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Role Models and the Sigd

Today’s participant blog post comes from Benji Bernstein, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Benji’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Rishon LeZion, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Benji’s personal blog.

There are not many of us in the States that have heard of the Sigd, but it happens to be one of the holiest and most important days of the year for the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewish community (the major sect of Ethiopian Jewry that has been actively practicing Judaism for thousands of years).

Tonight was my first real experience with this beautiful holiday, which officially begins tomorrow. The celebration took place at the Ramat Eliyahu “Matnas” (or community center), and was geared specifically toward the youth of the community. This was an interesting choice, but deliberate in its targeting nevertheless. Since starting this blog, I have not yet delved into the generational gap between the current parents, and the children/young adults of the Ethiopian-Israeli community, although it is exceedingly prominent throughout this population.

Just to give a couple examples, in my Ethiopian host family, the parents (who were both born in Ethiopia, and came to Israel during Operation Moses in the mid-1980s) communicate with one another in their native Ethiopian tongue, Amharic. It’s a beautiful language that echoes through the streets of the Ramat Eliyahu community, but interestingly enough, much of the millennial Ethiopian-Israeli generation (the first-generation Israelis) has departed from it to a large extent. The four children in my host family all understand Amharic, and their parents try to speak to them in the language frequently. The kids almost always answer in Hebrew.

From our various seminars and lectures on the topic since arriving, we have learned that this is a very common phenomenon throughout this community. The kids want to be Israeli–they want to fit in with their classmates at school, and not to be looked at as “foreigners.” You can even see a similar departure at the main Ethiopian synagogue in the neighborhood. I was there for services during Yom Kippur, and there were actually two separate services proceeding. Inside the temple, the service was being conducted in Ge’ez (the liturgical language of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewish community) and Amharic, and all of the congregants inside seemed to be over the age of 40. Immediately outside the temple, however, a subsequent “traditional” service was being led in Hebrew, which was comprised largely of Ethiopian-Israelis under the age of 30.

The Sigd holiday has been observed by the Beta Israel Ethiopian community for more than 2,500 years, and is barely understood by most of modern day Israeli society. It is exclusively of Ethiopian-Jewish heritage, and in Ethiopia, it was mostly focused on hiking to a mountain top (and fasting for a half-day) to pray for the eventual return of the Beta Israel community to Jerusalem.

Tonight, the youth of this community were shown many reasons why they should be proud of this holiday, and of their Ethiopian heritage as a whole. The event featured traditional Ethiopian food (injera and shiro), as well as Ethiopian music, dance, and several speakers. One of the most special speeches of the night was that of a young Ethiopian rabbi, who discussed the relevance of the Sigd holiday for Israel as a whole today. He described that while Beta Israel used to pray for the physical return to Zion from Ethiopia, “We now pray for the ‘restoration’ of Israel in full. We pray that it will be a place for all of its citizens to live together and flourish with equal opportunity in the future.” This speech really resonated with me, as I am certain that it would with a countless number of Jews around the world. A holiday with a powerful message like this is something that the Jewish people as a whole must recognize on a wider scale (it is worth noting that it was recently added to the official Israeli holiday calendar).

The other speech that I will never forget was given by the teen “representative” of the major Ethiopian-Israeli youth group of the community center. His main message was that their young community needed to be proud of their heritage–that it was their “basis,” and that their rich culture will help make them a strong, vibrant, and vital part of a multicultural Israeli society going forward. The audience of kids and adolescents cheered emphatically.

Between the speeches, different Ethiopian dance groups did some incredible (and seemingly impossible) dances to some exotic (and wildly catchy) cultural music. The coordinators of the event–young adult members (and mentors) of the community–were loving every minute of it, and several times motioned with their hands to try to get the young crowd to cheer even louder. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and the children in the audience were feeding off of their excitement. The kids were seeing these older role models ecstatically celebrating their foreign culture–and it helped make it “cool” for them too.

In all, the night showed the importance of having pride in your roots, as there is so much beauty and power in the cultures and histories of each ethnicity. Sometimes though, what kids need most in order to be influenced to see this is young role models–whether its those at the community center, a young rabbi, or their youth group “representative.”

These people can be even more influential on certain ideas because they are younger, more relate-able, and perhaps “cooler” in the eyes of the children than those of the older generations. I was inspired by the influence of these several role models tonight. Lucky for me, I am working very closely with many of them in my various jobs teaching English and working as an at-risk youth counselor at this same community center. I hope to continue learning from these established mentors, and to also bring my own exciting American culture into the leadership mix. I have already started with my NBA English lessons, and hip-hop homework assignments (more to come on this in a later post). If I learned one thing tonight though, it’s that a true mentor can have an immeasurable influence–the type of tangible impact that I saw throughout the community center this evening. As a member of a group of foreign volunteers, I know that we cannot have this exact same type of effect.

Although what we can do is strive to do our best to create positive change–in the way that the mentors who come from this community have exemplified.

Hag Sigd Sameach!

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