Discovering America: A Journey to a Jewish Community in the US

A special thanks to Shai Afsai for sharing this article with (401)j.

By: Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, qes of the Beta Israel community of Karmiel

I serve the Ethiopian Jewish community of Karmiel, Israel, in the role of qes [i.e., priest or kohen], which is a spiritual leader.  For many years, the Jews of Ethiopia were separated from the rest of world Jewry, but today, after two thousand years of exile, the Holy One, Blessed is He, has reunited the members of Ethiopian Jewry with the rest of their brethren in the Holy Land, where I was born.

I wasn’t always a qes.  However, at an early age, I was chosen by my father, Qes Zion Lawi, of blessed memory, the leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community of Karmiel, to be his successor.  After his passing, I became determined to receive his authority, to master the curriculum necessary to be ordained a qes, and to fill his shoes.  Thank God, two years ago I was ordained a qes by all of the spiritual leaders of the community and became a member of the Council of kohanim of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel.  Since then, I have been faithfully serving my community.

During the most recent Sigd holiday in Jerusalem, I met a man named Shai Afsai, and thanks to this meeting with him, my life has changed.  I remember the very moment when he approached me in Jerusalem and asked, “Are you Qes Efraim?  I’ve been trying to find you for an entire year!”  Some of the details of what has occurred since that meeting have been written aboutand so are known.

Following a conversation between Shai Afsai and Len Lyons about the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton in Connecticut, Shai told David Weisberg, CEO of the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, about me. David Weisberg invited me to the Shabbaton, with paid travel expenses and with the option of staying in the United States for an additional week in order to visit Providence and the Rhode Island Jewish community.

I went to Connecticut in March, and after the Shabbaton, I traveled with Shai Afsai to Providence.  Thanks to the collaboration between Shai and the Jewish Agency’s emissary to Rhode Island, Matan Graff, I spent a full week getting to know how the Jewish community was organized.  I was happy to accept the invitation of a dear couple, Dr. Michael and Elissa Felder, who hosted me in their Providence home and saw to my needs.  Rabbis of the community, especially Rabbi Raphael Schochet, Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, and Rabbi Marc Mandel, worked together so that I could help familiarize Rhode Island Jewry with Ethiopian Judaism.

I believe that in the short time that I was in the United States, I was able to open a small window between two distant worlds and begin to create a meeting of Jewish hearts.  I am full of prayer that my journey has not ended but, rather, that in the future, we will be able to strengthen these wonderful connections.

I wish to thank my dear friends Shai Afsai and Matan Graff, who joined together in order to bring me to the United States and to arrange my visit to Rhode Island, the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center and its CEO David Weisberg, the dear Felder family, and Rhode Island’s rabbis and Jewish community members for their wholehearted embrace.

May it be, with God’s help, that we will all be able to fulfill the charge, “Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.”

This article was translated from Hebrew by Shai Afsai, at Qes Efraim’s request, in order for it to be published in Rhode Island.



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