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.
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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.

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.



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