Being in Ethiopia, after dreaming of visiting the country for years, was wonderful. Being there in the company of 20 loquacious Londoners of various Jewish persuasions was even better: a journey of constant dialogue and learning. With Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of West London Synagogue and Abye Tilahun Lakew of local Jacaranda Tours as our guides, we saw vast stretches of the country’s north.
The eight-day tour of Andalusia in November 2017 was my fourth trip with Jewish Renaissance in the past six years. As in the previous three, I felt immediately at ease with the other members of the group who were friendly and whose outlook I shared.
Like all JR tours Andalusia was a combination of Jewish sites and historic places of interest. We were fortunate to be joined on our first two days in Seville by Moises Hassan, an eminent scholar of Jewish-Spanish history, who gave us a crash course. He told us about the place of the Jews, whose expulsion or murder by the Inquisition at the end of the 14th century ended Jewish presence in Spain. Today there are only 100 Jews in Seville and none at all in Cordoba, two significant pre-Inquisition Jewish communities.
The First Day. Addis Ababa.
We made it to the hotel just to dump our bags and then headed out straight away to meet with the ‘Secret Jews’ of Kechene. Of course, they’re not so secret now. Their synagogue in a slum on the outskirts of Addis has a wall emblazoned with a menorah and other Jewish symbols. This is their story. In a period of intense persecution in Gondar some centuries before, a third of the community decided to leave for the centre of the country. They acted outwardly as Christians meeting in caves for Jewish worship. For 400 years they have only married each other, and kept their identity a secret till about 10 years ago when a group of young men defied their elders and ‘came out’ as Jews. They now have a synagogue in Addis.
Twenty-six tired yet exhilarated travellers sat down together for supper in a Riad in Marrakech – it was the last night of a wonderful trip and they all wanted to spend that evening together, despite the opportunity to sample the night life in this north African town. How well our group, mainly strangers, had grown to like one another and enjoy the times we spent discussing the day’s activities.