Ariela’s legacy gives others direction, purpose
Aviva Dese believes that without the Ariela Foundation, she’d probably be back in Nazareth Ilit, the factory town in the Galilee where she grew up, maybe with a low-paying assembly-line job, or maybe still wondering, like so many of her friends, what to do with her life.
Instead, the 24 year-old Ethiopian Israeli studies at one of the top music schools in Israel, is talking to producers about an album and was the featured singer at a national memorial for Ethiopians who died en route to Israel.
The Israel-based Ariela Foundation, which pays for scholarships, equipment and a mentor for Dese, provides individualized, long-term support for around 60 Israelis of Ethiopian descent who show talent and promise in specific areas or who are highly motivated and above average in school.
“I really love the goals of the foundation because it’s much more than about getting a job or just holding on. The purpose is to bring us to places where we haven’t been yet. You don’t see a lot of Ethiopian people in the government, in music, as doctors … so it’s really important to have Ethiopian people in better places so the young can see that there is no limit to what they can do,” Dese said.
[Related: As part of their visit to the United States this summer, Ariela Foundation participants Aviva Dese and Nofar Mekonen visited Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., where campers participated in a lively discussion about the life of Israelis of Ethiopian origin.
The Ariela Foundation has around 60 young people in two programs, with a budget of around $300,000.
The Star program provides groups of students with academic enrichment, social experiences and cultural opportunities. The foundation sticks with the same cohort from middle school and high school through the army and university, giving the students a sustained chance for success. A key part of the program is a mentor linked to their areas of interest. Four classes are currently running in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Gedera and Ness Ziona, with a total of more than 30 students combined.
The Maof program — maof is Hebrew for “soaring” — of which Dese and Mekonen are members, offers mentoring and custom-tailored support also to around 30 young people who excel in academics, athletics or the arts. Fellows are asked to commit fully to achieving their personal goals and to give back to the community.
“I think from all the sectors in Israel, the one that has received the most money with the least results is Ethiopian Jewry,” Eric Goldberg said, pointing to high unemployment, dropout and poverty rates among Ethiopian Jews. Most programs, he said, are short-term and welfare-oriented. “That is not to say these are not important, but at the end of the day they don’t get to the root of the problem. … So we said, let’s take the strongest people in the Ethiopian Jewish community and give them all the tools they in need on a long-term basis, so that they can become role models for their community.”
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Goldberg, a successful professional in the field of international business development, currently works for the Australian Embassy’s trade commission in Israel. He previously worked for the Israeli government and in the private sector.
Goldberg gives the example of a 16-year-old cyclist who is on the Israeli national team. The boy already has a volunteer coach, but was flunking out of school. The Ariela Foundation got him tutors and helped him bring his grades up to a 90 average. They bought him the equipment he needed and they connected him to a mentor who was able to guide him out of a potential setback when his brother was arrested.
Dese studies at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music near Tel Aviv. To her, the most important aspect of the program is the mentoring. Mentors teach her practical things, like how to make and stick to a budget, and give her guidance and encouragement in pursuing her music career — something her parents can’t do.
Dese’s parents walked from Ethiopia to Sudan on their way to the Operation Moses airlift in 1984. They lost two children in the trek through the desert and have six surviving children. Aviva was born in Israel, and she said there is still a vast cultural divide between her and her mother — her father died five years ago.
The Ariela Foundation requires its students to give back, and Dese is excited about becoming a mentor to younger students. She is thinking about putting on a benefit concert.
She has high expectations for herself, she says, because the Foundation demands it.
“They expect you to really want it, to really be in it and to work hard for it, and not just take the money and go,” Dese said. “It’s a relationship. They need to know that you want it as much as they want it.”
Nofar Mekonen and Aviva Dese visited Los Angeles to talk about all that the Ariela Foundation has given them.