Gondar, Ethiopia — The smell of matzah baking wafts over the blue and white corrugated steel fence of the synagogue in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, which is preparing to host what it says will be the biggest Passover Seder in the world on Friday night.
Inside the synagogue, 25-year-old Atenkut Setataw, the community’s cantor, holds a digital stopwatch and yells in Amharic, “Go!”
Twenty men spring into action. They mix water and mounds of carefully sifted flour, expertly rolling out the dough and using a special rolling pin to punch regular holes in it, then cutting the dough into circles using a big cookie cutter.
They have eight minutes to complete the task before the women bring the cut matzah dough to a dozen separate fires, where the matzahs are baked on circular metal sheets (like a saj for baking pita over a fire) in under 10 minutes. Kosher matzah must be prepared, from start to finish, in 18 minutes or less.
The finished matzahs are transferred to a room that has been transformed into a matzah storage center, while Setataw makes careful notation of the number of matzahs baked in each round in his notebook.
It takes a community to hand-bake 50,000 pieces of matzah for Gondar’s 6,000 Jews. More than 40 people work from sunup to sundown for a week before Passover to ensure that there is enough of the crunchy stuff for Seder night and the rest of the week.
Also on the shopping list for Seder night: 2,000 eggs, 300 kilograms of potatoes, 400 kilograms of bananas, and 40 kilograms of raisins to make homemade wine in two large trash barrels.
More than 3,000 people are expected at the Seder on Friday night, making it likely the largest Seder in the world. The next largest Seder is thought to be at the Chabad house in Nepal, which is expecting 1,500 backpackers this year, similar to previous years.
What makes this Passover different from all other Passovers that the Ethiopian Jews have celebrated in Gondar? This time “Next year in Jerusalem” won’t just be something they say.
“This Pesach is different because the Israeli government has decided to bring 9,000 Jews [to Israel],” said Ambanesh Tekeba, 32, the head of the Jewish community, who has served in her elected position for the past three years. “We are very happy. Everybody thinks, ‘maybe this is our last Passover here.’”
Ethiopian Jews in Gondar celebrated the Israel’s November decision to approve the immigration of 9,000 Jews from Ethiopia. The approval faltered three months later when the Prime Minister’s Office refused to implement the program because the $1 billion needed to fund the absorption baskets was not in the state budget.
Two Likud members of Knesset, David Amsalem and Avraham Neguise, refused to vote with the coalition for two months until the Knesset approved the plan to bring the 9,000 Jews to Israel, at the rate of 1,300 per year. The coalition government has a one-vote majority in the Knesset.
Although the Jewish Agency announced the end of Ethiopian aliyah in August 2013, there are still thousands of people who identify as Jewish but did not qualify for immigration to Israel due to various bureaucratic reasons.
The Ethiopian Jews still left in Ethiopia are called “Falash Mura,” meaning they are descended from Jews who converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago.
About 135,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent are living in Israel. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1992. Since that time, 50,000 additional Ethiopian Jews have moved to Israel, at a rate of about 200 per month.
The aliyah process sometimes split families, forcing parents to leave their older children behind when they moved to Israel, since anyone over 18 needed to be approved individually. Ethiopian Israelis have staged demonstrations seeking family reunification for years, brandishing photos of their family members still awaiting aliyah.
After Operation Protective Edge, two Ethiopian soldiers in elite units demanded their siblings be brought to Israel in a case that captured headlines but took months of bureaucratic struggles to resolve.
The aliyah of the “last” 9,000 Ethiopian Jews is expected to begin in June. While obstacles remain, including deep-seated racism against Ethiopians in Israel, Gondar’s Jewish community is beginning this Passover season full of optimism.
“I feel just like our forefathers, and just as they went to Israel [in the Passover story] so we also will go to Israel,” said Gashaw Abinet, 29, also a community cantor. “We’re in a difficult situation, just like our forefathers. Everything is hard. I’m young, but I am trying to continue in my faith. It’s hard to be religious here, and it’s hard to keep our faith.”
According to Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who has acted as a Jewish educator and spiritual advisor to the Ethiopian Jewish community for the past 35 years, there are approximately 6,000 Jews in Gondar, a city in northern Ethiopia, and 3,000 Jews in the capital of Addis Ababa.
Abinet, the cantor, knows that there are people in Israel who doubt his community’s connection to Judaism, or believe that they are Christians trying to go to Israel for economic reasons. All of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia are required to undergo a conversion process after making aliyah, because they are not considered Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law). This may be because their Judaism comes from their father’s side rather than their mother’s side, or because they descended from Jews who converted to Christianity.
“We are all the nation of Israel, we all left the Holy Land,” said Abinet. “Now, with God’s help, this is the time to return to Israel.”
The hindrances arising from government ministries or other naysayers are only temporary, Abinet believes. “They can’t stop the Nation of Israel from bringing us together,” he said. “Maybe they can stop us for a short amount of time, but not forever. I know that God made a miracle for the Jews in Egypt, now He should do it for us as well.”
“To the government of Israel: we believe that God will help us, but it’s good if you will help us also,” Abinet added. “Time is passing, and it’s a new era now.”
Two days before Passover begins, as the afternoon light turns golden, the massive matzah operation winds down after a week of frantic work.
Tomorrow, the mixing of haroset and boiling of 2,000 eggs will commence. The Passover preparation is an operation that requires the strength of a village, and is one of the Ethiopian Jewish traditions that will be lost when the community moves to Israel.
“We are born here, we grew up here, we are Ethiopian, so yes, I will miss it,” Abinet says of the communal Passover preparation. “But even more than I will miss [Ethiopia], my soul now misses the Holy Land. God’s promise is in my heart, and that’s what keeps me strong.”