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COVID-19 Restrictions Threaten Unifying Role of Ethiopian Jewish Holiday in Israel

Health rules make it harder for Ethiopian Jews to connect with their community on Sigd as well as with others in Israel

Sigd, the holiday that Ethiopian Jews brought to Israel that marks a renewal of the covenant with God and has become a force that unites these immigrants with other Israelis, is being observed in a scaled-down fashion this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The holiday, which started at sundown on Sunday and ends Monday evening, became an official part of the Israeli calendar in 2008 and is observed 50 days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

“At first, it was a closed holiday only open to the Ethiopian Jewish community, but after a while, the spiritual leaders in the community opened up the Sigd ceremony and holiday to the rest of the people here,” Qes Efraim Lawi, the spiritual leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community in the northern city of Karmiel, told The Media Line.

“A lot of people from outside the community come to celebrate and learn and hear the prayers of the spiritual leaders in the [ancient] Ge’ez language,” he said. After 35 years [in Israel], the Sigd holiday is still a Jewish holiday that connects not just the Ethiopian Jewish community, but also connects [us] to the outside Jewish communities.”

Anthropologist and educator Shoshana Ben-Dor, who has been studying Ethiopian Jews in Israel since 1979, told The Media Line that many young Israelis had been influenced by negative stereotypes that Ethiopian Jews were uneducated and poor.

Ethiopian Jews have suffered discrimination in Israel. In 2018, the police in separate incidents killed two young Ethiopian Jewish adults.

The community still feels underappreciated and that there is general ignorance about their identity, Ben-Dor said. However, this has been changing over the past two decades as Ethiopian Israelis shared more information about their ways and Israeli anthropologists and historians studied them. The number of Ethiopian Israelis in academia has risen, and attitudes have shifted among the general public.

“Israeli society has changed to be able to welcome and to value the various cultures that came not from Europe and North Africa but from the rest of the Diaspora,” Ben-Dor said.

Many people are concerned that the opportunity that Sigd provides to unite the Ethiopian Israeli community and the general Israeli public will be lost because of COVID-19 restrictions on gathering. While the holiday has served as a unifying force in Israel, Lawi said that it had the opposite function in Ethiopia.

Without the Sigd holiday, I think the Ethiopian Israeli community would never have come back to Jerusalem

“It’s a very unique and special holiday because the Sigd in Ethiopia kept us from the rest of the local people that lived in Ethiopia. It brought us the power to keep the Jewish identity in a place where most of the people are not Jewish,” he told The Media Line. “Without the Sigd holiday, I think the Ethiopian Israeli community would never have come back to Jerusalem.

Sigd’s rituals are based on Chapter 9 of the Book of Nehemiah, when the biblical scribe and priest Ezra presided over the Torah’s reintroduction to Jerusalem after returning from exile in Babylon and the renewal of Jews’ covenant with God.

“It’s not just a day that people went up on a mountain and returned to Jerusalem. It’s meant to be a day of covenant renewal,” said Ben-Dor, who has published work on the Sigd liturgy and other Ethiopian Jewish liturgy, as well as other elements of their religious life and history.

“Chapter 9 of Nehemiah is read at the Sigd; so are the Ten Commandments, the first covenant between God and Israel. Also, biblical blessings and curses [are read] to emphasize the importance of observing God’s law. Although there are some prayers that relate to the longing for Jerusalem … even more important in terms of the prayers is asking God to forgive our sins,” she said. “The idea is that in order to renew the covenant, in order to be worthy of being in Jerusalem, one has to be pure, one has to observe the laws that God has made.”

Naftali Avraham, the head of the Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center, which is sponsoring Sigd, this year, said that last year more than 15,000 people attended while this year only selected spiritual leaders will be able to attend with the ceremony. It is being broadcast on television and social media.

There will also be very small services held throughout the country in various synagogues with permission from the Health Ministry of Health because of coronavirus restrictions.

“It’s really sad but this is the situation not only in Israel but throughout the world, and we have to accept it,” he told The Media Line. “Most of the people who come are older and it is very dangerous for them” to go in person.

There is concern that some Ethiopian Israelis will not be able to access online services and that younger members of the community are drifting away.

“We have to expose many people [to the holiday], especially the young people who are born here,” he said, referring to the second generation of Ethiopian Israelis who are less connected to their roots.

Ben-Dor agreed that the younger generation is less interested in the holiday.

“The older people are more attached to the tradition of the [the spiritual leaders] and their prayers than the younger people, many of whom are very secularized and less interested in something of a religious nature,” she said. “Not enough has been done to teach them about what the Sigd really is. To the extent that young people relate to the Sigd it’s more … a day for communal identity than anything related to the religious aspects.”

The essence of the Sigd celebration is communal repentance and solidarity. Both must be done with the whole community in one place, where you see a lot of people who believe just like you. People cannot get this experience this year

Rabbi Sharon Shalom, head of the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, is also concerned about the loss of the connection within the community as a result of health restrictions that limit the numbers of people who can congregate.

“The essence of the Sigd celebration is communal repentance and solidarity. Both must be done with the whole community in one place, where you see a lot of people who believe just like you,” he told The Media Line. “People cannot get this experience this year.”

On the other hand, Shalom said, because of COVID-19, the holiday observance is being broadcast and not being limited to those who attend it in Jerusalem.

“In normal years, only people who came to Jerusalem who could get the experience, but because the virus, the media brings the celebration to the home,” Shalom said.