Pastor Belay Birli – Julia Fisher meets the leader of the Ethiopian Messianic Jewish community in Israele
Meeting Belay Birlie in Jerusalem recently was, I believe, a divine appointment. A few years ago I witnessed firsthand the plight of the Ethiopian Jewish people when I visited an absorption centre in the south of Israel. These people had arrived in Israel from Africa with nothing, and despite being Jewish, found it very hard to assimilate into what is essentially a European/Western culture. And so poverty and high levels of unemployment amongst this group of people was and still is widespread, especially amongst the older population.
More recently I heard about an Ethiopian Messianic Jewish congregation in Jerusalem … that it was a vibrant and growing community. As I made enquiries the name of Belay Birlie was mentioned time and time again.
We met for the first time in September 2008, and a few weeks later in the November.
What follows is a most unusual story; a story of destiny; a story that has hardly begun; a story that deserves to be told because these people need our help.
The history of the Ethiopian Jews
The Jewish community in Ethiopia, who called themselves Beta Israel – house of Israel, lived for centuries in the northern province of Gondar. They used the Torah when they prayed and always longed that one day they would be back in Jerusalem.
Called the ‘Falashas’, which means ‘stranger’ or ‘immigrant’ in the Ge-ez language, by their neighbours, they were always considered different and often their very survival was at risk. More recently, in the early 1980’s, Ethiopia forbade the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Their lives became more precarious as Ethiopia suffered years of war and famine. Over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. Operation Moses, which began on November 18th 1984 and ended on January 5th 1985, rescued another 8,000 Jews and brought them to Israel. But many remain there to this day.
Belay Birlie was born in Ethiopia. His parents were Orthodox Jews. He told me how 40 years ago, he had a school friend who was a Christian.
“He was a very quiet and gentle person and I liked him, but when I found out that he believed Yeshua was the Messiah I couldn’t believe it.”
Impressed by the character of his friend, gradually Belay came to believe.
“For two years I didn’t tell my family. But they could see my life had changed so when they asked me about what I believed I told them about the Messiah. They were shocked and angry and, although I loved and respected my parents, it was difficult living at home. When I went off to university I was independent and free.
For five years I prayed for a good wife. We eventually met. She is Jewish and was educated in an Anglican missionary school.”
I was interested to hear Belay’s account of Ethiopian Jewish history, how did he believe the Jews got to Ethiopia in the first place?
“Much of our history was passed orally from generation to generation. But four main theories exist. The first is that we may be the lost tribe of Dan. The second is that we were descendants of Menelik 1, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Others suggest we are descendants of Ethiopian Christians who converted to Judaism centuries ago. Still others say we may be descendants of Jews who fled Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC and eventually settled in Ethiopia.
When I read Isaiah 11.11, ‘In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush (Ethiopia), from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea’, this tells me our history goes back a long way and God didn’t forget about us!
And the story of Philip meeting the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza in Acts 8 shows there was a strong link between Jerusalem and Ethiopia in those days. I grew up knowing that Orthodox Judaism had been kept very strictly for centuries in Ethiopia.
We were told not to mix with people of other religions. For 3,000 years we prayed, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. We lived by ourselves in the mountains to protect ourselves and our religion. Often Ethiopian Orthodox Christians tried to kill us. We owned no land. We were strangers.
I studied agriculture at university and worked for the government for 12 years before coming to Israel. I didn’t tell the government in Ethiopia I was a Jew – I kept it a secret, otherwise I would not have got a job.
When I heard Jews were leaving Ethiopia and coming to Israel my wife and I prayed. The verse above from Isaiah, and other similar verses, stirred us and we wanted to return ‘home’. We believed this was the time. I fasted and prayed. Then I received a visa to go to America. I resigned from my job and without telling anybody we left the country and made our way to Egypt along with our four children. But when we were in Egypt, as my wife and I were praying we knew we had to go to Israel! God brought us home in 1985!
At first we lived in Ashkelon. I didn’t know any other Messianic believers and I was asking God to show me what to do and where we should live. Then we had a surprise visit from a Finnish missionary who had been working in Ethiopia and was now living in Beer Sheva. He came at midnight and explained to us how to go about living here. In 1986 we came to Jerusalem and started to make connections. We met Reuven and Benjamin Berger and they encouraged us as we prayed together. At the same time we were learning to speak Hebrew at a language school. And to feed my family I worked as a carpenter.”
Were you welcomed by Jewish people here?
“There was no communication between us – fear, lack of language and cultural differences kept and still keep us apart – we come from Africa! We’re not from the civilised west. It was a big cultural shock coming here. Children are fast to learn the language but for the parents it’s slow. Many Ethiopian children take drugs and alcohol. Operations Solomon and Moses brought thousands of people out of Ethiopia. They want to be here but there are serious social problems, not least between many husbands and wives because the husband has no role here and often they kill their wives.
We are working with the Ethiopian community trying to help them assimilate into Israeli life. We are involved in marriage counselling and we run schemes for children to help them not get into drugs. We have nothing but we are full of faith! Reuven and Benjamin Berger encourage us along with Marcel Rebiai.
We started the fellowship in Netanya and were there for many years with support from Evan Thomas and David Loden. Our numbers grew and eventually we started our own meeting. Numbers continued to grow and we started a congregation in Tel Aviv. We now have six congregations! We have a prayer centre in Tel Aviv and every few weeks we all meet together.
Most of the Ethiopian pastors have a job to support themselves – their congregations cannot support them; most of the adults, if they have a job, have very low paid work. Today we run projects to help our children and youth and provide help for widows.
Our congregations are entirely Ethiopian although this is now changing. My son is an evangelist. On the buses he prays for the sick! He prays and they are healed and then they are interested to talk about Yeshua! God’s favour is tremendous! A blind woman was healed recently. Our people are free from cancer. Many are now free from drug and alcohol addiction.
I believe Jesus is coming again because the Bible says He will come. For 3,000 years the Ethiopian Jews hoped to come to Israel – now thousands are here although many are still in Ethiopia and they are struggling. I believe in Jeremiah 31 and Isaiah 11:11; God will teach them that this is the time.”
We don’t write … nobody knows about us
“We depend on the Lord to help us. We have many needy people in our community … we have many widows who have children to support. They have no money to pay for the extra education they need not to mention out of school activities – they have no money so they cannot go. Many children smoke and drink and take drugs. We run children’s vacation camps. The parents can’t pay so the church has to pay. The children must have something for these three months. We plan to open computer centres to teach them. Discipleship programmes. We organise many activities – but we need more money.
And with six congregations spread across Israel we have to pay a lot of rent. We have a food bank – we distribute this to the poor people. The older Ethiopian Orthodox people have no jobs. Some are sick. They exist on social welfare which is not enough. The young people are finding it hard to get jobs because they are Ethiopian. We have proved this time and again. There is much feeling against our people here in Israeli society. We suffer much prejudice and persecution, but we love these people!
We have a wonderful relationship with the other Messianic believers and the Arab Christians too. I preach in the Arab fellowships! It is important we build strong bridges between us.”
Nobody is supporting you so what is your greatest need I asked Belay ….
“For many years we were underground believers. More recently we have been on the receiving end of persecution by some Orthodox Jews who came to our house. My son opened the door and said, ‘In the name of Jesus want do you want? We know them … we’re praying for them. Yeshua is protecting us.
We have a bank overdraft … we have so much need in our community … they do not have enough to eat … they are constantly asking us to help them, especially widows and those with young children.”
This growing Ethiopian Messianic congregation in Jerusalem, along with the other five congregations started by Pastor Belay Birlie need our help. His heart for all Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, is clear. The work he and the other Messianic Ethiopian believers are doing to help the needy in their community is remarkable. If you would like to support this precious group of believers in Israel and the work they are doing to help the needy then please send your donation to me Julia Fisher, OTRF, PO Box 850, Horsham, RH12 9GA
For more information about the work of the Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund please visit www.olivetreefund.org where you can read about many of the people and projects we are supporting, including the work of Labib Madanat through Bible Society in Gaza which is particularly important at this time.
And if you would like to join the next OTRF tour to Israel from 5-15th September 2009 to meet many of the believers (both Jewish and Arab) we are supporting please visit the website.
For books by Julia Fisher visit www.olivetreefund.org/books