ADL’s ‘Dream’ Team Sweeps into L.A. Schools

An Asian-American Fairfax High School student asks Ethiopian-born Taktu (Rachel) Yasu how long it took her to learn English. An African-American classmate wants to know if she encountered racism in her native Israel. Another African-American senior inquires if there are any Jews left in Ethiopia. After two weeks touring schools in the L.A. Unified School District and meeting students face to face, Yasu is used to these questions by now.

Yasu is one of eight students visiting from Israel under the auspices of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Children of the Dream” program. The ADL views the Ethiopian-Israelis as the natural choice to increase understanding between Jews and other ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans.

“Children of the Dream” began in L.A. six years ago and has since expanded to cities nationwide, including Detroit and Washington D.C.

The visit to schools like Fairfax High is only Phase I of the ADL’s program. Phase II will send a cross-section of American students of various ethnicities to Israel to become better acquainted with the environment within which the Ethiopian-Israelis thrive, and Phase III will create a structure where local Jewish students will get together with local students of color on a monthly basis to work together on a community project. The aim is to create dialogue and defuse the impulses that create racial hatred and anti-Semitism.

Accompanying the Ethiopian students from class to class is Phyllis Gerably, assistant director of ADL’s Israel office in Jerusalem, who herself made aliyah years ago, from her native Santa Barbara to Israel, where she now lives with her family.

In Jeff Jolna’s British History honors class, the Fairfax High seniors listened with rapt attention as Yasu, 21, told the class about her personal ordeal, fleeing at age 5 with her family from her native Ethiopia — which refused to let its Jews leave the country — and walking for two months to Sudan, where Ethiopian Jews were housed in refugee camps. Yasu recounted how the Mossad, as part of Operation Moses, helped shuttle the Ethiopian Jews covertly into Europe — through Rome and Paris — before delivering them to safety in Israel.

The Fairfax students mingled with Yasu and her friend, 18-year-old Twodaj (Ahuva) Ayelin, as they swapped questions regarding tastes in music and entertainment. Several boys even invited them out to lunch and a basketball game.

“It’s sad that we don’t have a deeper connection with Africa… ” said Fairfax student Helena Perry, 16. “As African-Americans, we lack that advantage. I don’t even know which tribe I’m from,” said Perry, who believes that slavery helped disconnect black Americans from their African heritage.

An interesting by-product of the cultural exchange came about when Jolna encouraged his own students to introduce themselves. Through humor, Jolna, a gregarious New Yorker of Russian-Jewish origin, created an atmosphere of acceptance between his class and the visitors as he asked his predominantly minority students to share their cultural background with the Ethiopians. From this exercise, Yasu learned that many of the students sitting before her — at face value African-Americans and Latinos — were, in fact, multicultural in ethnicity. One boy’s parents originated from El Salvador and Turkey, while several African-American students were part Italian, Irish or Native American in heritage, and a Latina girl said she was half Hawaiian. When one of his students told the class that her parents each hailed from North and South Korea, Jolna jokingly inquired, “Do they get along?”

In addition to Fairfax High, the Ethiopian teens and twentysomethings made stops at eight other high schools: Venice, Bravo Magnet, Jefferson, L.A.C.E.S., Downtown Business Magnet, Kennedy, Jordan and Hamilton, where the visiting students sang with the high school’s gospel choir. Said Yasu of the L.A. students she has met over the last two weeks, “They are very curious… They all want to know how they treat us [in Israel]. That is the main question.”