Saturday, November 7, 2009
My name is Sam Blake, and I'm currently studying abroad from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was given the opportunity to intern at the Ethiopian National Project this year, and my primary role will be writing about my experience in the youth centers and various ENP projects for this blog and other media outlets.
My first true experience with the ENP was a trip with the project's director, Grace Rodnitzki, to a youth center in Petach Tikvah, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Grace explained there was to be an American tour group coming to learn about the project and see it in action; this was important, she went on, largely because many of these people would be connected to various American Jewish organizations which provide funding crucial to the ENP's success. It was a great first opportunity for me to learn about the organization I would be contributing to for my time in Israel.
Along the 45-minute-ish drive from Jerusalem, Grace explained the project's purpose and goals. I'd known about the phenomenon of an almost-mysterious faction of Ethiopian Jews emigrating to Israel, but in my lifetime it was hardly more than that – simply a phenomenon. Now I was learning, and would soon see, the true, human element of this phenomenon which the ENP graciously and purposefully brings to the fore. The ENP, I discovered, had a mission. This mission was to improve the ongoing quest of the tens-of-thousands of Ethiopians living in Israel to assimilate and integrate into the culture while still maintaining pride in their own. But how to do this? By reaching out primarily to the youthful 13-18 age range, offering social and educational opportunities, with the ultimate goal that such efforts won't be needed in the future. I was indeed excited to arrive to the one-of-22 youth centers across the nation and see the project in action.
Grace and I arrived about an hour before the tour-group did, and I took the opportunity to explore the youth center. I first saw a playful and rowdy group of children energetically running about outside on the paved basketball court, with the refreshingly carefree aura only children playing can bring. Moving inside the two-story building, I met the two leaders of the center, Eli Melech and Meir. I would soon learn they had come from Ethiopia in the 1984 Operation Moses, following an epic journey from shepherd-life in Ethiopia through the dangerous Sudanese desert (please check out our website, ENP.org.il, for a detailed account of this journey). I saw the rooms filled with flat-screen computers, the big-screen television, the cultural music-room; I saw the walls lined with school-papers marked with high grades and group photos with smiling faces chronicling tastes of what the ENP can offer. Soon enough, the group arrived, and the interaction to follow was touching and momentous.
There I saw two cultures from essentially opposite ends of the spectrum collide. The subsequent smiles on the children's faces and the keen intrigue and joy of the American guests during the Q&A (from both sides) interaction told the story. The phenomenon of the Ethiopian plight unfolded and became real before their, as well as my own, eyes, through the endearing means of the youthful and warmhearted teens who sat with us. It wasn't long before the older group was doing their best to keep up with the Ethiopian cultural dance that was so patiently and proudly taught by the youth. At times what was discussed didn't evoke the most pleasant of feeling, such as Eli Melech's recount (eloquently translated from Hebrew-to-English by Grace) of his desert journey, but such moments too illuminated the cause for which the ENP stands. The time went by quickly, and it seemed like I'd only just arrived that the group dispersed and it was time to head back to Jerusalem. As I made my way out of the youth center, multiple Ethiopian children playfully chatted with me, as they'd seemingly gradually warmed up to the idea of my presence. It was not only a nice opportunity to practice my Hebrew, but a touching moment, one which brought the whole notion of what the ENP seeks to do to an even more personal and true level. I left eager to return and learn and see more about these fascinating, real, and tremendous lifestyles and stories.
**A shout-out to the Jewish Federation of the Greater Houston area, sister-city of Petakh Tikva and integral in the running of the ENP youth center there**