The Last Jews of Ethiopia

A Community Vanishes as a Final Group Leaves for Israel

Geography Class: Ethiopian Jewish students locate cities on a map of Israel at the Jewish Agency school.
Getty Images
Geography Class: Ethiopian Jewish students locate cities on a map of Israel at the Jewish Agency school.

By Miriam Berger

Published August 09, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The last community synagogue in Gondar, in the north of Ethiopia, is in a rented building cordoned off from the street by large metal sheets. Several men passively stand guard in front. From the outside, a Jewish Agency for Israel sign is the main indication of what lies within.

But neighbors know.

“You,” two men in frayed jeans and rubber sandals shouted as I paused at the wide street where they loitered. “Beta Israel?”

I nod in response.

“There,” they said, gesturing in the synagogue’s direction.

Beta Israel, or House of Israel, is the term for Ethiopia’s indigenous Jewish community. The Jews are also called Falasha, or “outsiders” in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Christians and Jews. It is here, in the rolling green hills of Gondar, that a distinctive Ethiopian Jewish community of craftsmen and shepherds once thrived. They claimed to derive from the tribe of Dan, one of the lost 10 biblical tribes, although this claim remains historically disputed.

The typical Jewish or American travelers rarely reach Ethiopia, a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa where infrastructure is poor and poverty rampant. But Ethiopia is a desirable destination for travelers seeking new heights, as well as beautiful nature preserves and ancient religious sites. Several Jewish groups, such as Jewish Journeys Ltd., have organized sightseeing or fundraising trips to Gondar and to other areas in the north, like the Simien Mountains and Bahir Dar, where Jews were once populous. Others, like myself, make it their own way.

Travelers, however, will not be coming to this synagogue much longer.

On a Saturday in May, I entered the synagogue with a parade of Falasha children. They enthusiastically grasped my hand and, chattering, led me into the main hall. It is a large space filled with benches and divided by a thin cloth mechitzah, to separate the men from the women. The service is in Ge’ez, which shares the same Semitic roots as Hebrew, Arabic and local Amharic. Only the Kaddish is in recognizable Aramaic.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.