Every morning Rabbi Sharon Shalom thanks God that he lives in Israel.
Shalom, 39, was born in Ethiopia and came to Israel alone at the age of 9. Israeli authorities gave the boy, known as Zaude Taspei, the name Sharon Shalom.
Shalom was sent to a children's home, where he was told that his parents had died. He learned two years later that they were living in Israel.
He studied at a yeshiva and several colleges. Shalom is a doctoral student at Bar Ilan University where he teaches Halacha (Jewish law) and tradition to the Ethiopian community. He is the first Ethiopian-Israeli to teach at the university. Shalom also is the first to serve as an officer in an elite Israel Defense Forces unit and one of the first to be ordained by Israel's chief rabbinate.
During an interview with the Jewish Journal, Shalom, who was the visiting weekend scholar at Boca Raton Synagogue, said he is trying to find ways for second generation Ethiopians to keep their tradition and to integrate into the Jewish world. "It's not easy," he said, explaining that Ethiopian Jewish tradition is grounded in the Bible.
There is no Talmud in the Ethiopian community and no oral tradition, Shalom said. So he is writing a code of Jewish law for the Ethiopian community.
There are about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel and Shalom is working on a project with Professor Daniel Sperber at the university that explores feelings of identity among second-generation Ethiopians.
A group was asked if they feel more black, more Ethiopian, more Jewish or more Israeli. "Most of them," Shalom said, "feel more black." Shalom worries that the Ethiopian community could be isolated if it does not become part of the larger Israeli community.
Shalom also is the rabbi at a shul for 100 Holocaust survivors in Kiryat Gan, where he lives with his wife and four children.
Last Friday afternoon, Shalom spoke to 11th and 12th graders at the Weinbaum Yeshiva High School. Within minutes, he had them laughing as he talked about the modern conveniences that are taken for granted in Israel but were not available in his small village in Ethiopia.
"When I arrived in Israel I was looking for gold," he said. "I saw the light. There was a bathroom in the house. Everything is new. It's amazing and I got a new name too."
Shalom said there is a big gap between dreams and reality. "Reality is not easy. The test is how the Ethiopian community can exist and find themselves as Israeli citizens."
Ethiopians receive a lot of help, he said, but they have to "take responsibility and believe in themselves."
Carla Greer, head of Weinbaum Yeshiva's humanities department, said that Shalom is a reminder of what is important for students who take their lifestyle for granted.
Greer said the school imbues students with inspiration and a high level of intellectualism. "They don't have to go out and sacrifice." Listening to Shalom is good for their humility, she said, adding, it is a lesson in life that the focus should be on spirituality and not on the material.
Shalom also is a "reminder of the mission we are supposed to have for Israel and how far we must go in our lives to be part of the Jewish community," Greer said.
Embrace Israel thanks David A. Schwartz and South Florida Jewish Journal for permission to publish this article.