in Sudan to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. A number of Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders and rabbis are also working to increase support for the project in the community and the Diaspora.

Bar-Yuda's long association with the Ethiopian Jewish community began in 1958, when the Jewish Agency asked him to go to Ethiopia to look for Jews, reaching remote villages.

The report he prepared, along with a 16th Century ruling by Rabbi David B. Zimra, known as the Radbaz, was the basis for the 1973 ruling by then-chief Sephardic rabbi Ovadia Yosef that the Jews of Ethiopia were to be considered Jews according to halakha (Jewish religious law).

A bill to establish Ethiopian heritage centers, proposed by MK Naomi Blumenthal (Likud) has been before the ministerial committee for legislation for a number of months.