The Falashmura Path to Judaism: Rigorous According to Some, Ridiculed by Others

Unlike other groups of new Israelis, the Falashmura have had to undergo full conversion, which is sometimes a frustrating process.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The cessation of the organized immigration to Israel of members of the Falashmura community is also indicative of the end, within another two or three years, of the most massive conversion project in the history of the state; it is doubtful there has been anything like it in the history of the Jewish people.

While the number of non-Jewish immigrants from the Confederation of Independent States is many times greater than the number of Falashmura, Russian-speakers and their children are not sent to organized conversion programs, and nearly one-third of them, more than 320,000, live in the country without establishment/rabbinical recognition that they are Jewish.

For the Falashmura, conversion is built into the absorption process, and even constitutes a condition for completion of that process. With the closing of the absorption centers, the conversion classes for Ethiopians will also be shut down, but individual conversions will continue.

The peak is already well behind us. According to figures from the conversion department, in 2007 the chief rabbi of Israel signed 5,538 conversion certificates testifying to the completion of conversion by immigrants from Ethiopia − which is to say Falashmura, the only ones who have been arriving from that country in the past two decades. Last year the number stood at 2,269 certificates, and a similar number is expected this year. Still, Falashmura account for more than half the converts here.

The procedure involved is a mass conversion that not everyone accepts: The veteran Ethiopian community still sees these newcomers as alien, and marriage registrars at some religious councils refuse to see them as Jewish. The same goes for the ultra-Orthodox establishment in general.

The Falashmura community differs from the veteran Ethiopian community in various ways, one of them having to do with their status vis-a-vis halakha, traditional Jewish law. The Beta Israel, who immigrated here mainly in Operations Moses and Solomon, are Jewish according to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s constitutive rabbinical ruling from 1973. There is no rabbinical adjudicator who accepts the Falashmura claim that they are Jews in every respect.

The Falashmura are descendants of the Beta Israel who converted or were forced to become Christians at the end of the 19th century, and who in the interim have been living mostly in closed communities. In Israel, policy toward them has been influenced in part by the attitude of the religious establishment here, as well as by that of the organizations involved in encouraging their immigration. Former chief rabbis of Israel Meir Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi Doron believed the Falashmura should not be considered Jews and opposed their continued immigration, but a more lenient attitude toward them was established by Rabbi Shlomo Amar during his tenure as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and later as chief rabbi of Israel, a position from which he retired this year.

Further to Ovadia’s ruling to the effect that the Beta Israel are Jewish, Amar ruled that even if there is a doubt that the Falshmura are Jews, they should be treated leniently in the conversion process. This stance shaped the politics, and it was during his time as interior minister that Shas MK Eli Yishai headed those who promoted the immigration of Falashmura. Because of Amar’s ruling, to this day the conversion procedure for the Falashmura is considered relatively easy, though not everyone undergoes the process.

While still in Ethiopia, every immigrant signs a commitment to undergo conversion in Israel, and in the case of children, efforts are made to acquire the signatures of both parents, in case one stays behind in Ethiopia or the couple divorces in Israel.

The conversion procedure for the Falashmura is unique, even though the certificate they receive in the end is the same as the certificate issued by rabbinical courts for conversion.

Symbolic drop of blood

While still in the transit camp in Ethiopia, the immigrants begin the study process the conversion department refers to as the “spiritual envelope.” The process includes familiarization with the Sabbath and holidays, prayers, beliefs, ritual objects and so on. About a month after they land at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the newcomers take courses in various subjects, first and foremost Hebrew and Judaism, in advance of conversion. The process is almost always carried out in the framework of families and not individually, as is the case with other converts
Also unlike other converts, the Falashmura are not permitted to choose the conversion institute where they will study; all of them are converted at the absorption centers for new immigrants, where they are taught by instructors from the Education Ministry. When the instructors conclude that a family is ready for conversion, usually after about a year, it is invited to a meeting with the conversion court, which usually takes place at the absorption center.

The rest of the process is similar to that of other converts, by and large: circumcision for males who have not undergone the process, or, for those who have had a non-ritual circumcision, a symbolic drop of blood is taken, followed by immersion in a mikveh ‏(ritual bath‏) and the issuance of a conversion certificate.

Married couples are required to undergo an abbreviated wedding ceremony, in accordance with the “religion of Moses and Israel” ‏(as is declared during the ceremony‏) − a requirement that according to sources at the rabbinate is met with special bitterness among Ethiopian immigrants.

In general, no one disputes that the State of Israel has made the conversion process friendly for the Falashmura. There are those who will say it is too friendly, depending on their religious preferences and their thoughts about whether, in principle, Israel should be bringing members of that group here in the first place.

Within the conversion department of the Prime Minister’s Office, they say that the leniency has to do with the fact that the Ethiopians come from a “traditional culture” that accords with religious values more easily than a secular European background, for example.

There is, however, a difficulty that by its nature also has to do with halakha, with regard to converting adults, among whom illiteracy is more common. According to Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, who was formerly in charge of the state rabbinical courts and now undertakes conversions privately, “There are those who argue that the all conversion in Israel is carried out retroactively, and it is clear that for the Ethiopians it is as retroactive as can be. They are treated with extreme leniency and when they enter this process there are even just plain Christians who don’t have any connection at all to the Falashmura. There are a lot of problems with the conversion of the Falashmura, and to some extent I bear the responsibility for this, but in retrospect there is certainly no reason to doubt their conversions.”

Yet, at the same time, Rabbi Solomon Mabruhato, director for Ethiopian immigrants at the Prime Minister’s Office, admits openly that the conversion process exacts a high price, especially among the Falashmura.

There are many crises,” he says, “connected to immigration, but the pressure of conversion is greater than the other things. These aren’t ordinary immigrants − their absorption is contingent on conversion. They will receive acceptance as belonging and full rights only if they undergo the conversion process − their mind is totally engaged with this issue. It happens that if a family doesn’t pass the first time it puts the whole family into a profound and serious crisis, which will accompany them even if the process is completed, and of course if it is not. It puts them into tremendous pressure, and there are lots of families that break up.”

The Falashmura do have in fact a few advantages as Jews, upon the completion of the process. According to Rosen, the conversion process for that community makes its members “definite Jews,” even more so than the Beta Israel, since not all the rabbinical adjudicators accepted Ovadia’s opinion about them at the time, and they still argue that all the Ethiopians should have or must undergo a “precautionary” conversion ‏(giyur lehumra‏) to remove any doubts.

To this day there are sons and daughters of immigrants from Ethiopia who are living as religious Jews, but who, before they marry, take it upon themselves to undergo a conversion immersion in a mikveh to eliminate any doubt regarding their Jewishness.

Eradicating the past

Among the Falashmura, everyone undergoes immersion. The Falashmura, because they did not observe the oral law followed by Ethiopian Jews ‏(which in many cases clashes with Orthodox halakha‏), also do not need to adapt to standard customs. At most, they have to eradicate their Christian past.

Where they do have difficulty, however, is, for example, in the question of circumcision. Among the Falashmura, many of the men have been circumcised, often in a procedure that was carried out by the women of the family. Such a procedure has to be approved by experts on behalf of the rabbinical court. If it is not approved, the man has to undergo a full medical circumcision, or at the minimum, the ritual letting of a drop of blood. When the conversion is done in the framework of a family, there is a great deal of sensitivity to this issue, especially when the father of the family is required to undergo circumcision.

Amar ruled that conversion candidates must be given the right to appeal the rabbinical court’s decision and to submit another opinion on their own behalf, but sometimes there is no alternative but to demand circumcision.

“This is the most sensitive thing,” says Mabruhato. “There is scope for easing up on them. A person says look, I am circumcised, but sometimes under halakha there are things that are impediments. It is hard for them to accept this, and this is one of the things that affect the whole family. There have been people who did not want to undergo a ritual circumcision and this holds back the whole family. Sometimes people remain at the absorption center even after the process is over, only so that the father will not have to undergo a circumcision.”

Also inherent in the conversion procedure is the practice of sending all the children of new immigrants into the religious education system. Every child, no matter from which community, who is in the midst of a conversion process is required by the conversion authorities to attend a religious school.

In the case of the Falashmura, this policy too is of no significance, since in all cases the children and adolescents enter schools only after the conversion process, at which point they cannot be required to attend a religious school. Instead, the conversion courts will ask parents to send their children to religious schools, but no one will check to see if this is done. The truth is that after several years a considerable number of the Falashmura leave the religious schools and enter the secular education system.

Rabbi Chananya Blumert, the rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Bat Yam, meets with new immigrants after they have left the absorption centers and are trying to integrate into the community. He accompanies some of the immigrants who have not yet completed their conversion process. His biggest concern, he says, is that this process does not help in terms of resolving the difficult identity problems experienced by members of the community.

“The young Falashmura,” says Blumert, “do not understand what people here want from their lives, they don’t understand the history of their ancestors’ conversion to Christianity, and they don’t understand why the Ethiopians don’t consider them to be Jews while the state does consider them Jews. One of the things I often deal with is simply a very big identity crisis, because they have come from a place where there wasn’t a Jewish way of life and all of a sudden they are told: ‘Convert, go to boarding schools and be a Jew like us.’

“It turns out that this isn’t exactly the way of life they had been expecting. The Israelis consider them Jews, but the veteran Ethiopians sometimes see them as Christians. There is tremendous confusion among the young people on this issue.”

The Bat Yam rabbi conducts special identity workshops for Falashmura during their acclimatization in the community. “I simply review the history for them and explain: Here are the Jews of Ethiopia, here there was a process of becoming Christian, you are members of the Falashmura and these are Jews. Now choose. You should know that knowledge is power. This works exceedingly well, it is very successful. It works magic and strengthens their knowledge of what they are and what is wanted of them.”

An Ethiopian wedding. Some children of religious immigrants go to the mikveh before marrying to eliminate doubt of their Jewishness.Credit: Yuval Tebol



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