Thursday, March 17, 2011

My second day at the ENP Youth Outreach Center in Beit Shemesh

In addition to my internship at The Ethiopian National Project, I am also taking a course on The Ethiopian Immigration to Israel but I find the best way to learn about anything is actually through hands on experiences. I arrived in Israel on January 18th and since I have been in Israel I feel like I have learned more about the world, life and myself than I have thus far in college. Experience is the top method of learning and the sharing of stores is a part of that.

Yesterday, I had my second day at the ENP Youth Outreach Center in Beit Shemesh, which I will be traveling to once a week. The past two weeks we have predominately been working with Hailu, the center’s director, on his English. It is an extremely interesting experience to be teaching a language to someone whose language you are currently studying yourself. Hailu is very good in English but wants to gain more confidence in his speaking skills. We, meaning Danielle (another ENP volunteer) and I decided this last session that by simply talking about something common between us such as family would be a fantastic way for Heilu to practice his English.

Hailu begins to tell us his story about his family and a bit about his immigration to Israel. Hailu said that one day he came home from school and his family had all of their belongings packed and told him they were leaving that day for Israel. Heilu touched on the struggle of Ethiopian-Israelis of being fully accepted into Israeli society as Jews. The Ethiopian community’s status as Jews is constantly questioned which causes much understandable frustration. Hailu explained there are a variety of different responses to this discrimination; he explained many individuals become very patriotic but some also become turned off by Israeli patriotism because of the feeling of not being accepted. Heilu and all of his siblings served in the IDF. Hailu appears to be very proud to be an Ethiopian-Israeli but also can acknowledge many of the ways that the Ethiopian-Israeli community is disadvantaged in the state of Israel. One example is that next to the Youth Center there is an apartment complex of predominately Ethiopian-Israelis and Hailu pointed out to us a fallen tree that had been previously complained about for a long period of time as being dangerous but nothing had been done about it and one day the tree fell, ruining one of the apartments. However, Hailu remains positive and is obviously so committed to the youth that attend the Youth Center and committed to finding a balance between not throwing away his Ethiopian culture but also adjusting to mainstream Jewish society in Israel.

Immigration is an extremely complicated process; a difficult balance is necessary between retaining your home culture, integrating into the dominant culture and acceptance by the dominant culture. I look forward to meeting with Hailu on a weekly basis and learning more about his story.

- Sarah Brammer-Shlay

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rabbi Theodore Stainman tells a story...

I just had one of the most fascinating and informative discussions of my life. I have come to Israel to help with the Ethiopian National Project. This is an organization set up to help the immigrants from Ethiopia successfully integrate themselves into Israeli life. It operates youth centers, after school programs and social services for the immigrant community and is sponsored by the Israeli government and donations from various Jewish sources around the world. Many North American Federations are sponsors of the work of the ENP.

Since every student in Israel has to pass an examination in, among other subjects, English, there is a need for additional help with this area of study- By the way English is an incredibly difficult language if you are not a native speaker.

Its rules, grammatical exceptions and sounds are very challenging for those who are not familiar with it. Nevertheless, English is the international language and the key to the world culture we take for granted. Possessing an understanding of, and fluency in English is a door through which every student and educated person in Israel must pass.

My job here is to help high school students review their English language assignments and do their homework. Additionally, I have been sitting with the core of professional social workers and community organizers who also want to improve their command of English, simply by sitting and practicing English with a native speaker.

This is how I heard the story I am going to tell you about. It concerns the history of the Jewish community of Ethiopia and how they first came to make a mass immigration to Israel in the 1980’s and continue to come to this day.

First a little history: Ethiopia is in Eastern Africa across the Red Sea from Arabia and located south of Sudan and north of Somali. It is a dangerous and unstable part of the world. The fact that there were Jews living there was almost entirely unknown to Western Jewry until late in the 19th century. These Jews survived in Ethiopia for hundreds if not thousands of years and developed a unique religious tradition which did not include the rabbinic period nor the Talmudic literature. They had the Torah but not the post Biblical literature that we have come to associate with Judaism. Nonetheless, they thought of themselves as a separate people, distinctive from the other religions and communities of Ethiopia; they felt and knew they had a connection to the Jewish people whose roots were the land of Israel.

So how did this community come to make a mass immigration to Israel beginning in the 1980’s? I want to pick up the narrative as it was explained to me by one of the social workers in an Ethiopian community center. It is a wonderful story of courage and hardship that equals in many ways the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people in the Bible. It will even, I think, enter the historical narrative of the people of Israel.

Around 1980 one of the leaders of the Ethiopian community in Ethiopia had heard that Israel had come into existence and he wanted to go there. So he walked to the Sudan and made contact with a representative of the Red Cross. There he handed this official a letter in which he stated that he is Jewish and wished to go to Israel. The official forwarded the letter to the Israeli government. Sudan was and is a Muslim country and does not have official relations with Israel. In fact, it is hostile to Israel. When the letter reached the Israeli government they sent agents to secretly investigate the issue of the Ethiopian Jews and after doing so decided to assist in their immigration to Israel. This would have to be done secretly and with great care since movement of Jewish people in this area and any Zionist activity could not be publicly acknowledged.

Some understanding with the government of Sudan was made that if Jews could reach the Sudan they could be air lifted to Israel. But the Jewish community of Ethiopia had to get to The Sudan first. And now the great narrative begins.

By the thousands, these people who had lived in Ethiopia for centuries left their lands and possessions and walked hundreds of miles across dangerous and hostile countryside to arrive at camps. There they would be gathered and taken to Israel to join their fellow people. Many died on the way. There was little protection for them and when they arrived to the camps there was little in the way of provisions, food, shelter and medicine for them. The narrator of this story told me his mother died in the camp because of a lack of sanitation and medicine. He was four when his family made the journey and he only remembers riding on his father’s shoulders and sometimes on a donkey but mostly walking.

It turned out that the Israeli government was able to get the Ethiopian Jews out of the Sudan by paying a very large sum of money to the Sudanese government and that this would, of course, have to be completely secret. But it was done and the Jewish Ethiopians were airlifted to Israel.

This was too large a movement of people and when word got out that it was going on, the government of Sudan shut down the operation. Unfortunately, not everyone was able to get out and some even had to return. These people have been coming to Israel in smaller numbers ever since. Approximately 4-5 thousand Jews remain in Ethiopia and they every year a few hundred leave and migrate to Israel.

There are now approximately 116,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin in Israel. They were rural people and mostly farmed the land. It has been a hard adjustment for them to live in Israel. Traditions practiced for hundreds of years no longer work. Authority in families have been upset and further, all the ills and vices that result in an immigrant community are present.

Despite the problems, there are success stories as well. Ethiopian children are going to school, receiving an education, and moving on to many professions. Students are entering colleges and learning skills for the modern world. In the army, an important aspect of Israeli life, they are taking their place and rising in the ranks to become leaders and mentors. But, most important they are now here and are living regular lives, taking wives and husbands and having children; entering the main stream of life and becoming part of the Israeli one.

It is a wonderful community finding its place in the world, in a new home, and it deserves all support.

Ted Stainman is currently a volunteer at ENP, helping the Ethiopian community in Netanya, Israel and assisting the program and the youth reach its goals for the year. Better known as Rabbi Theodore Stainman, he was born in New Brunswick, NJ and attended Rutgers University graduating with a BA in History in 1964. He studied for a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel and returned the United States to enter the Hebrew Union College in New York City from which he was ordained a rabbi in the Reform Tradition in 1970. Following ordination he entered the United States Air Force as a military chaplain and remained in that capacity until his retirement in 1993. Following his active duty he moved to Seattle, Washington where he was the rabbi of congregation Bet Chaverim for the period, 1995-2005. He returned to Colorado in 2005 and became associated with congregation Or Hadash in Fort Collins. He also serves as a part time chaplain for the Denver Hospice.

Rabbi Stainman is married to Barbara and has two grown children and four grandchildren.
His interests include archaeology, military history and cooking.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Opportunity in Ramla

On my first day as an Intern at the Ethiopian National Project in Jerusalem, I was given the amazing opportunity to join a visit by the Neveh Shalom Synagogue Community of Portland to Ramla. Ramla is a very multicultural city and has a predominately low socioeconomic class and I was excited to have the chance to go and visit ENP's school-based scholastic assistance program, a free after-school program for Ethiopian-Israeli teens to help them achieve better grades in school. I discovered that for many, this is the only extracurricular activity they can attend due to the expense of other programs. Before the program began, I was able to sit and chat with the teenagers; we talked about their favorite American and Israeli Musicians. They were impressed that I spoke Hebrew and that I could sing along to some of the Israeli songs they had on their cell phones. They then began to explain to me the kind of help that the program gives them - math, English and even the chance to participate in a music activity.
One teenager, Rahl* shared with me, “This program is so important because it is the first time people see us as a face and not as a race.” This almost brought me to tears. At this point I realized how vital this program is to Ethiopian children. The staff truly care about each and every students and inspires them to reach full their potential regardless of race. As I spoke further with Rahel, I discovered that she wants to be a doctor and that she is a fluent-Amharic speaker.
She mentioned that she enjoys learning languages and that the ENP Scholastic Assistance program has helped her greatly with her English. She also shared with me that some of her family who had immigrated to Israel, returned to Ethiopia because they didn’t acclimatize to Israeli society and that they missed Ethiopia. This is why I am glad that the Ethiopian National Projects exists, to empower Ethiopian teenagers to be comfortable in Israeli society and to become citizens that can give back to their country. ENP's activities in Ramla are made possible with the generous support of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Not As Different As We Think

Israel is seen around the world as a home for Jews. That picture of a country of Jews typically paints itself in a way that is far from the truth. In America the majority of Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning Jews that descended from Eastern European countries. I personally can count on my hands how many Jews I know in America that has a family history not deriving from one of these countries. When in the United States I live in the metropolitan city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, have always attended school in the city and therefore live a life full of diversity. However, my Jewish community was not as internally diverse and therefore I, as well as most of the United States, applied the same expectation of diversity in the Minneapolis/St Paul Jewish community unto Israel. This is my second visit to Israel and I continue to be amazed by the diversity of people living in this country.

Last week, I began my internship at the Ethiopian National Project with a mission where around ninety Jewish women from North America came to Israel for only five days on a philanthropic focused trip. One of their stops was an Ethiopian-Israeli youth center in Kiryat Motzkin that ENP runs and funds. This youth center facilitates after school activities for Ethiopian-Israeli teenage youth with the intention of raising graduation rates among this community. Some of these activities are structured but also the center serves as a safe-haven for these youth. When first entering the center I could immediately see that for many of these youth this was home. They felt totally comfortable there either hanging out around the computers or just sitting around chatting and laughing. It was easy to tell that the center was an extremely positive environment for them to spend their days after school. It was so interesting for me to witness the youth speaking Hebrew and speak about their experiences in the synagogue and as a Jew. Even though I know these youth are Jewish, I am still getting over my previous narrow view of what a Jew looks like and still pleasantly surprised and amazed by all the religious and cultural similarities Ethiopian Jews have to Ashkenazi Jews in the United States. It was very interesting at one point when the North American women were interacting with the youth; I overheard one of the women say to one of the youth. "Well we are all Jewish" and gave the young man a big hug. It is so incredible that people from such incredibly different cultures are able to connect so quickly because of the fact they share a common bond as Jews.

During the time the women were visiting we led an activity between the youth and women where they split into groups and walked around the immediate area both inside and outside of the youth center looking to take pictures of representations of different themes such as Zionism, Judaism, something inspirational, colorful and a picture of the group.  Photography was chosen as the activity because the youth have been working with real cameras and learning to master camera skills.

I loved starting out my experience with The Ethiopian National Project actually working directly with the youth because I was able to see the amazing things that ENP does. Initially when walking in it was a little intimidating because I am only in level Bet in Hebrew and therefore there was a bit of a language barrier. However, as I got the confidence to speak Hebrew I was able to communicate with they better than I had expected. Their English is worlds better than my Hebrew and so we spoke our own combination of Hebr-ish through out the evening. I learned one thing remains constant no matter the culture; people love to make fun of my Minnesotan accent. As one of the youth asked where I was from and I responded Minnesota, he mocked me saying "Minesooota." We shared a laugh and I asked how he even knew to make fun of me and he responded through the popular television show "How I Met Your Mother." We not only as Jews but as human beings relate to all others no matter the cultural and language differences. I am extremely excited to continue my internship at ENP this semester and continue to learn more about this community, their culture, and their fairly new lives in Israel.