Fulfillment of a dream: Ethiopian Israelis celebrate Sigd in Jerusalem

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Thousands of Ethiopian Jews take part in a prayer of the Sigd holiday on the Armon HaNetziv Promenade overlooking Jerusalem on November 30, 2016. The prayer is performed by Ethiopian Jews every year to celebrate their community's connection and commitment to Israel. (Photo: Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Rueven Bogala recalled sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders year after year as his family made its annual pilgrimage to a high mountain in Ethiopia to celebrate the holiday Sigd.

Decades later, he observed the same holiday in Jerusalem with emotion, watching thousands of fellow Jewish Ethiopians from around the country gather for Sigd with the Old City and the Temple Mount in the background on Wednesday.

“This is the fulfillment of a dream of my grandfather and generations of Ethiopians who yearned to make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel,” he told KNI. “God blessed us and allowed us to come here. All those years and for generations we prayed ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ – and finally he has brought us here.”

Sigd, celebrated by Jews of Ethiopian descent, occurs 50 days after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and is characterized by a prayerful yearning to return to Zion. With prayer and fasting, the elders of the community carry the Torah and teach God’s commandments. They also pray for the rebuilding of the Temple.

In Amharic, Sigd means prostration or worship. The biblical base for the observance comes from Ezra and Nehemiah when the exiles returned from Babylon and renewed their covenant with God. Ethiopian Jewry dates back to the Queen of Sheba who married King Solomon.

While most Jews living in Ethiopia have made aliyah, some thousands are still waiting for permission from Israel to make the journey. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, some 141,000 Ethiopians live in Israel, but only 91 Ethiopians immigrated to Israel in 2015 – the lowest number since 2000.

After two massive waves of aliyah from Ethiopia in the 1980s, the first generation of Jewish Ethiopians has now been born in Israel. Many young Israelis of Ethiopian heritage continue to celebrate Sigd and thousands were bussed in from around the country to take part in Wednesday’s ceremony.

“This is part of our tradition – my father, my grandfather, and before them – it was passed down,” said Avraham who made aliyah when he was 3. “You see here everyone represented, from young children to grandparents. We all come. It is a day of unity.”

Avraham, who came from Haifa to celebrate Sigd, said that being in Israel is only a partial answer to the prayers of the Ethiopian Jews.

“Now that we arrived in Israel, we are here, but the temple is not,” he said. “We pray that it will be built soon.”

Bogala, with both awe and hope, surveyed the generations of Jewish Ethiopians, now living in Israel, celebrating Sigd at the Armon HaNetziv promenade.

“This reminds me of my childhood, it takes me back 40 years,” he said. “It is very emotional. All the dreams that were fulfilled, this is remarkable.”