Youth Charts Future for Ethiopian Jews

For most of the last hour in this bomb shelter-cum-multipurpose youth room in Ashdod, Israel, Avivit Sabat has been sitting quietly, her long arms and legs folded protectively across her body. Her hair, pulled tight in a low bun, highlights her delicately defined 17-year-old beauty.

Once or twice she twists around to smile or whisper to someone, or she nods at a particularly biting truth as told by her friends, all of them Ethiopian Jewish teenagers who founded and run an advocacy group.

"What motivates you?" an American guest with the Wexner Heritage Foundation asks. "What gives you the strength to fight for both elders and children?"

The words spill from Sabat in a quiet torrent: "When we were little we suffered from all sorts of things because our parents couldn’t speak Hebrew and didn’t know the culture," she says in Hebrew. "We are trying to do for others what our parents would have done for us if they had been able."

Sabat and her colleagues are members of a pivotal generation for the Ethiopian Jewish community, which refers to itself as Beta Israel. Born in Israel or primarily raised in Israel, the generation now coming into adulthood was the focus of much of Israel’s early efforts at acculturation and education. They now have the ability to define where Beta Israel — which now numbers 85,000 — finds its place in the State of Israel.

With the spark of Zionism and the wrenching romance of their journey across the Sudan and to Jerusalem still very much alive, this generation is faced with a harsh reality of poverty, substandard education, racism and a rich heritage that is being acculturated into obscurity, if not oblivion.

Teenagers and young adults like Sabat are confronting these problems, and their success or failure can determine whether Beta Israel becomes an Israeli underclass or the ultimate Zionist success story.

Sabat is a member of Noar Tesfa, a 3-year-old group founded and run by 15- to 18-year-olds in Ashdod, whose name mixes the Hebrew for "youth" and the Amharic for "hope." Eight of the founders sat down recently with American and Israeli members of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, a Jewish leadership program.

"We saw the troubles of our community, and we organized ourselves because the establishment takes advantage of our weaknesses," said Daniel Azanega, 17. "The community doesn’t know what rights they have."

Three days a week, the teens volunteer their time to tutor younger kids and help them with homework. They have taken on a local school’s segregated classrooms by going to both municipal authorities and the local and national media. They are working to reopen a local library and are fighting to keep open the community center where they meet.

"Our group is a shield for the community," said Babu Ayelleyn, who just graduated high school. "If the system wants to do something for the community, they have to talk to us. If they do something negative, they have to face us."

This attitude is somewhat foreign in the Ethiopian culture of graciousness, where elders go out of their way to thank Israel for its tremendous courage and unprecedented generosity in the Ethiopian aliyah, which began in earnest in the early 1980s and tapered off in 1993, highlighted by two dramatic airlifts in 1984 and 1991.

But the kids have caught on to the Israeli chutzpah that is necessary to get things done, even if means turning on its head the traditional reverence for elders that was an integral feature of Ethiopian village life.

Shula Mola, until recently the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), thinks the aggressiveness is necessary for Ethiopians to pull themselves up the socioeconomic ladder.

"It took us a while to realize the whole system in Israel is very different. We didn’t know we can ask things from the government," said Mola, 31, who was with IAEJ for nine years before she was selected to receive a full scholarship to study educational leadership at the Mandel School in Jerusalem. "Today we can see more and more young people who have skills and understand the system, who understand organizing together and demanding rights."

Some of that effort has been hampered by what the community perceives as a growing tendency on the part of Israelis toward stereotyping, coupled with a paternalism in the way help is meted out.

"The bottom line today is that I would say a lot of Ethiopians feel that in Israel there is racism," Mola said. "We feel rejected from Israeli society. In the beginning everyone came to be with us — our people, reunited. At first there was a lot of trust and that is kind of broken now. There is a struggle to get them see that we are adults and have a lot to say."

It was an attitude Mola first sensed when at age 12 she arrived in Israel after walking barefoot across the Sudanese desert with her ailing brother on her back. Separated from mainstream Judaism for 2,000 years, the Ethiopian community has always longed to return to Jerusalem. With pre-Talmudic Jewish observance based almost entirely on the Bible through the later prophets and writings, the community may have its origins as the lost tribe of Dan, the descendants of Solomon and Sheba, or converts by the ancient Yemenite Jewish community.

"When we got here in the beginning, Israel was very happy about our aliyah and they gave us everything we needed — but basic things. They never realized that what we really wanted was an education," Mola said.

The Israelis reasoned that compared to the education and the lifestyle they had in Ethiopia, Mola added, being a mechanic or nanny was striving high enough.

Today, more than 6 percent of Ethiopians drop out of high school, double the national average. Less than 30 percent — half the national average — pass the Bagrut (matriculation) exam necessary to get into university. More Ethiopian children rank below grade level in Hebrew, math and reading, and there are twice as many Ethiopian juvenile delinquents than among other Israelis.

That is why the focus of nearly all the Ethiopian advocacy groups is youth and education — after-school tutoring programs for elementary school kids; programs to get students into academic rather than vocational high schools; drop-in centers for at-risk youth and programs to train mediators to help kids, parents and schools communicate with each other. The Israeli government pays for college tuition for Ethiopians and with lobbying from IAEJ a few years ago created a steering committee for Ethiopians in the education system.

There have been some tremendous success stories, with Ethiopian doctors, lawyers and teachers working their way up and community empowerment on the rise. In January, social worker Negist Mengesha unsuccessfully ran for a Knesset seat under the Meretz Party banner. (Labor’s Addisu Messele has been the only Ethiopian MK thus far; he served one term about a decade ago.)

"On one hand the situation is better — more and more young Ethiopians are getting higher education and a chance to get onto the Bagrut track. You see more Ethiopians realize that if they want to be part of society they have to get more education," said Mola, who has a masters from Hebrew University. "But you also see the bad things more and more, even stronger than the good things — kids drop out of school because they don’t trust the system and the schools."

The hope is that education can pull them out of the poverty common in most families, such as that of Daniel Azanega, the Noar Tesfa member who invited his American guests into his family’s third-floor walk-up in a poor neighborhood in Ashdod. Born in Israel, Azanega is about to repeat 11th grade, but has high hopes for eventually matriculating.

His father, who like many Ethiopians was a subsistence sharecropper, hasn’t worked since they arrived in Israel nearly two decades ago.

About 70 percent of all Ethiopian families have no incoming salary, a statistic whose implications are about to become more dire with Israel’s harsh budget cuts. More than 70 percent of Ethiopian children live below the poverty line and 90 percent of homeowners live in distressed neighborhoods, despite government efforts to prevent such concentrations when in 1988 it began granting Ethiopian immigrants enough money to cover a mortgage.

Despite the extreme poverty, Azanega and his family are happy to be Israelis. Their home is small but brightly decorated with a confusion of Israeli, European and Ethiopian decor. So many family members and friends come and go that one can easily imagine this as an open hut in a tight-knit village.

Azanega looks on with pride when his father pulls out the crude wooden plow he once tied to his oxen to till the mountainous fields in his village. He is eager, too, for his sister to perform the traditional coffee ceremony, where the aromas of roasted beans and incense are said to diffuse bad spirits, where each visitor gets three cups of slowly stirred sweet brew — enough sipping time to cover the issues of the day.

"You can be an Israeli, but you always have to remember where you come from," Azanega said, slowly breaking apart a piece of popcorn — a traditional Ethiopian food. "You have to remember your culture and your source — that’s what roots you."

Like many of his colleagues in Noar Tesfa, Azanega is proud of his Ethiopian heritage, though his knowledge of that heritage is minimal.

"The sense is growing that it is not enough to know that you came from Ethiopia and to look like an Ethiopian, but they need to identify as Ethiopians," said Shoshana Ben-Dor, Israel director of North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. "But they don’t entirely know what that means, and they haven’t really been taught."

If Azanega’s concern for his culture underlies his work, what is at the surface is a practical commitment to improve everyday life for his community, both in the immediate and long-term sense. Azanega, Sabat and their colleagues are aware that their actions will reverberate for years to come: Will the community integrate successfully into Israeli society, or will it become a permanent Israeli underclass?

They aren’t ready to leave much to chance, and this group of 16- to 18-year-olds heading toward graduation and army service just started training a group of 12-year-olds to take over their work.

Says Bruno Bhiatha, a Noar Tesfa member, "We understand that if we don’t make changes, no one will."