An Ethiopian boy stands outside the Mevaseret immigrant absorption center near Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Ethiopian children play in a park near Mevaseret absorption center. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Bat-El Shmueli (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Only 10 percent of Beta Israel mothers have jobs. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Ethiopian youths attend a computer workshop at an E.N.P. outreach center in Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Staff at a youth outreach in Jerusalem works with Ethiopian teens. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
“Everything was difficult,” said Bat-El Ananey, a 28-year-old attorney, as she recalled her family’s culture shock when they first arrived in Israel from the African nation of Ethiopia.
“We came from a place with no toilets, no electricity, no telephones or television. I remember fetching drinking water from the river,” she continued. “And we had never seen white Jews before!”
Ms. Ananey and her family are among the 110,000 Ethiopian Jews, known as the Beta Israel, or House of Israel, who today call Israel home. For thousands of years, the Beta Israel lived in obscurity in northwestern Ethiopia, where they observed a form of Judaism that predates the rabbinical form practiced by most Jews since the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. However, Ethiopia’s great famine in 1984 and the West’s response ended their relative isolation and irrevocably altered their fortunes.
Fleeing starvation and the civil war that triggered the famine, more than 12,000 Ethiopian Jews left their villages and crossed on foot into neighboring Sudan; some 4,000 died en route. Huddled in refugee camps, 8,000 Beta Israel were evacuated in a covert airlift engineered by Israel between November 1984 and January 1985. Once the Western media broke the story of “Operation Moses,” Sudan’s government halted the operation. A year later, with assistance from the United States, Israeli forces airlifted an additional 800 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan.
For the next five years, the Derg — Ethiopia’s repressive Marxist government — refused to negotiate the emigration of Ethiopia’s remaining Jews. But as civil war raged on and the power of the Derg waned, Derg leaders used the Beta Israel as a bargaining chip to secure their own safe passage from Ethiopia.
In May 1990, word of an agreement allowing a restricted number of Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel spread fast through Ethiopia’s remaining Jewish communities, including Sela, a remote northern village where Ms. Ananey’s family lived and worked as sustenance farmers. Hoping to emigrate, the family, along with the village’s other Jews, set out for the Israeli consulate in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa.
At the tender age of 8, Ms. Ananey embarked on a journey that would change her and her family’s lives forever. Selling their land and livestock, she and her family walked first to the nearby city of Gondar then across dangerous terrain to Addis Ababa. In all, the trip took the family a year.
As rebel forces converged on the capital in May 1991 — forcing surviving members of the Derg to flee — the Israelis dispatched 34 planes to Addis Ababa. Beginning on 24 May, they airlifted 14,500 Beta Israel to the Jewish state in 36 hours.
Some 30 years after Israel began the ingathering of Ethiopia’s Jews, the Beta Israel continues to grapple with modernity’s practical and social challenges.
While Jewish immigrants from other traditional non-Western societies, such as Morocco and Yemen, have successfully integrated into Israel’s mainstream, many Beta Israel still struggle to adjust to a society vastly different from rural Ethiopia.
“There was never an aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel] like the one from Ethiopia,” said Avi Masfin, spokesman for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, or I.A.E.J.
“Most immigrants to Israel are educated and know how the education and employment systems of a modern society work.” In contrast, he said, the Beta Israel come from a rural society in which the majority of inhabitants are farmers, craftsmen or merchants. With little formal education, most could neither read nor write Amharic, their native and Ethiopia’s working language, much less Hebrew, Israel’s official language.
“Everything, everything, in Israel was new to them,” he continued.“
Given where they’ve come from, the Ethiopian community has come a long way.”
According to Mr. Masfin, the Israeli government “didn’t really know how to deal with the community. It made mistakes with the Moroccans and the Yemini, and it made mistakes with the Ethiopians, too.”
Chief among the errors, he said, was a program that pressured Ethiopian families to send their children to boarding school.
“I think the well-intentioned but misguided goal was to integrate the children into Israeli society as quickly as possible, and boarding schools have always been a tool. The government knew Ethiopian families didn’t have much money to support their large families … and felt they were relieving part of the burden,” Mr. Masfin explained.
He admitted that the young immigrants quickly learned Hebrew and adopted an Israeli lifestyle.
“But,” he concluded, “separating them from their families and traditions wasn’t a good thing.”
In response to mounting criticism from community activists and educators, the government has drastically scaled back the boarding school program in recent years.
Among the outspoken critics is Doron Yona, an energetic Ethiopian-Israeli who coordinates a Jerusalem-based program funded through the Ethiopia National Project (E.N.P.), which reaches out to Ethiopian-Israeli youths at risk. He argues that the boarding school practice has “created a gap” between elders and young people.
“Many children forget Amharic. Often, they stop respecting their elders, particularly their fathers, who feel humiliated because they can’t support their families.
“Ethiopian tradition demands respect for one’s parents, yet they have no tools to bridge the gap with their suddenly modern, independent children, not even a shared language,” said Mr. Yona.
Nearly 20 years ago, Bat-El Ananey was separated from her parents and placed in a boarding school a year after settling in Israel. The young attorney remembers the experience as “terribly hard.”
“No one asked us what we wanted. They simply did it,” she said.
Despite the long periods of separation, she insisted that she remains involved with her family.
“I am close to my elders and respect them.”
Suddenly breaking into a smile, Ms. Ananey recounted how her grandfather, now deceased, “refused to fly to Israel on Shabbat, but that’s when the planes landed and we had no choice.” She said that to repent for desecrating the Sabbath, “from the day he arrived, my grandfather never, ever left his house on Shabbat. He was a very devout, very traditional man.”
The transition into modern Israeli society has been especially wrenching for older immigrants, said Bat-El Shmueli, E.N.P.’s feisty program coordinator in Haifa and Tirat Hacarmel.
In one of its many programs for Ethiopian adults, Ms. Shmueli helps Ethiopian adults ages 35 to 80 to “learn about life in Israel.”
She said that, for the most part, “they don’t know Hebrew, they don’t have good jobs and they feel distanced from their children who have grown up here and feel and act Israeli.”
Men “often feel powerless, useless, displaced. In Ethiopia they were kings of their homes, villages and communities. Here, everyone tells them what to do.”
According to a recent study by I.A.E.J., 32 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli fathers and 10 percent of mothers are employed; 70 percent of families earn no income, relying entirely on public assistance. Many of those who work do not clear the poverty line.
The fact that more and more Ethiopian-Israeli children have an education and are finding good jobs “is a source of immense pride to their parents, but also a source of alienation,” Ms. Shmueli added.
To help bridge this generational gap, Ms. Shmueli encourages parents and grandparents enrolled in the program to share their feelings with their children and grandchildren. But this is “something that just isn’t done in Ethiopia,” she added.
“Wishing to be close to their children, parents buy them things, but they don’t know how to communicate. We’re helping them assume an active role in their children’s lives and to regain authority at home.”
A passionate 29-year-old university graduate, Ms. Shmueli admitted her own parents struggled to hold the family unit together after settling in Israel in 1991.
“My father, who died 10 years ago at the age of 87, loved Israel with all his heart, even if he didn’t always understand it. My mother, who is now 50, didn’t want to lose us, her five children, so she grudgingly accepted our modern ways and culture.”
Ms. Shmueli’s mother, Erkeh Tashomeh, said she wished programs such as those her daughter now coordinates at E.N.P. existed when her children were younger.
“I wanted to talk to their teachers, but I didn’t know the language and besides, our culture is a modest one. In Ethiopia, one never questioned a teacher’s actions. I’m glad we came here but sometimes it’s still hard.”
As if the Beta Israel’s sudden introduction to modernity had not been stressful enough, members of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish establishment questioned the authenticity of their Jewish identity soon after they arrived.
Israel has officially recognized the Beta Israel as Jewish since 1973, when famed Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Yosef deemed them the descendants of the biblical tribe of Dan. Nevertheless, prominent rabbis continued to question their identity much as they have done with other immigrant groups.
“Israel didn’t bring over the Beta Israel for many years because of concerns about their Jewishness,” said Micha Odenheimer, I.A.E.J.’s founding director and a fervent advocate for the community.
Even after Rabbi Yosef’s ruling, he said, “questions remained. When the Beta Israel divorced, a practice that was very common in Ethiopia, did they do so according to Jewish law?”
Modern Judaism, which incorporates the Torah and rabbinical rulings, observes very strict rules on marriage and divorce, “rules that traditionally didn’t exist in the Judaism of the Beta Israel,” he explained.
“The rabbis feared Ethiopian immigrants might not have obtained a proper Jewish divorce before marrying again,” Mr. Odenheimer said. Marriage after an improper divorce constitutes a serious violation of Jewish law.
Ultimately, the rabbis asked the Beta Israel to undergo a conversion ceremony, which would remove any doubt about their status. However, such a ceremony insinuated that the rabbis did not recognize the Beta Israel as Jewish. The first wave of immigrants agreed to immerse themselves in a mikve, or ritual bath, but later arrivals protested.
“They felt the demand insulting.”
Though most Israeli rabbis today no longer require Ethiopian Jews to undergo a conversion ceremony, some still do.
“To some extent things aren’t totally resolved,” Mr. Odenheimer continued.
Whether racism and not religious law lies at the heart of this and other Israeli customs remains the subject of heated debate within the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
“I don’t think we have institutionalized racism in Israel, at least not intentional prejudice,” said Avi Masfin of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews.
“But Israelis do tend to think Ethiopians aren’t educated, perhaps because they rarely live next to us and there are so few of us in the universities. Fortunately, that’s changing.”
Another obstacle many believe has hampered the Beta Israel’s integration has been the Israeli policy of settling new immigrants in absorption centers generally located in communities along the country’s perimeter. When a family’s stay at one of these government-funded centers expires, they generally move to a poor community nearby or to one in a large city where they can afford the cost of living.
“If you live in a poor neighborhood, the educational resources are poorer as well,” said Grace Rodnitzki, the E.N.P.s director of international relations.
For its part, the agency tries to break the vicious cycle of poverty through its many youth outreach centers. On a hot summer day, outside the entrance of one such center in Jerusalem’s Neveh Ya’akov neighborhood, a half dozen Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian teenagers loiter, taking drags on cigarettes. Staff does not turn them away, hoping to entice them indoors where they can engage in a range of more wholesome activities.
Inside, mostly Ethiopian teens play games on the 20 or so computers donated by the Intel Corporation. Efrat Da’an, the center’s director, described the clean, air-conditioned facility as “a home away from home for these kids.”
“Many come from large families with no money for activities, and they’d be on the streets all summer.”
One 14-year-old, Dan, says the center has been a refuge during Israel’s blazing hot summer.
“I like working on the computer. The one we had at home died. They have taught us Photoshop and have taken us to Superland, the pool and the Old City. It’s fun.”
“Dan comes from a good family, but he’s one of eight children and his parents have nothing for extras,” said Mr. Da’an.
While many Israelis believe their government could have done a better job integrating the Beta Israel early on, few doubt the efforts the government and numerous private Jewish and Christian organizations currently make on behalf of the community’s young people. Nevertheless, Ethiopian children on average struggle in school more than other Israelis.
“Ethiopian kids enter first grade with huge gaps,” said Russel Wolkind, international associate for the Joint Distribution Committee, which cofounded and oversees Birth to Bagrut (Hebrew for “matriculation”), which provides tutoring for Ethiopian-Israeli children, families and educators in Rehovot, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
Most Israelis, including immigrants, enroll their children in preschool where they gain a solid foundation in Hebrew. But, according to Mr. Wolkind, the “vast majority” of Ethiopian children do not attend preschool. In addition, 40 percent of Ethiopian students in grades one to nine rank below grade level in reading, and 60 percent of those in grades one to six rank below grade level in Hebrew and math. Only 28 percent of Ethiopian students — less than half the national average — pass the college entrance exams. Twice as many Ethiopian students, or 6.2 percent, drop out of school between the ages of 14 and 17.
Before Birth to Bagrut, said Mr. Wolkind, “there was almost no communication between teachers and parents. Parents had no understanding of the educational system and the system had no understanding of the Ethiopian community’s needs.”
To facilitate parental involvement in their children’s education, the program hires young educated Ethiopians as liaisons.
One such liaison, 30-year-old Sarit Tabaje, works in several schools and preschools.
“I come to this kindergarten twice a week, work with the children and interface with the parents. Working with the teacher, I tell the parents what’s going on in the school, with their child, and how wonderful their child is,” explained Ms. Tabaje.
“We bring Ethiopian culture into the classroom, to let the children know it’s good to be Ethiopian. At first, the kids were shocked to be making Ethiopian bread in front of the other students. They said, ‘I thought we only eat this, do this at home, talk about this at home.’ They stopped being ashamed of being different and began to appreciate their heritage.”
Ms. Tabaje, who moved to Israel at age 13, also translates teachers’ notes into Amharic when necessary, and personally invites parents to get involved at the school.
Among its other activities, Birth to Bagrut offers tutoring to all Ethiopian-Israeli teens in Rehovot, which prepares them for their college entrance exams. And the results have been very promising.
Sadly, the last generation of Ethiopian youngsters did not benefit from the relatively new Birth to Bagrut and other such initiatives.
For example, when Bat-El Ananey was growing up, she made the decision to study hard so she could go to college. After her military service, Ms. Ananey spent a year at the respected Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan before entering law school, where she was one of only three Ethiopian students in a class of 500.
“The problem was finding a job after graduation,” said Ms. Ananey, who now works for Tabeka, a nonprofit providing legal aid to the Ethiopian community.
“When I went for job interviews,” she said, “I realized that Israeli employers don’t think Ethiopian students are really qualified. They didn’t give me a chance, so how do they know? Anyone who says discrimination doesn’t exist is in denial.”
Yet despite the challenges she and her community face, Ms. Ananey loves her adopted country.
“This is my home, this is the country my grandparents and their grandparents dreamt of their entire lives.”
Avi Masfin agreed.
“Israel invests a huge amount of resources, money, research and time to make its immigrants feel at home,” he said. Ethiopians have received more help — mortgages, educational help — than any other group.
“We survived and thrived as Jews in a Christian land for 2,000 years. We kept our culture and traditions alive, despite all the odds. Now our home is Israel.”
Jerusalem-based Michele Chabin writes for USA TODAY, the Jewish Journal and ONE. Award-winning photographer Ilene Perlman first contributed to these pages in 1986 with a feature on the Beta Israel in Ethiopia.