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February 10, 2021 11:59 am

Jacques Faïtlovitch and Ethiopian Jews

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avatar by Harold Brackman


Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, part of “Operation Tzur Israel” (“Rock of Israel”), after exiting the plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Dec. 3, 2020. Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/The Jewish Agency for Israel.

World traveler Jacques Faïtlovitch was born in Lodz and educated at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. His teacher, Jewish scholar Joseph Halévy, inspired his life-long involvement with Ethiopia’s Beta Israel, or Falashas (meaning  “outsiders” in Amharic).

Beginning in 1904, Faïtlovitch made 11 missions over four decades to Abyssinia/Ethiopia. He established primary schools and educated young men in Europe and the US to return to Ethiopia as teachers. A Zionist, he had an apartment in Tel Aviv, but spent much time fundraising in New York.

As an Orthodox Jew, Faïtlovitch sought to save the Beta Israel from Christian proselytism and convert them to Talmudic-rabbinic Judaism.

Faïtlovitch established the American Pro-Falasha Committee in 1922, and brought to this country Taamarat Emmanuel, the first known Ethiopian Jew to come to New York. Faïtlovitch worked to convince American Jewry, despite skepticism, that the Beta Israel were “really Jewish.”

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Faïtlovitch met Black “Hebrew Israelite” Arnold J. Ford, who hailed from Barbados. A Black Nationalist, Ford had composed “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers,” the “national anthem” of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement.

Claiming royal Ethiopian descent, Rabbi Ford — with the help of white Jews — founded his own synagogue, Beth B’Nai Abraham. Ford was a believer in the Bible’s prophetic “Ethiopian motif” — that “Ethiopia shall stretch forth its hand to God.”

Faïtlovitch’s biographer Emanuela Trevisan Semi wrote: “The possibility of sharing a mirrored Diaspora — Blacks in America and Jews in Africa — gave rise to new myths of origin in which Ethiopia became a shared locus and  … identification took the form of what we may call ‘Falashization’. … Some American Blacks hoped that  their new Falasha identity would aid  … [integrating them in] the great Jewish American Diaspora.”

For the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, Rabbi Ford led a delegation to Ethiopia, where he died in 1935. Before leaving New York, he established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College (later the Israelite Rabbinical Academy) that trained dozens of Black Jewish rabbis. Ford named as his successor in New York Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who received a rabbinic “ordination” from Ford in Ethiopia for his synagogue, the Commandment Keepers.

Faïtlovitch continued to reach out to potential converts through missionary organizations such as the Lost Tribes Committee and the Mosaic Law for One People. He even seriously considered attempting mass conversion to Judaism of African-Americans.

For all his many accomplishments, Faïtlovitch had one major success: helping reconnect the Beta Israel with world Jewry.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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