Africa.…Slowly the beat of your heart is transformed to the rhythmic call of a tribal drum. The setting sun bathes the land in molten gold, as a herd of antelope races across a plateau. You share their sense of urgency as darkness descends around you. Suddenly through a thicket, you see a glimmer of light. From within the illumined structure, an ancient chant greets the night: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.”
Hannah and her family in their new home
Ethiopian Jews, who prefer to be called Bet Israel (House of Israel), trace their Jewish heritage to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is believed that in the first millennium b.c., the Semitic people of Sheba crossed the Red Sea and conquered the Hamites, who lived on the coast of what was later to become the Ethiopian Empire. From these roots sprang a community of Jews who have made their home in a northern region of the country called Gonder.
Hannah is a member of this unique community. Her family—like most in Gonder—subsisted as farmers, living in crowded quarters, unaided by modern technology and possessing no ownership rights to the land they worked.
Yet amidst the difficulties of life in Gonder, there were some joys for Hannah and her six siblings. Every Saturday, the family would observe the Sabbath. There was no work done; instead the family gathered to hear Hannah’s father read from Torah and the big black prayer book. “We recited the Sh’ma, declaring our faith in the one true God and affirming that there were no others beside him,” Hannah recalls. “My father instilled in us children a strong sense of Jewish identity. We were different from others in our village, but not in a bad way. None of the Jewish families were looked down upon by our neighbors.”
When it came time for Hannah to begin her formal education she had to leave her village, as there were no schools there. She moved in with her Aunt Ruth, who lived near a government-sponsored Christian school. Hannah’s father was concerned about the effect a Christian school would have on his daughter. While the Jews of Ethiopia had never been subjected to pogroms or other hostilities experienced by their European counterparts, there had been noticeable tensions between the Jewish and “Christian” communities in the past.
Hannah’s father did not know that those “Christians” were categorized as such, not because of their beliefs, but simply because they were neither Jews nor Muslims. Nor did Hannah’s father know that Aunt Ruth was herself a true Christian, a believer in Yeshua (Jesus.)
Aunt Ruth belonged to a traditional Ethiopian church, which seemed very alien and a bit impersonal to Hannah. While in school, she heard the New Testament portion of the Bible for the first time.…
When Hannah heard about Jesus, she felt an inexplicable happiness. “I felt as though I was hearing very good news, but I didn’t understand why,” she says. Hannah had many questions, and Aunt Ruth was glad to answer. But as Hannah’s curiosity grew, so did the political tensions of her country. Amidst uprisings and the increasing militancy of the Communist regime, Hannah returned to her family.
Back in her own village, Hannah met a good, sincere young man named Matthias. He was one of those who had been classified as a “Christian” by default though matters of religion were unimportant to him. Hannah and Matthias married and began to raise a family.
Life was hard under the oppression of Communism. They regarded all religious expression as unacceptable, and spread propaganda that declared all religion to be bad and wrong. Christians especially were persecuted for their beliefs, often imprisoned, and, it was rumored, sometimes put to death for the “crime” of their faith. While Matthias was not a religious man, he believed in the basic right of all human beings to freely practice their religion. So when the opportunity presented itself, Matthias moved his family to Addis Abba, where life was more stable and his relatives were nearby to help with the children.
To Hannah, this presented an unexpected opportunity. Matthias’s niece was a “real” Christian. Hannah was impressed by how alive and vibrant her niece was about her faith. She says, “My niece was full of the love of God. I was drawn to learn more about her beliefs. The curiosity I once felt about Yeshua quickly grew into a hunger to know more.” Soon it became clear to Hannah that Yeshua was truly the Messiah of the Jewish people, and she put her faith in him.
Hannah experienced a peace she had not previously known. She began to see how God answers prayer. Since those childhood days when Hannah’s family observed the Sabbath together, she had dreamed that one day she would retrace her roots back to the promised land of her Jewish people. Now the opportunity had come. The Israeli government was helping Ethiopian Jewish families make Aliyah…all she needed was for Matthias to say yes.
Well, Matthias did say yes—first to the invitation of a new life for his family in Israel…and later to the invitation of new life through faith in the Messiah of Israel.
Now Hannah, Matthias and their children live in the central region of Israel within a community of other Ethiopian Jews. And every Shabbat they gather with other Ethiopian believers in a congregation pastored by Matthias. “I still recite the Sh’ma” Hannah says, “and I affirm that there is only one God. But now, I affirm and praise God as a unity of father, son and holy spirit.”
Through Yeshua, Hannah has rediscovered the Jewish roots that are hers by birth…and Matthias has discovered the Jewish roots that are shared by all who profess a belief in the Jewish Messiah. Says Hannah, “By God’s grace, I hope to tell many of my people about Yeshua, and see them find peace in him.”