By Jan Lee
For many of us in North America, Sukkot is a time for expressing our fortune. It’s not only a time when we observe God’s commandment to “dwell in the sukkah” as a reminder of the Israelites’ journey out of slavery, but a time for expressing and showing the richness of our heritage as a people.
I am often struck by the ornateness and beauty that I see when I visit a friend’s sukkah. Such a labor of love! For so many, that homemade and individualized family sukkah reflects generations of traditions – from the ornaments and fruits that adorn the walls to the lavish first or second meal filled with dishes passed down through generations.
Sukkot has become for many of us, a time that reflects both our desire of hiddur mitzvah – to beautify and elevate the mitzvah to celebrate Sukkot – and a time to reflect and celebrate the abundance we enjoy.
This year, that “uniqueness” of Western Jewish traditions has become even more apparent to me as I read the reports of drought and unrest in African countries where Jewish populations still exist. Of most concern these days is the plight of the Jewish community in Gondar, Ethiopia, where fighting recently cut off the region’s access to food supplies.
Battles between the Ethiopia National Defense Forces and the local militia, Fano, have plunged the Amhara region into a government-imposed six-month state of emergency. At least one member of the Jewish community has been killed as a result of the fighting. But the conflict has also caused grain, oil and other food prices to skyrocket out of reach of the average Ethiopian.
These days, what news we may hear about Ethiopia’s Jewish communities from most Western news sources is limited. We may read about the Israeli airlift of Jews who have been accepted for aliyah, but few articles serve to educate us about the dismal living conditions in Gondar or Addis Ababa.
Most readers are unaware that of the roughly 6,000 living in the Gondar Jewish community, a significant number are descendants of Israel’s Ethiopian community, the “Beta Israel” – the children, nieces, nephews, sisters and brothers of those already living and working in Israel.
At the present time, five core nonprofits provide support for the “Zera Israel” (as the descendants of the Beta Israel are now called). Private agencies from around the world are working together to make sure that the community has food and access to bare essentials during the Ethiopian government’s six-month state of emergency.
The U.S.-based Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, British nonprofit Meketa UK and its North American partner Meketa USA, New York-based North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and the Israeli medical charity Operation Ethiopia are currently raising funds to ensure that residents have food to sustain them during the state of emergency and related curfews.
These nonprofits, along with the Jewish Agency’s Project Ten, play a crucial role in addressing the malnutrition, unemployment and medical challenges that are endemic to life in Ethiopia’s Jewish communities.
In 2021, the Israeli Knesset passed a resolution that approved and mapped out a path for thousands of Zera Israel to be granted aliyah and repatriated with their families in Israel. That resolution, now two years old, continues to give great hope and anticipation to many who have been waiting for decades for their “turn” to move to Israel.
While there is increasing pressure on the Israeli government to restart the airlifts, there is also a pressing need for emergency food that can sustain the families in Gondar until the current fighting has stopped.
Celebrating Sukkot in Ethiopia is a community experience, as it is in Israel and the rest of the Diaspora. But for most Ethiopian Jews, the one sukkah becomes a symbol of unity among families that is shared and celebrated each year.
Aid workers tell me that most of the families in the Gondar and Addis Ababa communities could never dream of affording their own sukkah in Gondar, and hence the ongoing tradition of sharing one sukkah under which to celebrate, learn and connect as Jews.
Thanks to the donors and volunteers who continue to step up and support the Zera Israel communities, Sukkot will be celebrated this year as well. But there is still much more to be done to ensure that Ethiopia’s Jewish communities can weather the effects of the current, worsening civil unrest.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer and former news editor. Her articles and op-eds have been published in a variety of Jewish and travel publications, including the Baltimore Jewish Times, B’nai B’rith Magazine, Jewish Independent and The Times of Israel.