Every February, Canadians are invited to participate in Black History Month (BHM) festivities and events that honour the legacy of Black citizens, past and present. One way MORSL contributes is to highlight stories throughout the month that feature the experiences of Black people of faith. Today, we are pleased to spotlight a leading light in the Jewish community.
Montreal’s Ethiopian Jewish (Beta Israel) community has a remarkable history. In this article, we will introduce you to human rights advocate and community leader Yaffa Tegegne, whose family played a major role in the community's establishment!
First, a quick overview: the Beta Israel have lived in Ethiopia for at least 1500 years, enabling them to develop several distinct Ethiopian Jewish traditions. However, they have also faced significant religious persecution. This came to a head in the 1980s, when the Ethiopian government banned the practice of Judaism.
Israel thus accelerated plans to rescue the Beta Israel, which ultimately helped tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to emigrate. Today, approximately 135,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel, while a few thousand remain in Ethiopia. There is also a small but vibrant Beta Israel community in Montreal!
Here is where Yaffa comes in: she is the daughter of an Ashkenazi mother and an Ethiopian Jewish father. Her dad, prominent activist Baruch Tegegne, z”l, was actually one of the first Ethiopian Jews to arrive in Israel in 1956! Yaffa’s parents met in Israel but faced discrimination as an interracial couple, so they moved to her mother’s hometown of Montreal.
Once there, Yaffa’s father continued his activism in support of the Beta Israel. In fact, even before the Israeli rescue missions began, Baruch worked with the local Jewish community to facilitate Beta Israel immigration to Canada.
Today, Montreal’s Ethiopian Jewish community is about 100 strong. Although members often worship alongside Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, they also gather as Beta Israel in order to preserve their distinct traditions – in Yaffa’s words, “to preserve a sense of culture and identity for our children.”
Each year, the community gathers to celebrate Purim, Passover, and Sigd, a distinctly Ethiopian Jewish holiday. They also hold an annual “Ethiopian Shabbat” on the anniversary of the Israeli rescue missions, complete with Dabo, the traditional Ethiopian shabbat bread. Following in her father’s footsteps, Yaffa plays a key role as a community leader and social justice advocate.
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