Ethiopian Olim Guided through Model Seder

Mivasseret Zion, Israel (April 2, 2012) – The little girls stood on stage holding up a child’s painting of the Ten Commandments, quietly but confidently singing “Who Knows One,” the traditional Passover song about Jewish icons such as the Five Books of Moses, the Four Matriarchs, the Three Patriarchs, the two Tablets that Moses brought from Mount Sinai, and the Oneness of God.

It could have been a scene from any number of school Passover presentations, but these children were new immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia, demonstrating their Jewish knowledge for family members who, with them, are about to celebrate their first Passover in Israel.

This Friday night, an estimated 5,500 members of the Falash Mura community will hold seders together in absorption centers throughout Israel, sponsored by The Jewish Agency and by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In groups, they will celebrate both Passover and their new lives in Israel, for the first time using a Hebrew haggadah – and, in many cases, experiencing their very first seder.

To prepare, this week, the olim held model seders, including in the Mevaseret Zion absorption center. With its apartment units stretching out for blocks – punctuated by playgrounds and communal buildings such as a library and auditorium – the Mevaseret Zion complex is by far the largest of The Jewish Agency’s 22 such centers, including 16 that cater specifically to new olim from Ethiopia.

The Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky related his memories of making a seder while imprisoned in Siberia, using water instead of wine and bread instead of matzah (“because what can you do”), and reciting as much of the haggadah as he could from memory. Later, after his release and his own immigration to Israel, he flew to Ethiopia to escort a group of Jews on their own flight home.

“I didn’t understand a word anyone said,” he remembered, “but when the pilot announced that we were over Jerusalem, everyone cried ‘Yerusalem! Yerusalem!’ and I realized I was part of a modern-day exodus, the return of Jews from every direction – toward Jerusalem.”

Rabbi Eckstein, whose organization is a major donor toward programs that assist Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, earned enthusiastic applause from the participants by sometimes breaking from his Hebrew address to speak in Amharic, Ethiopia’s native language.

Addressing the veteran Ethiopian olim in attendance Eckstein said, “It’s not just that we are proud of you, you are also role models. You show the next generation of new immigrants that with hard work, they too can succeed. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Your job is to work hard. And our job is to accept and love you and help you all we can.”

In Mevaseret Zion, many of the olim attended the model seder dressed entirely in white, the traditional Ethiopian attire for festive occasions.

After briefly experiencing the highlights of a seder, the participants broke into dance, gesticulating their shoulders in a uniquely Ethiopian dance style.

“In Ethiopia, they ate matzah all year round,” said Yehudah Sharf, Director of Aliyah and Absorption for The Jewish Agency. “Here, it is only on Passover that they eat the ‘lachma anya’ – bread of the poor – because they have so many more opportunities. For them, now, eating matzah truly makes it a night to ask ‘what is different tonight from all other nights.’”

photos courtesy Robbie Hillebrand and Jewish Agency