Students celebrate Beta Israeli Shabbat on campus

Alyse Riffer, Reporter

Hillel, Black United Students and the Center of Pan-African Culture celebrated a Shabbat Friday focusing on Beta Israeli culture welcome to anyone.

Student contributors decorated the multipurpose room in Oscar Ritchie Hall with pictures and biographies of influential Beta Israelis on every table. They also gave every student a pamphlet with facts about the community, blessings and prayers and upcoming events within the student organizations.

Samantha Remer, a student leader at Hillel and freshman hospitality and vet management major, helped contribute to the event and said she hopes students will take an interest in the Beta Israeli culture.

“I’m really interested in different cultures, that’s why I’m very excited and was heavily partaking in this, but also I want other people to be enthusiastic about other cultures,” Remer said.

As direct descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Beta Israelis, which translates to “House of Israel,” identify as Jews of Ethiopian origin.

They created the holiday of Sigd, now recognized as a national holiday in Israel and celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, to renew the covenant of all Jewish people.

The evening started off with a social hour, then segued into an introduction of contributors from the student organizations. Afterward, they played a pre-recorded Zoom call with Keren Almaz Marsha, who previously worked as the Israel fellow at Hillel.

“I think it was a pretty good opportunity to bring people together and to express diversity…this gives us a chance to have a dialogue and relate to each other’s cultures, and this is a perfect example of how cultures literally interconnect,” said Dale Chalfin, a student leader at Hillel and senior political science and peace and conflict studies double major.

Chalfin attended the student leadership trip to Israel in January with Hillel and said she saw many students connecting with the Ethiopian community and story. She had the initial idea of holding a Beta Israeli Shabbat because of her individual research on Ethiopia.

Chalfin said she connected with the Beta Israeli community because of her identification with being Jewish and the effect that has had on her life. She said she has family scattered all throughout the states and in other countries because of the Holocaust, so seeing this community being isolated, in terms of recognition, stuck with her.

“I was just amazed at the fact that I had never been exposed to this…after having gone to Israel, I got to know Keren a little bit, and I brought it up to her, too, and she wanted to do something and we never got around to it, but she was very much a part of wanting to start this,” Chalfin said.

Marsha told the importance of intersectionality within her multiple identities as a Black Jewish woman. She said her parents came to Israel with the second operation out of three operations that happened from the ‘80s through the ‘90s in an attempt to rescue Jews from the civil war in Ethiopia and grant them peace in Israel.

Beta Israelis walked on foot for a month and experienced traumatic atrocities, where Marsha said she didn’t know one person who didn’t lose someone.

Marsha said despite the pressure to convert to Christianity, Beta Israelis obtain a unique sense of tradition and culture that differs from mainstream Judaism. She said they practice traditions as the Bible says and they pray in a different language.

Marsha said she expresses great pride in her community and likes how everyone treats each other with respect and helpfulness. She also said she has gratitude for this conversation.

“I met Keren last year…I enjoyed talking to her, and I think the Beta Israeli community is a pretty interesting chapter of the Jewish culture,” said Camden Miller, a junior anthropology major and vice president of engagement of first years at Hillel. “A lot of people do forget that Judaism isn’t just white, East Europeans or West Europeans, and there are African Jews and Middle-Eastern Jews, and it’s important to recognize there are different kinds of Jews, and we’re all Jewish, but we’re not all the same.”

After Marsha’s speech, contributors planned a Q&A and asked the audience a multitude of questions.

Students from the audience said they thought Marsha’s story was fascinating and they felt a connection to her. Many students agreed they learned a lot about traditions and the many layers within a culture.

They made clear this community deserves to be shared and suggested the possibility of making the Beta Israeli Shabbat an annual event.

Rabbi Michael Ross, in attendance with the student organizations, said he hopes the Beta Israeli community will be fully accepted soon.

Afterward, Ross led all the attendees in the recitation of a prayer through song and encouraged everyone to light a candle.

Attendees then returned to their seats and stood, while holding glasses of grape juice, to sing another blessing and initiate the breaking of the challah bread. Everyone at each table passed the challah in a circle, ripped off a piece and ate the bread together.

Everyone had the chance to try new traditional foods buffet-style including matzo ball soup, chicken, yams and other foods and treats.

Miller said she especially enjoys sharing Shabbat meals with different people. She said the experience is important because it shows the similarities of the group despite their differences.

“There’s a lot of antisemitism because people think ‘Oh, Jews are so different from us,’ but we’re really not, and because we can break challah and eat soup together with different communities, it sort of connects that bridge,” Miller said.

Conversation engulfed the room for the rest of the night.

Chalfin said to not make judgments about a person before getting to know them. She said without taking the chance to talk to Marsha, a person would have never gotten the chance to learn of her intersectional identities.

“I love how open-minded people were because they tried new foods, they learned new things, they sat here and they pushed themselves to learn about, not only a whole new culture, but a new religion and to see people do that just brings me so much hope,” Chalfin said.

Alyse Riffer is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].