On September 22, 2019, the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College held a conference bringing together representatives of the Beit Hillel organization of Rabbis, the Itim religious pluralism organization and Keisim of the Higher Religious Council of Ethiopian Jewry. They discussed Ethiopian wedding customs and how they interface with the practices endorsed by the traditional rabbinic authorities in Israel.
Representatives of Beit Hillel presented the challenges faced by young Ethiopian men and women when they decide to marry. An Ethiopian woman described the personal difficulties she encountered in preparing for her own wedding and noted the decision made by more and more Ethiopian couples to wed with a ceremony performed by a Keis and not recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate.
Rabbi Shai Weitzman presented a report produced by the Beit Hillel organization based on his interviews with many Keisim and members of the rabbinate. The report identified common ground between the traditional Ethiopian Jewish ceremony and those ceremonies recognized by Rabbinic Judaism. The purpose of this exercise was to create a ritual that would allow Jews of Ethiopian descent to marry according to the halacha (Jewish law) customary in Israel while at the same time preserving their ancestral customs.
Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, the director of the Center, shared his own fascinating experience in performing marriages of Ethiopian couples using a hybrid ritual. Keis Sami Elias, the Chairman of the High Religious Council of Ethiopian Jewry (Zera Aharon Kahanat) reported on the current status of Keisim in Israel and the problems in legitimacy which they face. Rabbi Meir Nehorai, the Chair of the Beit Hillel organization said, “Israeli rabbis must assist in the empowerment of Keisim in their communities. This past summer has been a difficult one in which we experienced the disappointment of the Ethiopian community regarding their integration into Israeli society. The involvement of Keisim in the Ethiopian couples’ establishment of a new home is very important. Of course, there is the need to ensure that the process will be done according to the law of Moses and Israel.”
At the end of the evening, the participants, and in particular the representatives of the Itim organization, discussed a variety of ways to resolve the difficulties identified in a practical and halachic manner. They noted it would require a dialog between the rabbis and the Keisim in order to bridge over differences and bring the various groups in Israeli Jewish society closer together.