PHOTOS: An African Baptism in Tel Aviv

Aviram Valdman

Aviram Valdman

Photographer at The Tower Magazine

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Aviram Valdman ~

From the Blog

In a new country, a new soul is welcomed into an old faith. Photos: Aviram Valdman

One of the more tragic phenomena in Israel today is the plight of illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands of these migrants, some fleeing war and political upheaval, others seeking relief from endemic poverty in their home countries, have succeeded in reaching Israel in recent years. They survive by working menial jobs and congregate in Israel’s poorest areas, particularly the economically neglected neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv.

Israel, for the most part, has no idea how to deal with them. One the one hand, their plight arouses great sympathy. The Jewish people have a long history of migration, often under great duress, and many Israeli Jews identify with the migrants. On the other hand, despite considerable economic progress, Israel is not a wealthy country, and lacks the social and economic capability to absorb them. Tensions between the migrants and older residents of south Tel Aviv sometimes run high, and the native population often resents the burden they are asked to shoulder while wealthier neighborhoods of the city are not.

In spite of these troubles, the African migrants have succeeded in creating their own distinctive subculture, mostly based around their religion, in particular the Eastern Orthodox Church. “To go to church is like water for fishes,” Rev. Solomon Eyob Ghebrezgabiher, a church leader who also works as a cleaner in south Tel Aviv, told the Associated Press. Without religion and church we cannot live….As Christians, prayer is the most important. We want to pray for our community, for our country. We have to pray for our church.”

The migrants have adapted their rituals to Israeli reality. Services are often held on Saturdays, as opposed to the traditional Sunday, in order to accommodate Israel’s unique work week, which begins on Sunday and ends with the Sabbath on Friday nights.

Tower photographer Aviram Valdman documented one of these services—a baptism ceremony for a newborn baby. The proceedings were surprisingly colorful, with priests in traditional garb and congregants dressing in their finest. The participants beat drums, sing, and pray with fervor, emphasizing their resilience in the face of upheaval and dislocation, finding refuge in a country that both sympathizes with them and finds itself painfully unable to alleviate their plight.

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Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower