For thousands of years, the Bal Ej practiced Judaism in secret – now they are reemerging, and they want to come home to Israel.

By Ari Soffer |

Earlier this year, the Israeli government announced it plans airlift 500 family members of Ethiopian-Jewish soldiers to Israel, as part of Interior Minister Silvan Shalom’s vow to “complete” the aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry back Israel.

Israel brought most of the community to Israel during the 1980s and 90s in what was dubbed Operation Solomon, with others following them in subsequent years.

There are currently around 135,500 Jews of Ethiopian descent living in Israel, including more than 50,000 native-born Israelis. The ancient community was exiled from Israel in pre-Talmudic times, and spent much of its long exile largely cut off from other Jewish communities, resulting in a unique set of customs and practices. Some – known as the Beta Israel – preserved their Jewish identity despite harsh persecution, while others – often known as Falash Mura – were forcibly converted to Christianity, in some cases practicing Judaism secretly.

But just as Israel poises to “wrap up” the return of Ethiopian Jewry to their homeland, an upcoming documentary by Jewish filmmaker Irene Orleansky reveals another reemerging community in the heart of the Horn of Africa state.

Known as Bal Ej, like many other Beta Israel they too were forced to keep their Judaism a secret due to persecution – in some cases far worse than their brethren elsewhere in the country.

A short teaser to Orleansky’s documentary – Bal Ej – the hidden Jews of Ethiopia – gives some background on a fascinating, ancient Jewish community emerging from the shadows after generations of suffering.

Arutz Sheva spoke with Orleansky about her project, to find out just who the Bal Ej are.

Tell me more about the history of the Bal Ej. How do they differ from the other Beta Israel/Falasha communities from elsewhere in Ethiopia? Do they have ties to other Ethiopian Jews? How many of them are there in Ethiopia, and have any moved to Israel or elsewhere in the Diaspora? Do they have a formal communal leadership?

Bal Ej means craftsmen in Amharic. According to their oral history, they originate from Beta Israel of Gondar region. A story of their migration from Gondar region to North Shewa region was also documented by Jacque Faitlovitch, a prominent researcher of Beta Israel, in his journey diaries in 1910. The community was also mentioned in earlier documents as long ago as in 1840.

They migrated from Gondar to North Shewa region in a few waves beginning from the 15th century with the largest wave in the 19th century at the time of rule of Menelik II who brought them from Gondar to North Shewa to build his capital Ankober, and later Entoto and Addis Ababa. The weapons produced by Beta Israel craftsmen of North Shewa played an important role in military success of Menelik II.

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