Rabbi Sharon Shalom is one of the first Ethiopian Israelis to be ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He is the spiritual leader of a congregation of about 100 people, most of them Holocaust survivors, in Kiryat Gan.
Now 37, Rabbi Shalom came to Israel in 1982 after an arduous two-month trek across the Sudan. He became one of the first Ethiopian officers of an elite Israeli army unit, studied Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and became the first Ethiopian Israeli to teach there. He was ordained 10 years ago. The Jewish Week recently caught up with the rabbi in New York to talk about the plight of Ethiopians in Israel and their religious traditions.

Q: Despite the wide cultural gap faced by Ethiopian Israelis, I understand many have adjusted well to their new homeland.

A: We have had to work twice as hard. The secret to success and closing the gap is to take responsibility for yourself. … If leaders of the community blame the Israeli government and racism [for their failures], a bad situation will continue for a long time. The secret of my success is that I never ask what others think of me.

How does the second-generation Ethiopian Israeli view himself?

There are maybe 30,000 second generation. When asked if they feel more black, Jewish, Ethiopian or Israeli, they said they first feel black, then Ethiopian, Israeli and finally Jewish — in that order. … I’m optimistic about the third generation.

I understand you are writing a new Shulchan Aruch or code of Jewish law to reconcile Jewish practice that was followed in Ethiopia with that which is followed in the rest of the traditional Jewish community.

I’m writing it with professor Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University. … One difference is that today in Ethiopia we drink milk with chicken. There is no biblical injunction against that; it is rabbinic. But I have warned that if Ethiopians keep that tradition, we will be separate and won’t be able to integrate into the Jewish world. So I’m writing that we can’t continue to eat milk and chicken together, but that it is not necessary for a six-hour separation between them. I’m saying it should be one hour. With a one-hour separation I can be a part of the Jewish world — any less and I can’t.

How else have you reconciled the two traditions?

In Ethiopia when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, it is not OK to fast on Shabbat [like the rest of the Jewish world]; you must eat something. So in Kiryat Gan we decided to recite the [Shabbat] Kiddush on Yom Kippur, but we let a child taste it. In that way, we honor the Shabbat [and don’t violate the practice of fasting].

Do you have another example?

In Ethiopia, Jewish congregants walk with an umbrella on the Sabbath. Our kesim or spiritual leaders go to pray carrying an open umbrella. It’s like a chupah [wedding canopy] or a kipa — we don’t have kipot. So we use this on Shabbat. The Orthodox say opening an umbrella is like building a hut and that you can’t create a dwelling on Shabbat. I say Ethiopian Jews can go with an umbrella.

What do you think the reaction will be when you publish your Shulchan Aruch?

It won’t be good; all the rabbinate will go against me. But these things are very, very important because these are ancient traditions that have been around since the Second Temple. I met someone from France who said he researched the music of the kesim and found that it was very close to the music during the Temple period.

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