Heroes of Ramat Eliyahu: The Kess

Ethiopian kess at sigd festival, jerusalem, 2018

Ethiopian kess at sigd festival, jerusalem, 2018

Here, A Neighborhood of Doubts.

Ramat Eliyahu — the western neighborhood of Rishon Leziyyon — is small, but it is verdant in culture. Over the last few decades, hundreds of Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants have come here to work and to live, but their transition was tenuous, and poverty followed.

Their resolve, however, is unbroken, and thanks to the work of some neighborhood heroes, hope has been trickling back in.

apartment building in mid-ramat eliyahu

apartment building in mid-ramat eliyahu

Here, Heroes.

Among the heroes is a dignified Ethiopian man named Semai, middle-aged, with patient eyes and a humble smile. He can usually be found wearing his white robes and a turban to match — the clothes of a Kess.

In traditional Ethiopian Judaism, a Kess is a priest, and an expert in Torah, but the Kess also acts as a political leader. They guide their communities through any tribulations, and they settle disputes when disputes arise. Their ward is the village.

Semai is Ramat Eliyahu’s Kess. He’s also the chairman of a larger group of Kessim and an activist for the Ethiopians in the city. When he came to Israel in the 1990’s, his spiritual authority was not immediately recognized by the government, and this left the highly communal Ethiopians of Ramat Eliyahu struggling to maintain their traditions.

This community is strong, though.

They continued their ceremonies, and their weddings, and their holidays, as per their customs. But, they always followed them up with recognized Israeli legal procedures.

Here, Hope.

Thanks to the work of heroes like Semai, the Israeli government now recognizes the Kess as a religious authority, and a new generation of Kessim are even being trained within the borders. The Orthodox Jewry have yet to fully accept the Ethiopians as Jews, but this hasn’t slowed Semai, and he hopes soon, all of Israel will see the Ethiopians for their contributions to society, rather than the color of their skin.

There’s a long way to go, but for a place once devoid of heroes, Ramat Eliyahu has Semai, and the Ethiopian community has hope.