Zaoda Tapsai was the name his parents gave him when Rabbi Shalom Sharon was born in a small village in the Tigre area of Ethiopia where, in his own words, he was employed as "Assistant Shepherd".
It was only when he arrived in Israel through Operation Moses, without his parents, and was lifted up in the arms of Mossad agents and commandoes that he was given his Hebrew name.
Sharon says he will never forget his first meeting with the commandoes who emerged from the ocean and shocked him as a child. It is that first meeting, he says, which shaped his perspective as a rabbi. His journey from an African village to Kiryat Gat, where he became a rabbi, is something of an aliyah fairytale.
It was exactly two years ago that Yedioth Ahronoth's David Regev published a story about the appointment of Rabbi Sharon Shalom, a 37-year old Ethiopian who married an Ashkenazi Israeli and fathered four, to the position of rabbi of Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat.
His appointment as an Ethiopian rabbi serving a congregation of Holocaust survivors was unprecedented, yet there is only one way to describe what Rabbi Shalom has managed to accomplish in the past two years – a revolution. Under his care, the dying synagogue became the source of a young, modern, thriving community.
Since his arrival, the synagogue is constantly packed with congregants and visitors. On Rosh Hashana alone, 300 came through its doors – more than double what the synagogue is capable of holding.
Most of the congregants are of Ashkenazi descent - immigrants from the former soviet republic - but there are also three families of Ethiopian origin and a few families from Morocco and Tunisia. Rabbi Shalom's services can seem somewhat surreal: An Ethiopian rabbi praying in the Ashkenazi style, with the occasional Yiddish phrase in his sermons – he took courses in Yiddish at Bar Ilan University.
"I received a dying synagogue," he says. "We always had a quorum, but the congregation kept getting smaller and smaller. You could see there wasn't a spark of life left. The congregation was aging, sadly, the congregants were passing away. I decided to implement the community stance adopted by Tzohar rabbis – to turn the synagogue from a place whose sole purpose is prayer to a location where community and social activities are held. I organize trips, meals and social evenings".
No yarmulke needed
One of the changes implemented by Rabbi Shalom was 'Kit Bag Shabbat', a special event for the younger members of the community, who on the eve of their army draft are given the opportunity to read the weekly Torah portion and receive goodie bags which include good luck cards and a gift from the community. The rabbi has also modernized the community by introducing a computer with an LCD screen, which keeps the community updated with weekly announcements on special events, occasions and of course, prayer times.
As part of the Tzohar approach, the rabbi doesn't oblige visitors to wear a yarmulke. "The synagogue is not a place for religious people, it is a place for Jewish people", he explains. "Every person brings his own distinctive qualities, prays and goes home. I was asked what is special about our synagogue. I answered that we are color blind and short. Blind because we accept people of all color and gender, and short because someone once told me that short people are always optimistic because they see the glass half full."
This unique view is apparent in the rabbi himself who is beardless and does not wear a yarmulke. "I think that this way it is easier for non-religious people to connect with me as their rabbi", he says. "They see me as one of them; there are no barriers between us. I'm not scary or threatening. People come in and see me on their level".
'When we arrived we kissed the ground'
The rabbi embraced his attitude of acceptance when as an eight year old, on the Sudan shores, after a two month trek from his birthplace, he met Israeli commandoes for the first time.
"It was a critical moment for me. I remember it as if it was yesterday. They looked like angels coming out of nowhere, and in that moment of terror, when I saw the ocean for the first time, suddenly someone came over and hugged me. I felt like I was meeting a brother I hadn't seen for 2000 years".
He arrived in Israel without his family who stayed behind at a Sudan refugee camp. "When we arrived in Israel we kissed the ground from excitement," he recalls. "We felt like we were home. It was like a dream come true".
At first, he felt like a stranger in his new home. "I felt like people were staring at me like I was a character out of a book. I felt different, like I didn't belong," he noted. "With time, I learned to take those incidents lightly and positively. I knew the problem wasn't with me as an individual. It's a given in any country that the new additions take some flak from the old regime. Israeli society doesn't like whiners, it admires strength."
After completing his high school education, Rabbi Shalom was accepted to the Har Tzion Yeshiva in Elon Shvut, and then completed his army service as an immigration absorption officer in the Education and Youth Corps.
Later, he returned to the yeshiva, where he was ordained as a rabbi. These days, he is completing his doctorate and researching the connection between community and ancient Jewish tradition while lecturing at Bar Ilan University.
'Ethiopians are not projects'
He is married to Avital, a social worker who made aliyah as a child and whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. "Sometimes women claim they are looking for an Ethiopian husband because Ethiopians are nice," he says with a smile. "I explain that marrying an Ethiopian is not a project. You marry the man".
Two years ago Rabbi Shalom received a call from the Tzohar organization, which was seeking a rabbi for his local Kiryat Gat synagogue, Kdoshei Yisrael. He immediately accepted the position. At first, there were certain members of the community that opposed his appointment.
"There were a number of people who were concerned with his appearance and outlook," says the synagogue's manager, Aharon Hershkowitz. "But his arrival was heaven-sent. He generated monumental changes. Every day sees a variety of both young and old at the synagogue. He grew very close to the Holocaust survivors; he knows how to talk to them."
Shlomo Lieber, a Holocaust survivor, talks about Rabbi Shalom with tears in his eyes. "We see him as one of us", says Lieber. "He speaks Yiddish and is married to an Ashkenazi woman. It is truly a gathering of the Diaspora. He brought our synagogue to life."
'First of all, be a mensch'
Rabbi Shalom is touched by these words, and has only praise for the people he sees as his spiritual guides. "In my opinion, the most important thing I learnt from the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital (former head of Har Tzion Yeshiva) was that first and foremost you need to be a 'mensch' (human being)."
When asked about the difficulties he and other immigrants from Ethiopia met upon arrival in Israel, as well as his ability to succeed where others have failed, he answered: "When my wife's grandmother arrived in Israel from Auschwitz, she wasn't met with the land of milk and honey, there were people who survived the holocaust only to be sent straight to the front. They didn't wait for the country to give them something, they got up and took action, and have achieved Israel's greatest accomplishments. That is my attitude."
When discussing the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, Rabbi Shalom admits that mistakes were made on both sides, but all in all, he sees it as a success story. "I'm proud of the Ethiopian aliyah", he says. "It holds within it a great Jewish treasure which is slowly coming to light and this depends on the immigrants themselves. I could blame society, but as soon as the Ethiopian community believes in itself, things will suddenly happen."
"Our synagogue is a kind of microcosm of Israeli society. It used to be inconceivable for a Sephardi Jew to come and pray here. Today people ask me if I'm Sephardi or Ashkenazi. I answer – guys, don't you see I'm Ethiopian?"
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