Now, more than a generation later, Ethiopians still face integration challenges despite living in Israel as citizens.
The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether program connects Jewish Federations with communities in Israel. In Yokneam, a sister city to Atlanta, the Ethiopian Jewish community is faring better than the national average for Ethiopians, thanks in part to funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. The Family Empowerment Center provides resources and classes to help Yokneam’s Ethiopian Jews compete in a society where they start with a disadvantage.
“You have to understand: In any other city, Ethiopian immigrants are automatically put in the welfare system,” said Yaron Yavelberg, the Atlanta and St. Louis Federations’ representative in Israel. “We managed to take it out from the welfare system, (where) each social worker has about 200 files, and they are not treated personally. This is not under the tag of welfare, and they don’t experience that type of prejudice.”
Center staff can customize programming to address the specific challenges faced by Ethiopian Jews.
They are descendants of a pre-Talmudic bloodline and trace their heritage back to the queen of Sheba, who lived 500 years before Jeremiah is believed to have codified the Torah.
When they were in Ethiopia, the Beta Israel believed they were the only Jews to ever exist. They didn’t believe rumors they heard of other Jews, and when they first saw light-skinned Jews, they said, “It can’t be that Jews are white,” Yavelberg explained.
The Beta Israel prayed to Jerusalem as a mythical place that didn’t exist. When they learned it was real, many died while walking across Sudan to make the journey to Israel.
The Beta Israel were discriminated against and even killed by Coptic Christians and Muslims. Many lived in poverty in Ethiopia and anticipated a better life in Israel.
“Many of these young people carry all these scars of the journey, and they get to Jerusalem, and it’s not the Jerusalem they thought it was, and Israel is secular,” Yavelberg said. “So they began doubting their Judaism because it’s not updated and their religious leaders are not accepted as rabbis.”
Assimilating into Israel has been tough for many Ethiopian Jews. Israel isn’t quite 70 years old, and the Ethiopians represent the first time Israelis have dealt with the issue of color, Yavelberg said.
Integration takes many forms, but, for Ethiopian Jews, cultural integration is complicated. The Beta Israel who came in the late 1980s and early 1990s were not accustomed to Western food; combined with having less work, they developed diseases such as diabetes.
The Family Empowerment Center creates programs such as an agricultural project that enables them to develop their own farms; agriculture was a main source of income for the Beta Israel in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Jewish culture does not traditionally promote education and career advancement, elements that the center stresses, said Avishag Cohen, a social worker and community coordinator at the center.
“We prepare them for English and math, but the kids know more about computers than the parents do,” Cohen said. “The people who came before this generation did not have an education. Women and men did work cleaning or jobs where they didn’t need an education.”
Most Ethiopian Jews make about 30 shekels ($8.50) an hour working minimum-wage jobs, so the staff prepares the children to be inducted into the Israel Defense Forces. A good job in the IDF increases the chances of upward mobility.
To obtain a stable position in the IDF, the men and women need to have proper training and education in areas such as computer technology. If they don’t enter with the right skills, their opportunities are significantly limited.
“Within the army there are different jobs,” Cohen said. “If you don’t get into the right unit, your situation is going to reflect that. Pre-army programs are very important.”
Still, it takes determination to rise above cultural and racial barriers. Shira Tangania, 24, a student at Yizrael College, said the empowerment center has made a difference in her life.
“I learned to study something that I have the skills to do and that I would love, not just something I have the skills to do,” Tangania said. “I want to be with people and talk with people, so I chose human resources so I can help others. Shosh helped organize things and choose a school. It fits my character, so it’s a good fit for me.”
Tangania looked at several schools and found help at the Family Empowerment Center. There Shosh Zehavi, the director of the center, helped her complete the paperwork. The difference between Tangania and kids who don’t take advantage of the center is that no one is helping the others navigate educational and career goals, she said.
“We don’t have someone to help you achieve that goal. I didn’t have someone to tell me that, and Shosh is like my second mother, and she helped me,” Tangania said. “I came here, and they helped if there was a job I wanted to start or to go to school. This is something I didn’t have in my immigrant home because my parents don’t understand school. My parents don’t tell me to go get an education. It’s more important to make money.”
That mindset can be a major setback in Ethiopian Jewish homes because the most important thing is to have child, Tangania said.
Yokneam has about 350 Ethiopian families, which is a little more than 1,500 people. There are 200 young people Shira’s age using the service.
“After I told my big sister, she came here to go to school and began to study. If I speak about this, my environment knows about this, and several people can come here and do something. … Not all, but some,” Tangania said. “It’s somebody to listen to you for your own growth. I told several people about this so they can begin something.”
Ethiopians fall below the Israeli average across the socio-economic categories. More than 30 years after Ethiopian Jews came to Israel, the lack of improvement causes frustration within the community, Yavelberg said.
“If you look at the statistics of people born in Israel, they come up last on every measurement. In matriculation, income and education, they come last or almost last,” Yavelberg said. “The programs we put into this community are putting out higher rates than other Ethiopian communities, but still, after dozens of organizations contributing, there are no results.”
Many of those organizations spent too much of their money on staff salaries, Yavelberg said, so the Federations allocated most of their funds directly to families. The staff at the center will work with the families to spend the money appropriately.
Ethiopians are entitled to full college scholarships, but many don’t take advantage of the opportunity because their culture does not emphasize education, said Bernice Malka, the Living Bridge coordinator for the Partnership2Gether program linking Yokneam and Megiddo with Atlanta and St. Louis.
But the situation is much worse at the national level than in Yokneam.
Nationally, 52 percent to 54 percent of Ethiopians pursue higher education; that rate is 65 percent in Yokneam. The high school dropout rate is zero for Yokneam’s Ethiopians, compared with 3.5 percent nationally.
The staff at the empowerment center credits Simon Alfassi, Yokneam’s mayor, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco as a small boy.
“The mayor remembers what it was like to struggle as an immigrant,” Malka said. “His heart is in the right place, and he feels like he won’t let what’s happening in other communities happen under his watch.”
People didn’t want to live in Yokneam in the 1990s, and the Jewish Agency connected with the Federations in St. Louis and Atlanta at a time when many mayors were refusing olim (immigrants). Alfassi went to caravan sites and invited families to live in the small northern city.
The commitment of the mayor and the city’s relationship with the Atlanta Federation add value, Malka said.
“The governments were supporting immigrants in the beginning, but in the long term the support stops, and that’s where the Federations come in,” she said. “The government isn’t going to support the community projects with professionals and giving young people living grants.”
To start, Yokneam had 35 Ethiopian families, and Alfassi arranged for apartments for them scattered throughout the city. Now there are more than 350 families, Malka said.
“The Federation comes in in such a meaningful way and allows professionals to zoom out to identify the needs,” she said. “It has a ripple effect on the Ethiopian community and broader community. There is a commitment from the Federations of Atlanta and St. Louis to maintain the well-being of the community.”
When people ask why the partnership with the Federations continues, the explanation is that they have taken on a “generational task,” Zehavi said.
Zehavi, whose parents made aliyah from Yemen, said it takes a long time to break the cycle and fully assimilate into Israeli culture. “For my family, it took four generations.”
Many kids rebel in their teens by rejecting integration and white Israeli culture. Without guidance, they turn to crime and embrace the Black Power movement to form a strong identity because they can relate, Yavelberg said.
Yokneam’s relationship between the Ethiopian community and the police is tense. Cohen said it reminds her of the relationship between blacks and police in the United States after an incident in 2015 in which an Ethiopian soldier was recorded being beaten by police, which sparked community outrage and protests.
Community leaders are trying to control the situation by learning from the mistakes of the United States. Cohen started by listening to the young people in the community.
“They feel they are targeted for violence and arrested,” Cohen said. “Almost all the young people have a record for attacking officers. We asked the commander of the Yokneam police to meet with an Ethiopian representative to express how they feel. Crime is now lowered, and a few of those records were closed.”
As children, many Ethiopians don’t want to be seen as different from other Israelis and reject their traditional culture. Most Ethiopian children’s names are automatically changed to Israeli names, or they change their names to something more Israeli.
Name-changing has long been practiced in Israel. When Malka came from Scotland at 7 years old, she was given an Israeli name she hated. Like Tangania, Malka began using her birth name when she went into the army.
“My actual name isn’t Shira; it’s my Hebrew name.My real name is Mamlmal. In school, I was embarrassed by my name, my food and all my culture,” Tangania said. “In the IDF I saw different cultures and heard different names. My commander asked me, ‘Why don’t you use your real name?’ He said, ‘Teach people how to pronounce it, and they’ll understand it.’ So I began using my name and realized, if someone can’t pronounce it, I just have to say it several times, and they get used to it. Now all my friends call me Mamlmal.”
Cohen, who grew up in a strong community, was inspired to create the same sense of community in Yokneam to assist Ethiopian children with their identity and assimilation. She rallied the parents together and began celebrating holidays such as Purim, Shavuot and Chanukah and going on trips to see the country.
For many Ethiopians, those trips were the first time they saw snow.
“I believe a strong community can really empower people, and you have to know where you come from,” Cohen said. “It was good for me to get to know the community. They always say to me, ‘You don’t know us,’ and they don’t explain to me about the cultural differences.”
The empowerment center encourages Ethiopian Jews to take pride in their culture by launching cooking workshops for Ethiopian food, a source of embarrassment for children, who are told their food smells bad and looks funny.
The center also is preparing for Sigd, a Beta Israel holiday honoring the covenant between the Jewish people and G-d through the Torah. In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel would climb the highest mountain and pray to Jerusalem because it was their dream to live in the Holy Land.
Sigd started small, but it’s an official holiday in Israel. People gather in Jerusalem at the Kotel to celebrate.
The Ethiopian culture has many beautiful things that have been forgotten, Yavelberg said, but the new generation is learning how to deal with a complex identity.
“It also is important they adapt to modern society and different concepts of time, to know how to make your voice heard and achieve your goals in a difficult environment,” Yavelberg said. “A part of the effort is the first generation adapting to modern society while still carrying on the good things. The ideal product is a strong individual who is proud of who they are and proud of their heritage while having a balance between the two.”