A prominent Ethiopian-Israeli rabbi, Sharon Shalom recently opened a center for the study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College, just outside Tel Aviv. In an interview with Sephardi Ideas Monthly, he discusses the failures of prior academic studies of his community and his commitment to preserving the unique halakhic and theological traditions of his ancestors even as Ethiopian Jews become more integrated into Israeli society:
The Ethiopian tradition deserves to be seriously studied. The deeper dimensions of this tradition, such as the belief that human beings are, at bottom, good . . . are very important and relevant for our time. [The new center is], accordingly, establishing a beit midrash [a traditional house of learning] for Ethiopian religious leaders, known as kessim, to study in depth the Ethiopian tradition. The kessim will study the Ethiopian oral Torah—[which] is still to a great degree oral—using tools from within the Ethiopian tradition to determine contemporary Ethiopian halakhic responses that will be relevant for all of Israel. . . .
There are parallels between the Ethiopian approach and ḥasidic teachings, which, for instance, the kessim-to-be will study. They will also study different approaches and schools within the Jewish tradition, and they’ll finish with a degree. But the message coming from these walls will be for all of Israel. . . . .
[In the academic study of Ethiopian Judaism], race enters the picture. From our perspective, skin color is not identity. In Ethiopia, skin color wasn’t a concern for us. The academic discourse attempts to explain the Ethiopian world, but not to understand it. The moment you put skin color in the center you are still wrestling with the fact that there are black Jews. . . . The academic community has contributed to understanding Ethiopian Jewish history and culture, and contributed some very serious scholarship. But the time has come—and I say it to myself as well—to understand Ethiopian Jewish tradition as it understands itself. And then to see what it can contribute to Israel.