More than 100 people of various cultural backgrounds gathered last week at Etz Chaim (Hebrew for “Tree of Life”) synagogue in the Givat Sharett neighborhood of Beit Shemesh to celebrate Sig’d, an ancient holiday observed by Ethiopian Jews signifying their longing for Zion.

As explained on the Knesset website, the name of the holiday stems from sgida, the Hebrew word for “bowing” or “prostration”. Celebrated on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, it falls 50 days after Yom Kippur. The holiday recalls the treaty made by the Hebrew prophets Ezra and Nechemia for the People of Israel upon their return from Babylonian exile in the 5th Century BCE, as recorded in the Book of Nechemia. In 2008, the Knesset legislated Sig’d as a national holiday.

Beit Shemesh, located approximately 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem, is home to diverse communities, including a large concentration of Ethiopian-Israelis. For that matter, the Etz Chaim congregation is “like a Kibbutz Galuyot” – ingathering of exiles to the Land of Israel – quipped Emmy Zitter, a synagogue board member.

“We’re very excited about the Kibbutz Galuyot aspect,” Zitter, a native of Brooklyn, New York, told United with Israel, adding that her synagogue has members from around the world.

“We do regular evening events highlighting different cultures,” she explained. At the Sig’d event, in particular, “we were mesmerized. I’m a child of a Shoah survivor, and they had their own micro-Shoah. We didn’t know any of this. They died as Jews and for being Jews. It’s important that their story be told.”

The main speaker was Rabbi Sharon Shalom, who was born in 1973 and arrived in Israel at the age of nine, without his parents, through Operation Moses. A graduate of the prestigious Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Etzion Bloc in Judea – a religious Zionist post-high school institution that combines high-level Judaic studies with army service – Rabbi Shalom received his ordination from Israel’s chief rabbinate and serves as spiritual leader of K’doshei Yisrael congregation in the city of Kiryat Gat, located between Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva. “K’doshe Yisrael” is Hebrew for the “holy people of Israel,” and the congregation, when Rabbi Sharon assumed its leadership, was composed not of Ethiopian immigrants, but of Holocaust survivors on the most part.

Rabbi Shalom’s wife hails from Switzerland; they have four children. In an article focusing on their graduates, a Har Etzion newsletter three years ago stated that “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.”

The Ethiopian-born rabbi, who is also a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University, “speaks wonderful Hebrew, English – and Yiddish,” Zittel, who heads the English Department at Michlalah Jerusalem College, enthused. “He spoke for an hour with a powerful combination of cultural and religious depth as well as stand-up comedy.”

His theme, she explained, was the need to increase further understanding among the different communities in Israel, notwithstanding the positive development in this area over the years.

The festive evening in Beit Shemesh provided Ethiopian music and food, including home-made bread and coffee prepared by an Ethiopian-Israeli resident. An Israeli musician who had spent 10 years living among the Ethiopian community led the group in Ethiopian rhythms.

According to Zittel, Rabbi Sharon stressed that people in Israel are living in a miraculous country in a time of miracles.

“He is a wonderful man. It was a wonderful evening, and we live in a wonderful country,” she said.

By: Atara Beck, Senior Writer, United with Israel