By Pesach Benson
Israel’s Ethiopian community celebrated the Sigd festival on Wednesday, Nov. 23. The holiday was originally celebrated in Ethiopia to express the community’s yearning to return to Israel and affirm its connection to Jerusalem.
Sigd, whose name is derived from the Aramaic word “sged,” which means to prostrate oneself, is held 50 days after Yom Kippur.
“What we have here is the holiday that symbolizes longing for Israel, to Jerusalem and unity with the Jewish people,” said Ezra Bayoch, who participated in the Jerusalem celebration.
More than 1,400 Ethiopian Jews have been airlifted to Israel in 2022, but, Bayoch said, “The immigration is not over and will not end as long as our brothers and sisters who remain in exile and are unable to immigrate. With G-d’s help, they will immigrate to Israel and fulfill their dream of generations. And I pray that next year I will be able to pray with them here.”
Airlifting the remaining Ethiopians has been complicated by Israel’s political paralysis over the last two years, budgetary issues, the civil war in Ethopia’s Tigray region and the potential immigrants’ Jewish status.
On Sunday, Nov. 27, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that as of the end of 2021, the Ethiopian community in Israel stood at more than 164,000. Of that number, more than 90,000 were born in Ethiopia while over 73,000 were born in Israel.
During the same week of Sigd celebrations, 12 Jews in Gondar, Ethiopia, were marking another occasion: The graduation of shochtim, ritual slaughterers, from a first-of-its-kind training program.
The program was part of a joint initiative between local community Rabbi Menachem Waldman and Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, the director of the Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary Program of Ohr Torah Stone and of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry.
There are about 10,000 Jews in Gondar and an additional 2,000 in Addis Ababa.
Until now, there was no halachic ritual slaughter operation in the country, forcing observant members of the community to refrain from eating poultry or red meat.
The course began online two-and-a-half months ago.
The specially manufactured knives and sharpening stones were shipped to Ethiopia from Israel, and two weeks ago Rabbi Netanel Ansani, a highly experienced shochet, arrived in Gondar to begin the practical training.
“The group studied from early morning into the evening hours,” said Ansani.
“It was very important that each student train extensively in the hands on methods so that they would have as much experience and confidence in the process as possible and that they could demonstrate their commitment to continuing to learn and gain more experience.”
Last week, Birnbaum and Rabbi Dr. Ari Greenspan, a shochet, educator and dentist, traveled to Ethiopia to oversee the examination process.
In the presence of their families and fellow community members, the men all received certifications allowing them to act as halachically approved ritual slaughterers.
“This is truly a historic moment,” Birnbaum said.
JNS contributed to this report.