By Shai Afsai
Thursday, 13 March 2014 13:05
Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi with his wife Fasika and their daughter /Shai AfsaiTwenty-seven-year-old Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, the first Israeli-born qes (traditional Ethiopian Jewish religious leader), will visit the Jewish community of R.I. during the last week of March.
Before heading to R.I., Qes Efraim will attend the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton, taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut from March 21 to 23. Here, Qes Efraim will be participating in activities connected with the Providence Community Kollel (Center for Jewish Studies), Congregation Beth Sholom, Touro Synagogue and the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island (JCDSRI). Dr. Michael Felder and Elissa Felder of Providence will be hosting him at their home.
All of the traditional religious leaders of Ethiopian Jewry, called kohanim or qessotch (priests), now reside in Israel. They currently number only several dozen men and it is rather rare for a qes to travel abroad. This will be Qes Efraim’s first time traveling outside of Israel.
According to Congregation Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Barry Dolinger, the qes’s visit to learn about the Jewish community of R.I. and to teach about Ethiopian Judaism is “an incredible and rare educational opportunity.” Israeli shaliach (emissary) to R.I. Matan Graff expressed similar sentiments, “I think this is a very important trip…. Having someone of Qes Efraim’s stature come to see our community and also help us learn more about his community should strengthen the ties between us. We can learn firsthand about this unique Jewish community in Israel and its traditions while he will see our American Jewish community in R.I.”
Qes Efraim is the son of Qes Zion Lawi and grandson of High Qes Lawi Zeno. He was born in 1987 in the northern Israeli city of Karmiel. His parents made aliyah to Israel as part of 1984’s Operation Moses, after a long and arduous journey from Ethiopia through the Sudanese desert. In Israel, QesEfraim’s father served as the religious leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community (the Beta Israel) of Karmiel and encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps. Accordingly, at age nine, Qes Efraim began the studies necessary to be ordained a qes (kohen or priest). When he turned thirteen, his father officially designated him as his future successor.
Qes Zion Lawi passed away three years later, but Qes Efraim’s mother, Ahuva, urged him to carry on with his religious training, sending him to study with two prominent qessotch in southern Israel,Qes Malke Azaria and High Qes Govesa Tesfahun, who continued to teach him the long-standing prayers, benedictions, laws and customs of Ethiopian Judaism.
After completing his military service, Qes Efraim married his wife Fasika and was ordained as a qes. He now serves the Ethiopian Jewish community of Karmiel and its environs by teaching and facilitating the community’s traditional observances, including weddings, funerals and memorials, as well as the ritual slaughter of animals.
I first met Qes Efraim this past October while I attended the celebration of the Sigd holiday of Ethiopian Jewry in Jerusalem. After learning that I had traveled from the United States to Israel for the purpose of celebrating the holiday, Qes Efraim told me, “Just as you have traveled here to celebrate the Sigd with us, I will travel to the United States to celebrate with you.”
The qes also invited my brother Amir Afsai and me to Karmiel, where he hosted us at his apartment and introduced us to his family. As we left his home late that night, Qes Efraim repeated that he would strive to visit R.I.
The organizers of the Ethiopian Jewish Experience Shabbaton have extended Qes Efraim’s stay in the United States so that he might come to R.I. and interact with the Jewish community following his weekend in Conn. Speaking from Israel in anticipation of his New England visit, Qes Efraim said, “After the Shabbaton, I will visit the Jewish community of R.I. I will be pleased to meet there with whomever it is possible to meet. This entire visit, in my view, is one of getting acquainted and becoming familiar with another Jewish community. I hope that in R.I. I will be able to tell my story and expose its Jews to the Beta Israel community from a traditional religious perspective. I hope, with God’s help, to learn and to teach.”