Volunteers from the Shvut Am (Return the People) Institute are preparing to join hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants at absorption centers across Israel for Simhat Torah, the festival which begins Wednesday evening.
Simhat Torah marks the end of the annual reading of the five books of Moses in the Torah. The scroll is then rolled back to the beginning with the opening chapter also read. Hours of singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls, sets an upbeat tone for celebrations.
There are currently around 500 recent Ethiopian immigrants living in absorption centers in Ayelet Hashahar in the Upper Galilee, with 650 in Beit Alpha between Afula and Beit Shean. The last 450 immigrants from the African country landed in Israel at the end of August this year, marking the end of a three decade long project by the State of Israel to resettle Ethiopian Jews in Israel.
Ethiopian immigration to Israel has taken place in three major waves: Around 8,000 were flown to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984 via Sudan, with a further 14,000 in Operation Solomon in 1992. The final group of immigrants, like most immigrants from Ethiopia in recent years, is made up of members of the Falash Mura community – descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.
Rabbi Menachem Waldman who heads the Institute explained that although the Ethiopians lived basic religious lives in Africa, the volunteers would ensure that they would experience a strong Jewish atmosphere for the Simhat Torah.
"They try to instill a religious atmosphere." Said Waldman, explaining that volunteers would visit centers including Haifa, Beit Alpha and Ayelet Hashahar in the north of the country and Beer Sheva in the south.
The organization also organizes regular Shabbat visits as well as other festivals but says that Simhat Torah attracts the largest number of volunteers. Up to 100 people are expected to join the new immigrants for the festival.
Rabbi Waldman heaped praise on his volunteers: "They are very special people," he said. "They represent a high caliber of people who care about this issue."
Michal Krauss from Netanya is coordinating the various volunteer groups this year.
"With God's help, I hope we'll have the greatest number of volunteers to bring happiness and unity to the Jewish People." She said.
Ami Steinberger, who previously coordinated volunteer groups to the absorption center at Kibbutz Beit Alpha described an electric atmosphere. "The volunteers were there to get things going and spark up the crowd, but the mood was there to celebrate. Hundreds of people danced the sole Torah scroll of the absorption center around the perimeter fence of the site, singing both in Hebrew and Amharic," Steinberger said.
The Israeli government recently wound down its project to resettle Ethiopian Jews, saying that all new cases would need to apply for citizenship individually. The government says that all of the people on list drawn up in 2005 have been given the opportunity to come to Israel; Falash Mura activists disagree, and say thousands more are still waiting.