Kabbalat shabbat in Gondar (Ethiopia) is an experience to be shared. How often do we feel so uplifted by the arrival of shabbat, that we are visibly and emotionally moved by the experience? There is a rawness to the practice of all religious worship in Ethiopia, which prides itself on ancient traditions and great reverence towards holy objects.
We stayed in the hotel closest to the "Jewish Synagogue" as it is known, about a twenty minute stroll. The hotel staff all seemed to speak some Hebrew and it was rather bizarre to be greeted with "Shalom" as we checked in. In the morning, we visited the complex to purchase kippot and talletim to bring back to the UK and my friend to take to her family in Israel. The teacher accompanied us and talked about the children and the community. He has a paid position and is himself awaiting his exit visa, as are most of the community. Whilst they wait, they try and find work and attend education classes at the centre, sponsored by Meketa and other agencies. The Israeli volunteers who spend 2- 3 months with the community- all young people just out of the army - walked with us for the afternoon service. We were met by security guards - from the community itself - and then entered the complex. It is a large area, made up of corrugated iron
panels, and painted blue and white. Inside, everyone was beginning to gather for the service, which started long before dark, as there is little electricity in the evenings.
The children were excited and chatted to us - luckily my friend speaks ivrit and it was apparent that the young people were learning the language, in preparation for what they hoped would be their transfer to "Jerusalem". The younger children asked for chewing gum in Hebrew, which surprisingly (!) neither of us had thought to bring - and had we done, it would have probably caused a riot! We joined the young people in a room abutting the main assembly/synagogue space - clambering in over rather "dodgy" steps and then into a room which was gradually filled to bursting by young people singing songs for shabbat with their madrichim. The children had already identified their favourite Israeli volunteers, but others were fascinated by these two "older" white women, who were obviously Jewish and wearing sunhats. There were songs in Ivrit and Amharic, their first language. I noticed that the boys sat on one side and the girls on the other - and all eyes were on the young leaders, who were wearing their Israeli style kippot (super-cool!) - clearly not the ones crocheted on
site by their mothers and sold to the tourists.
After about 30 - 40 minutes, we moved into the main area. By now the area - probably the size of the Gollanz Hall and the shul - was divided into two with a curtain mechitza. We found a spot at the back on the benches - which for a service other than erev shabbat, would have been extremely uncomfortable. People arrived - the women mostly wearing white, as appears to be the tradition in the country for all religious observance - and of course we did not see the men! However, the Gabbai - a man who told us he had family in Ashkelon, would come over to our section to "manage" the behaviour of a few of the young children who were "bored" and chasing around. (Nothing changes!)
The service in parts was recognisable and when it came to Lecha Dodi, the singing on both sides became audibly louder. The congregation appeared to be visibly moving together, almost trembling with excitement awaiting that
magic moment when shabbat would arrive. We all turned towards to back of the complex for the final sentence, before turning round and noticing right at the front that the candles were now alight - in front of the colourful aron hakodesh. There was a real excitement, a gusto, for the arrival of shabbat and the moment it was "in" there were exchanges between the congregation. The mechitsa was drawn as the man who was leading the service washed his hands and made hamotzei. Everyone sat down and then waited for the pieces of bread/challah to be distributed. Each family brought their "offering" and somehow there was enough for each adult and child. We were advised to politely decline as this was likely to be their last food until lunchtime the next day......it was now around 6.30p.m.
As we left for our shabbat meal specially prepared at the hotel for the Israelis, more people approached us to wish us shabbat shalom and when they heard that my friend was from Israel, she was bombarded by questions in fluent Hebrew - especially by the younger adults. This group at least will be properly prepared when they eventually are allowed to make aliyah by the Israeli
Government, unlike the older generation.
Judi is from the UK and visited Gondar synagogue on a recent trip to Ethiopia
An unforgettable shabbat experience - pure magic.