Decades After Landmark Ruling, Israel's Chief Rabbinate Recognizes Ethiopian Jewish Community

In the early 1970s, then-Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recognized Ethiopian Jews, yet many still encountered difficulty being recognized by the rabbinical system

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Members of Ethiopia's Jewish community at the synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 19, 2018.
Members of Ethiopia's Jewish community at the synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 19, 2018. Credit: AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The Chief Rabbinate Council has firmly recognized the Judaism of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, adopting the ruling of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that members of the community are Jews according to Jewish law.

In the early 1970s, Yosef, who was chief rabbi at the time, ruled that members of the community are Jews, but that they should nonetheless undergo a conversion ceremony (giyur lechumra) out of concern that they may have intermingled over the years with non-Jews.

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For years the Israeli government resisted bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but eventually helped tens of thousands to immigrate in a series of operations that spanned over a decade.

Some 8,000 members of the Falashmura community, who are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity, often under duress, centuries ago, and identify as Jews, await the Israeli government's approval to make Aliyah. The rabbinate's decision does not apply to this community, even though some of its members have relatives in Israel who had been recognized as Jewish.

The absorption into Israeli society was not smooth and they were often discriminated against, including by the rabbinate. Local rabbinates, in particular, often forced Ethiopian Jews to meet all kinds of conditions before being allowed to register for marriage.

The council's decision was made during a special session held two months ago at Yosef’s home in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. Haaretz has learned that one of the people responsible for pushing through the decision was Rabbi Yehuda Dery, the chief rabbi of Be’er Sheva and the brother of Shas party chairman, Interior Minister Arye Dery.

“My teachers and mentors, this is one of those historic decisions that will be remembered for generation among the people of Israel in general and the Ethiopian community in particular,” Yehuda Dery said at the meeting. “I would like to say that Maran [Rabbi Ovadia Yosef], in his decision to bring the Ethiopian community to the Land of Israel and recognize them as Jews in every way, made a decision that saved an entire community.”

Rabbi Dery noted that there are local rabbinates that still make it difficult for members of the Ethiopian community to register for marriage. 

“I want to say that, of course at the instruction, leadership and adjudication of Maran, that in the year 5774 [2014] the Chief Rabbinate Council convened and approved as written the ruling of Maran that the Beta Israel community are Jews in every way, subject of course to the conditions for marriage registration set down by Rabbi [Yosef] Hadane [the former chief rabbi of the Ethiopian community] at the time,” Dery said. 

“Unfortunately, even that decision from 5774 encountered difficulties among some rabbinates. I suggest that on the anniversary of the death of Maran, in his home, to once again ratify the decision from 5774; that the community of Ethiopian Jews, according to the ruling of Maran and other Torah sages, are kosher Jews in every way and they should undergo the same clarifications [of marriage eligibility] that are customary in all Jewish communities.”

The hope is that this reaffirmation of their status by the Chief Rabbinate Council marks the end of the struggle for their Judaism to be recognized throughout the rabbinical system.

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