The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Rabbi Sharon Shalom can attest to that as he shared many stories of his Ethiopian traditions, life as an Ethiopian Jew and the 1,500-mile journey that brought him to Israel – a journey that was built on faith.
Speaking to the general public as well as members of the Darchei Noam Reconstructionist Synagogue of Toronto where he was invited to speak recently, Rabbi Shalom reinforced this throughout his discussion and, more specifically, with this powerful quote: “He who seeks the common will find the differences blossoming. He who seeks the differences will find that which is common diminished.”
At the age of nine in the early 1980s, he and his family were part of a campaign to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel in Operation Moses, after the Chief Rabbi of Israel had recognized the Ethiopian Jews. At the time, Ethiopian Jews were forbidden from leaving Ethiopia so they had to be spirited out of the country.
Rabbi Shalom discussed the secrecy surrounding their departure that involved Israeli commandos who assisted in relocating thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It was subsequently followed by a second relocation mission known as Operation Solomon. Rabbi Shalom described the two-month journey by foot that took him from Ethiopia to Sudan as difficult for some. The two missions relocated 22,000 Ethiopian Jews. More than 4,000 perished along the way.
At the Sudan border, Shalom’s parents were advised by authorities to send their son ahead without them, as he would stand a better chance. For two years, he grew up in an Ethiopian orphanage in Israel believing his family had died, until they were eventually reunited. He said that many Ethiopians remained in Sudan for up to seven years waiting to cross over into Israel.
Born Zaude Taspei, Rabbi Shalom told the audience how he was arbitrarily given the name Sharon Shalom, which means “holy”, upon receiving his new passport. Rabbi Shalom, who has a PhD, followed this spiritual path. He was one of the first Ethiopian Jews to be ordained as a Rabbi in Israel. Today, he leads a synagogue of Holocaust survivors.
The author of From Sinai to Ethiopia (which, for the first time, chronicles Ethiopian Jewish law) said that there is a “big difference …between the European Jewish community and the Ethiopian Jewish community traditions ….” Ultimately, Rabbi Shalom says that there is a common belief in God.
There have been some interesting reactions to his religion and faith based on his physical appearance. While visiting Washington, D.C., an African-American taxi driver was shocked to learn that there were Black people living in Israel.
Shortly after this, a New York taxi driver from Afghanistan assumed that the religious head covering that he wore (a kippa) was actually a symbol of Arabic heritage.
“He said I can’t be Jewish because I am Black. He immediately thought I was Muslim and he spoke to me in Arabic. I answered in Arabic that I live in Israel. So now he thought I was Palestinian,” said Rabbi Shalom.
His experiences as an Ethiopian Jew (who trained in the Ashkenazi tradition) and as someone who calls Israel home, have been vast. Some experiences have been subtle and others have been blunt.
While teaching in Israel, one student asked if he was a basketball player. Another student wanted to know how Black people could be Jews after learning in Rabbi Shalom’s class that Ethiopian Jews were the descendants of the 10 tribes of Israel.
“Colour is not the issue,” said Rabbi Shalom. “No one can say they are better than you because we all began from one person.”
Rabbi Shalom holds out his hand, pointing out the varying lengths of his fingers and the dominance displayed as some tower over others.
“When we bend them, they become equal,” he said.
By ANGELA WALCOTT