The Kechene Jews of Ethiopia

Background and early history

The Jewish presence in Ethiopia was known to the world hundreds of years ago. Many travelers gave witness to their existence and Jewish emissaries tried to reach the community. The Jewish population during those centuries was clustered primarily in the northern part of the country, mostly in the vicinity of Gondar. Today, these Jews are known as Beta Israel (House of Israel, sometimes called Falasha). Over the last 30 years, the majority of them have emigrated to Eretz Yisrael.

The main purpose of this paper is to introduce a little-known Jewish community, which was once part of Beta Israel. These Jews migrated South nearly 300 years ago and settled in the central part of the region known as North Shewa. Members of this community have been known as Baliij, Teyib, Moreti (named for Moret, the area of North Shewa where they originally settled), Beit Avraham, or, most commonly, as Kechene Jews, named for the area of Addis Ababa where they live now.

The Kechene Jews share ancestral origins with the Beta Israel and observe pre-Talmudic Jewish practices. There are several views as to the ancestry of the fathers of today’s Kechene Jews. One group claims to be descended from the lost tribe of Dan. A second group claims descent from the Israelites who accompanied Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, on his journey from Israel to Ethiopia. Others, particularly from the Q’uara region, believe they are descended from the Levites who brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia for safe keeping when Jerusalem was ruled by a pagan King around 500 BC. And still others claim ancestry from those Israelites who fled Jerusalem when Babylon destroyed the city.

Separation of the Kechene Jews form the Beta Israel, however, began at the time Kassa of Q’uara crowned himself Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia in 1855. As was the custom at that time, the new Emperor captured and detained all potential rivals to prevent internal power struggle. One of his prisoners was the young Shewan prince Menelik.

Emperor Tewodros believed in a united and independent Ethiopia. To further this goal he established an arms factory near Debre Tabor. The arms factory employed a large number of Beta Israelis, many of whom also served in his army. However, because of his brutal rule, and his policy of redistributing fallow land owned by the Orthodox Christian Church, there was wide spread rebellion against his rule.

When the young Shewan prince Menilik noticed that Emperor Tewodros was weakened, he arranged for his escape. He convinced many of the Emperor’s crafts men and soldiers to follow him to Shewa with the promise of good positions in his government. That is how the fathers of the Kechene Jews left Dembeya (Gondar) to Moret (in the North Shewa region) in 1865. These Beta Israelis served the young prince and later when he became Emperor Menilik II, they built his palaces and also served in his army. When Emperor Menilik II decided to move his capital from Ankober, they followed him to Entoto and Addis Ababa and settled in Kechene.

The total population of Kechene Jews is estimated currently to be more than 150,000. They are skilled craftsmen, involved in the production of ploughshares, metal agricultural implements, knives, blades, iron spears, swords, pottery, and traditional clothing.

Later history of Kechene Jews

Beginning in the 18th century, the governor of the region of Moret had a positive attitude towards the Jewish community, and their products were in demand. They played a major role in the expansion and settlement of Shewa and a pivotal role in the establishment of the capital, Addis Ababa, providing crafts and manual labor. But despite their economic importance, they were regarded with distrust, fear, and at times, even hatred because of their Jewish faith. Faced with extreme persecution from their Christian neighbors, who called them anti-Christ, they lived as strangers in the region and were denied basic rights such as the ownership of land, which was granted only to those who accepted the Christian faith and underwent baptism.

The majority Christian community used pejorative terms when speaking and interacting with the Jews in their midst, resulting in the segregation of the Jews from their neighbors. As a result, the Jewish community lived, for the most part, in complete isolation from the rest of the country, as one of the poorest segments of society.

In the early years of the settlement in Moret, Jewish community members observed our fathers’ traditions publicly. But their Christian neighbors were outraged to see Judaism practiced in their land. This led to two major bloodbaths. Thousands of people who lived in a mountainous area of the region were slaughtered while they were celebrating a Jewish festival. Another brutal attack took place when a mob of neighboring Christians entered the houses of community members and killed those who could not escape, hanging the bodies of three spiritual leaders in a public square for all to see. To this day, we honor, in our prayers, people who died because of their faith.

To ensure the survival of the community and its continuity to the next generation, and to minimize persecution and gain access to burial grounds from the church, the elders instructed the community to abide by the following rules:

  • Members of the community were encouraged to adapt outwardly to the environment in which they lived, including going to church.
  • Judaic practices would continue secretly, led by monastery monks. (The monastic system was not new at that point and was common among the Beta Israeli community.) The mode of religious practice was changed from open to secret.
  • Access was denied to outsiders in their quest to learn about the community. Providing information about the community was strictly prohibited.
  • Our fathers’ religious wisdom had to be passed orally from generation to generation. It was strictly forbidden to produce any written document until “The Day” — when God favors the community and their true identity and their religious practice can be made public without persecution.

Evidence of secret Jewish practice

In 1843, German missionary Johann Krapf wrote that he had encountered a strange village in Moret a few years before. According to his account, the people in the community did not mix with the larger population. He observed that:

  • The surrounding Christian populations were in fear of them, considering them sorcerers.
  • Christians did not enter their houses or eat with them.
  • The village was outwardly Christian.

Krapf strongly suspected that the villagers were Jews, writing:

They told me that if I had come on Saturday, they wouldn’t have received me, as on that day they neither go out of their houses nor kindle fires.

Another European visitor to North Shewa was Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955), a Jewish anthropologist and activist who had studied at the Sorbonne in France. Devoted to the exposure, study, and development of Ethiopia’s Jews, he remains a major figure in Ethiopian Jewish history. As David Francis Kessler discussed in his book, The Falashas (1996), Faitlovitch went to Ankober to learn about the community. The residents were not cooperative.

He (Faitlovitch) found the members of this community deeply suspicious and reluctant to answer his questions. He concluded, however, that they were a breakaway sect who had become completely separated from the Falashas of Dembeya.

He was able to discover that the community had retained a number of Beta Israel customs, including observance of Sabbath, ritual purification, and circumcision on the eighth day after birth.

Views of the surrounding population

Kechene Jews who live throughout the region have never been considered part of the mainstream. Two cases in the more recent past are illustrative.

  1. Twelve years ago, a young Kechene boy on his own initiative tried to sign up for priestly service in the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The church declined the request because he belonged to the community. It is common knowledge that although Ethiopian Jews outwardly engage in activities of the Coptic Christian church, they are not allowed to give service in the church.
  2. Balambaras (Commander) Tsegaye Mengistu, an elder of the community, told us that fifty years ago the court made a decision regarding land ownership. A piece of land had been given by a Jew to one of the monasteries. The owner of land surrounding the monastery went to court claiming that the land was rightfully his. His argument was based upon the law as stated in the Kibre Negast (Glory of Kings) that Jews, who crucified Jesus, are prohibited from land ownership. The court ruled in his favor. (The decision was later reversed when the spiritual leaders of the monastery appealed to the governor of the region.)

Beta Israel’s attempt to re-establish contact

Ten years ago, community elder Ato Gebryohanes Wolde shared his memory that an emissary from the Beta Israel had come to Kechene requesting a meeting with the elders. The emissary informed them that he had good news for the community. The elders argued on the subject, concluding that, as they did not know this person or his mission, he might have a hidden agenda to uncover their internal affairs. So they decided to tell him that they were a totally Christian community and were not interested in working with non-Christians. After that, the Beta Israel never made another attempt to contact them.

This incident shows the dominant suspicion within the community, resulting in measures meant to protect the community and its identity. This strategy enabled the Kechene community:

  • To survive as a minority among hostile neighbors
  • To keep our fathers’ tradition — Judaic practices
  • To prevent assimilation

But there are disadvantages, too.

  • Kechene Jews are not part of the country’s development activities.
  • Kechene Jews never sought religious freedom because it was not a subject for public discussion.
  • Kechene Jews were cut away from the rest of world Jewry. Judaic traditions were passed from generation to generation only through word-of-mouth. Therefore, the community is in danger of extinction.
  • Kechene Jews have little civic organization and live in extreme poverty.

It should be emphasized that some practices of the Jewish faith are strictly adhered to by the Kechene community. These are practices in their original form that were recognized before the Second Temple, some of which have become obsolete in normative Judaism. These include isolation of menstruating women for seven days in separate huts, separation of women after childbirth — for seven days if the child is male and fourteen days if female, and circumcision of male children on the eighth day after birth. After the death of a community member, the body is washed according to our fathers’ tradition, wrapped in a shroud (not placed in a coffin), and buried within twenty-four hours. Sabbath is observed by community elders in a secret synagogue on Saturday mornings; they have no contact with Gentiles. Craftsmen and craftswomen stop work early on Friday evening and do not work on the Sabbath.

History of the Zionist movement among Kechene Jews

Throughout the years, there have been attempts to address social and economic issues of poverty, education, and markets for products. However, issues of religious identity were rarely raised. In 1992, one of our community members, Mr. Shiferaw Gullie, brought up the topic for discussion for the first time. He told small circles of his compatriots that while on business in Asia he had met a Jew and exchanged ideas about our community as one of the lost tribes of Israel. Discussion continued among various groups.

From those discussions, it became clear that we lacked adequate knowledge about our history and religion. Younger community members tried to learn more from elders and visited remote secret synagogues to have a clearer picture about the religion. It was noticeable, however, that the elders were reluctant to discuss these things, fearing that information would get back to hostile Christian neighbors.

After two years of information-gathering and sharing, the Zionist movement was established to:

  • promote public Jewish observance
  • fill the knowledge gap regarding our history and religion in order to teach the younger generation
  • establish a synagogue openly
  • secure ground for a Jewish cemetery

In order to achieve these goals, the Zionist movement was legally instituted as the North Shewa Zionist Organization, named for the region where the community settled 300 years ago. The organization has opened a synagogue in Kechene, Addis Ababa called Beth-Selam, which means House of Peace.

Rabbinical Assembly Resolution on Ethiopian Jewry

After assessing the political situation in Ethiopia, the Rabbinical Assembly (the international association of Masorti rabbis) passed a resolution in February, 2002 regarding Ethiopian Jews. They believed that the political climate allowed the creation of public institutions that would help to protect the Jewish heritage of Ethiopia. The resolution stated, “Therefore, be it resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly support Ethiopian Jews with encouragement, literature, advice, visitors and financial support.”

Another 2002 Rabbinical Assembly resolution on helping the poor recalled biblical teachings: “Open your hand [to the poor person] and provide sufficient for the needy” (Deut. 15:8), and “Just as God clothed the naked…so too you must supply clothes for the naked [poor]” (Talmud B. Sotah 14a).

Based on Jewish tradition to help the poor, the Rabbinical Assembly’s 2002 resolutions, and the current poverty of Ethiopia’s neglected and isolated Jewish Kechene community, the leadership beseeches the Assembly to set up a system for meeting the community’s diverse needs.

The Kechene community wants and needs to end the isolation that was originally adopted for security reasons. The Kechene Jewish leadership respects the government of Ethiopia and feels that there is no longer a good reason to hide.

Jewish law requires that Jews must welcome visitors and see to their well-being. Many Jewish tourists — Israelis and Ethiopian Israelis — come to Ethiopia and have had no place to observe Shabbat in Addis Ababa or to meet with the community. Hence, supporting and expanding the newly established Jewish synagogue in Kechene is vital. Meeting other Jews face-to-face is a prerequisite for acceptance by world Jewry.

Conclusion

Reintegration of the Kechene Jewish community with fellow Jews must take into account the historical and traditional values of the community. We cannot be oblivious to the fears of the community. Historically, “foreigners,” both visitors from outside Ethiopia and Ethiopians who are not members of the Kechene community, are viewed with a watchful eye. Recently, however, many members of the community have graduated from institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia and abroad, and have obtained degrees in many fields. Education of the younger generation has built trust among the older generation, who seem more secure about the stands taken by their sons and daughters concerning community issues. However, efforts to help the community will bear fruit only if community members are consulted and if they are directed and administered by community members with a minimum of “foreign intervention.”

Following is an assessment of the needs of the Kechene community. They are discussed in order of precedence, from pressing to more long-term. Some pertain to religious needs, while others concern general economic conditions.

  • Pressing issues

    Creating awareness about the community among world Jewry is an important goal. Development of tourist programs would allow first-hand information about the community.

    The global economic crunch has hit most developing countries hard and Ethiopia is no exception. Elders in remote areas have always relied on their children for sustenance. Charitable organizations have provided limited assistance from time to time, but help to seniors is dwindling. Creating the means to provide aid to seniors, most of whom live in remote areas, is crucial.

    Education is a priority. Currently there are only two elementary schools for the children of about 150,000 people. Help is needed to expand these elementary schools. Furthermore, high school graduates have little access to public colleges because they cannot fulfill requirements and they cannot afford to go to private colleges. We recommend the establishment of a Trade School that would prepare students in fields such as accounting, secretarial, and business - marketable skills to provide economic opportunity in place of traditional handcrafts.

    A Jewish burial ground is essential. This will have strategic importance by eliminating the need to pretend to be Coptic in order to be buried in a Coptic cemetery.

    Because of the high rate of inflation, the economic situation of the community is moving from bad to worse. Despite the double and, at times, triple spike in commodity prices, the price for weaving and pottery products remains almost the same. Hence, the community is in a dire situation. With some funding, children could be helped with clothing and school books, which parents have difficulty providing.

    Basic health care and access to medication is becoming extremely difficult and is of paramount importance. A medical team from the United States, who flew to the area a few years ago, rendered a marvelous service to the community. If such a service were resumed, it would be of great benefit to the community. Medical doctors who are indigenous to the community should also be recruited as resources for improved health care.

  • Middle Term Issues

    Rabbinical training for a community member would provide a basis for the establishment of the rituals and observances of today’s Jewish world.

    Exposure to modern technologies would benefit the community, which still uses backward and traditional means of production. In the meantime, finding foreign markets for traditional products would help the community.

    Establishment of centers to increase awareness of the values and tenets of Judaism, including synagogues, libraries, and cultural centers, is essential for the community. This can be attained only by collaboration of the community with government and local officials.

    Cultural and educational exchange programs with institutions in Israel, the United States, and Europe would be beneficial.

  • Long-term Issues

    The ultimate goal is to create an environment that helps to build confidence among the community and strengthens the linkage to the rest of the Jewish world.

This simple outline, approved by most Kechene Jews, represents a starting point for action. Implementing these noble ideas will require strenuous effort by community members as well as brothers and sisters of the Jewish community worldwide.

We Kechene Jews appreciate the leadership of the Rabbinical Assembly on behalf of Ethiopia’s Jews in 2002. Our community leaders believe the course of action described above will help us to reclaim our heritage and build a self-sufficient Jewish community.