We’re often asked about the similarities and differences between the communities we serve in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. While there’s not a concise answer to those questions, there is one thing that remains constant: none of the communities are new converts to Rabbinic Judaism.
The most common observation for staff and volunteers during our many medical outreaches is that of the thousands of people we touch from both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, only some use the word “Jewish.” The primary reason for this is that the oral history for certain groups began long before the term “Jewish” was used to describe the Israelite people who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Still, both countries contain people groups who openly identify as having come from Israel. There are also other groups in Africa, found in countries such as Uganda and Ghana, who have converted to Rabbinical Judaism in recent decades or centuries who currently identify as Jewish, but who are not historically or ethnically part of the Jewish people.
All four groups we serve in Africa can trace their roots to the Land of Israel and a millennia-old Jewish or Hebrew identity. The oral tradition of these communities tells us why they ended up so far away from one another, and their current practices tell us what influence the larger communities in which they now live have had on these Jewish communities.
The Ethiopian Jews we serve are divided into three distinct groups: the Beta Israel, the Beta Abraham, and the Gefat tribe of Southern Ethiopia. Originally from Gondar, Ethiopia, the Beta Israel people trace their heritage to the legendary union of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Although they are often referred to in derogatory terms by those outside of their group, they’ve maintained a Jewish identity both openly and inwardly despite this persecution. The Beta Israel has been recognized by the State of Israel and is to date the only historically Israelite group in Africa to have been accepted for aliyah to Israel.
The Beta Abraham, by contrast, also trace their roots to Gondar, Ethiopia, and the surrounding areas; however, they moved south more recently to Addis Ababa where they encountered severe persecution and were forced to either convert to Orthodox Christianity or give up their farmland. Many, if not most, made public conversions, but continue to maintain their secret Jewish customs and worship at home behind closed doors. This community numbers tens of thousands of people who live in a slum on the edges of Addis Ababa. To date, the Beta Abraham have not been recognized by the State of Israel since the rabbis consider them to have forfeited their Jewishness when they converted—even if these conversions were done under duress. Jewish Voice serves this community as we are certain the Beta Abraham are indeed still Jewish.
The Gefat tribe of Southern Ethiopia also traces their history to the Beta Israel of Gondar, but migrated to the southern reaches of Ethiopia centuries ago, allegedly blowing the shofar as they went. Gefat literally means “the blowers.” They, too, encountered prejudice and persecution amidst the other southern Ethiopian peoples, and most live humble lives on the outskirts of southern Ethiopian cities. They have been given the derogatory name “fuga” by the local community—a play on the word Gefat, which says these people should “just blow away and disappear.” These three Jewish groups may appear to be like others in their culture since circumcision is almost universally practiced as a nation in Ethiopia and most of their fellow citizens also avoid eating meats which are biblically unclean.
Unlike the Ethiopian Jews who trace their roots to Judah (through Solomon) and Dan (through other oral history), the Lemba in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa trace their tribal lineage to Levi—specifically, to the High Priests in the line of Aaron. The Lemba also trace their roots to Israel. Their oral history tells us they are the long-lost priests and Cohanim of Israel who, together, left Jerusalem because of intermarriage during the times of Ezra and Nehemiah and migrated through Yemen over the Red Sea into Eastern Africa and, eventually, down to Southern Africa where they have now lived for hundreds of years.
The Lemba maintain circumcision rituals for all males in the tribe, even though circumcision is not typically practiced in Zimbabwe. Additionally, they marry only within their tribe, only eat biblically-clean meat slain by Lemba butchers, and maintain secret traditions, which others around them may not observe or learn.
We are honored to serve our African Jewish brothers and sisters in community collaboration between local congregational leadership, local workers, and our international teams. These countries have suffered through drought, disease, unemployment, and food shortages. We’ve been humbled and impressed by the commitment of the teams of dedicated local workers who never complain about the challenges they face.
In places like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, we’re bringing medicine, LifeStraws®, medical clinics, and the Gospel of Yeshua. Although these outreaches require time and money from our partners and volunteers, everyone looks forward to the day when the Lord restores these scattered Tribes of Israel to the fullness of their identity in Him through Yeshua!