“If I was brought into this world only to help the Ethiopians that is enough for me.”
The Israelite Board of Rabbis joins with much of the world in mourning the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His brilliance as a Torah sage is well known and his accomplishments are legendary. Most obituaries have focused on his role as a founder and leader of the Shas political party which was created to protect the interest of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who were not being adequately represented by the Ashkenazi ruling elite in Israel. Through their yeshevot they fought to preserve Sephardi culture, traditions, and above all an ancient tradition of Torah learning and independent Bet Din (rabbinic court).
We pay special tribute to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef for the wisdom and courage he displayed in 1973. Though he was only in his first year as the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, he took the bold step of recognizing the Jewishness of Beta Israel (the black Jews of Ethiopia). The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, initially rejected this decision and the Chief Rabbinet of Israel, which was under Goren’s control, required that “pro forma” conversions be done. Rabbi Yosef opposed this position. He subsequently became an ardent defender of the Beta Israel; he spoke out against discrimination and segregation in Israeli religious schools. He even threatened to “fire any principal” and withhold funding from any Shas school that refused to admit Ethiopian children on an equal basis. Having been born in Baghdad and having lived for a time in Egypt, he had a profound understanding of the challenges that Jews from the Mediterranean and Africa face in the larger Jewish world.
“May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life”.