During Black History Month, we celebrate and commemorate the history of the African diaspora. In the United States, we often think of this month through the lens of African Americans, but it’s important to recognize much of Black History does not involve the U.S. Indeed, there are Black Jews all over the world, and their history is our history. One of the largest and most well-known Black Jewish communities is from Ethiopia, and Federation supports initiatives that help Ethiopian Jews and amplify their stories.
The Beta Israel of Ethiopia are one of the oldest Jewish diaspora communities, in existence for over 1500 years. Across the centuries, this community has weathered poverty, persecution, war, and the threat of conversion. Many Ethiopian Jewish people have made Aliyah and now reside in Israel, having managed to escape the turmoil in their country of birth. But once in Israel, it can be difficult to assimilate.
Since the current war in Ethiopia began in 2020, a new wave of olim have come to live in Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) is one of Federation’s biggest partners, and they work closely with olim before they even leave Ethiopia. JAFI provides security on the ground in Ethiopia, pre-Aliyah medical and administrational preparation, and nutritional support programs in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Once in Israel, olim move into one of 15 absorption centers that cater to the cultural needs of Ethiopian immigrants and continue to receive Jewish Agency housing while they complete their absorption process. At JAFI centers, they receive comprehensive support services, Hebrew lessons, after-school academic enrichment for the children, opportunities for vocational training, and much more.
Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta also works with our partner region in Israel, Yokneam-Meggido, on programs to help Ethiopian immigrants settle into their new communities once they leave JAFI housing. Funds from Federation go to initiatives to boost educational achievements among students, increase parent engagement in children’s schooling, connect children and teenagers to Community Center classes and youth movements, improve the quality of life for Amharic-speaking residents by closing language and cultural gaps, and detect developmental delays in young children, and much more.
Here in Atlanta, Federation is proud to fund the work of the Atlanta Jews of Color Council (AJOCC) through our Innovation initiative. AJOCC aims to use the arts to drive belonging for Jews of Color in Atlanta. This year, AJOCC is hosting Jewish Ethiopian actors, producers, and filmmakers who are teaching and exhibiting their work in Atlanta. Shai Ferdo, an actor and filmmaker, is the star of Exodus 91, the film sponsored by Federation in this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. He is teaching as an adjunct at Clark Atlanta University this semester, and since arriving in Atlanta, he has spoken on a panel with the American Jewish Committee and given a talk at the Weber School about his experience as an Ethiopian Jew in Israel. Many Ethiopians who immigrate to Israel experience anti-Black discrimination, and he has spoken candidly about the need for Jews of Color to be recognized as fully Jewish in predominantly white-passing communities. AJOCC is sponsoring his stay in Atlanta, as well as other artists.
Black Jewish History is integral to the history of Judaism across the world; we cannot speak of Jewish history without speaking of the diversity within our global community.