Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Planning and Expectations

By: Jessica Crowell

Each Thursday, I travel to the youth outreach center in Beit Shemesh with fellow volunteer, Nisha Khorasi, to spend time with the Ethiopian-Israeli youth. During our first two visits, Nisha and I enjoyed meeting the kids and becoming familiar with the setup. On our third visit to Beit Shemesh, we were hoping to liven up the youth outreach center by incorporating our own activities and games to create a fun learning environment. We arrived with a plan. It was going to be an exciting and enriching experience.

Contrary to our expectations, the third Beit Shemesh visit did not go exactly according to plan. While we expected a dozen or so kids to be waiting at the Youth Outreach Center, we only found one. Thursdays, equivalent to Friday afternoons in the United States, are slower than most days. When students are released from school on Thursdays, their weekends begin. Since our activities were meant for a larger group, we had to change our game plan a bit. We did not have plan B because we did not expect to be in this situation. As I tried quickly formulating plan B in my mind, the Ethiopian-Israeli boy approached us and smiled. We introduced ourselves and struck up a casual conversation about his background, his life and his interests over a game of pool. We shared music and videos, taking turns picking songs and singing along. He loves English, evident by the fact that we had very little trouble communicating. His maturity far exceeded my expectations of a boy his age and it was like talking to a peer. Our pleasant visit with him ended when another regular outreach attendee walked in the room. It was a girl and we met her once before. She came and sat next to us in the computer room, eager to practice her English-speaking skills. While her English proved to be much better than most of the youth we interact with at the outreach center, she told us that she is in the lower-level class at school. She expressed her desire to be in the upper-level class with her friends. Keeping this in mind, we implemented a new rule: No more Google translate. When she had trouble coming up with English words, we encouraged her to work around it and find a new way to express her thoughts. She was tempted to take the easy road and begged us to let her use the online translator, but we knew she could do it; She needed to believe it too. An hour or so passed and it was time for us to leave Beit Shemesh. It was a shame having to end our time with her so abruptly, but it was comforting to know that we were saying goodbye to a more confident girl. She was glowing with pride as we complimented her skills and encouraged her to keep practicing. After a few more hugs and thanks all around, our day was done. It was indeed an exciting and enriching experience.

As I reflect on this visit, I consider the product of expectations, plans, outcomes and the ultimate goal. In various situations, people have an ultimate goal and create a plan to reach this goal based on expectations. When events begin to unfold, they do not always go according to plan and this can create an obstacle to successfully reaching the ultimate goal. I think about the journey that the Ethiopians took from their homeland to the Promised Land. They crossed the rough terrain of Sudan, thirsty and hungry, to reach Israel- that was their ultimate goal. Many Ethiopians were not aware of the dangers along the way and probably did not know what to expect; that was the risk they were willing to take. Their longing to reach the Promised Land drove them home without accurate expectations and without a sufficient plan.  To me, this reveals the type of character it would take to survive such a journey. The Ethiopians had to be strong, mentally and physically. They had to be flexible, ready to adapt to the unexpected barriers that lie ahead. They had to be resourceful, clever and optimistic. Above all, it was their strength, persistence and yearning for Jerusalem that allowed them to reach their ultimate goal. It is a character to be admired, as I can rarely survive a day without a set Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Maybe I can learn something from this reflection. Extraordinary events and meaningful experiences do not always follow a plan. While planning is definitely an much needed component to many tasks and efforts, I believe that certain characteristics, attitudes and the willingness to reach the ultimate goal are better indicators of a successful outcome rather than how closely one is able to follow the original plan.

As I continue visiting Beit Shemesh every Thursday, I hope that I continue to learn and grow from this experience as I have from the previous visits.  It is a pleasure to become more familiar with the population and I look forward to the remainder of my time volunteering with ENP. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

First Day Back. First Taste of Ethiopian Cuisine.

- Diane Samuels

It has been three years since I last was a volunteer at the Ethiopian National Project! Back in 2010, I was on a year-long study abroad program in Israel and decided to spend my Spring semester interning at ENP, where I learned about the rich culture and story of Ethiopians living in Israel. I am now a graduate student, studying in Jerusalem, and am very excited to start volunteering again for ENP.

Not only was today my first day back at ENP, but it was the first time that I have ever tried Ethiopian food (and I recommend trying it to those who have not yet tasted it!) At the ENP office, we ordered two vegetarian plates that came with injera. The food was delicious and after eating I was interested in researching more about the kinds of traditional foods eaten in Ethiopia.

Injera is a national dish in Ethiopia and eaten daily in almost every household. It is a flat bread with a spongy texture and a distinct sour-dough like taste and is made out of teff, a grain unique to Ethiopia. During the mealtime, injera serves as both a plate and utensils. We placed the different spiced vegetable stews in clusters (wat) on top of the injera and then tore off small pieces to then pick up bites the different vegetables to eat. The wat are the different types of stews that usually begin with chopped red onion, which is simmered or sautéed in a pot. Afterward, niter kibbeh (or vegetable oil in vegetarian dishes) and berbere, an Ethiopian spice, are added to give the dish its distinctive flavor. Niter kibbeh is a seasoned, clarified butter, while berbere is a mixture that includes powdered chili peppers and other spices. During my research, I also found out that Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hands – as I had not known this earlier, I ate with both of my hands.

Hopefully, this short glimpse into the world of traditional Ethiopian food will inspire those of you who have yet to taste it to try something new and learn more about a new culture in the best way possible – eating! And if you are so ambitious, you can even try to hunt down some of the traditional spices that give Ethiopian food its distinct taste and cook it for yourself or for friends.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Jerusalem Day and Remembrance Day for Ethiopian Jews: a failure of inclusion of Ethiopian-Israelis?

Written by:  Leoni Groot

Before 1967 Jerusalem was a divided city: Jordanian forces controlled the eastern part and the Old City, Israeli forces the western part. Like it is today, the Old City was important back then for strategic and religious reasons, yet Jewish citizens of Israel were prohibited from entering this area. During the Six Day war, Israeli forces captured the Old City, which resulted in a reunification of Jerusalem as part of the state of Israel.

Nowadays, citizens of Jerusalem and the rest of the country commemorate the reunification of the city every year on Jerusalem Day. During this day, memorials are held for those who died in the Six Day War. Every year, thousands of people come to the Old City to celebrate this important national day.

This year, Jerusalem Day was held on May 8th (the date changes every year, due to the Jewish Calendar) and I had the opportunity to experience this day--a day that has so much meaning to many Jews and that also meant a lot to the international politics of the Middle East.

However, this day is not only an opportunity to commemorate the city’s history during this war, but also an opportunity to remember those Ethiopians who died during the tough journey all the way through Sudan. The ceremony is held on Mount Herzl every year, because that is where the monument has been placed to remember their past.

Interestingly though, the ceremony was quite isolated in the sense of the group of people who attended it--I was one of the few white people there. How come? Is it a poorly-chosen day to hold the ceremony on, since other citizens are celebrating Jerusalem Day? Is it a sign of a divided society? Or is it a proof that Ethiopian-Israelis are still not fully part of the nation but a separated Jewish community?

With my lack of knowledge I cannot fully answer this question now. But one thing was clear to me: as a white girl I was the “other”. As at many public events in Israel, one cannot escape the security checks. Arriving there, I was asked by the security why I came to this ceremony. Apparently, telling them that I volunteer for the Ethiopian National Project was not enough; they asked me if I could prove this, but I couldn’t. “Do you know people who are already inside?” I replied that the other volunteers might already be there, and that I would be meet Grace, the director, inside. This answer still didn’t convince them; I had to show my passport and open my back for checking. While the girl from security was checking my passport I heard a familiar voice: “Hi Leoni! How are you?!” I looked up and saw that this familiar voice was Asher’s, the youth coordinator of the Youth Outreach Center in Petah Tikva who made the journey from Ethiopia to Israel himself. The security woman saw a black man with a big smile coming to me. She closed my passport, gave it back to me and exchanged few words with him. “It’s ok,” she said to me, “you can go in.” She let me through and I went to the seats where Asher told me the other kids of the youth center would be as well. Soon the ceremony started…

What is interesting about the situation described above is that the ceremony is created as a separated one by those who have are in charge of organizing it. Of course, one cannot deny that security in general already creates inclusion and exclusion: who is allowed to join the ceremony and who’s not? But the fact that it was not a problem for me once they saw that I knew this Ethiopian-Israeli man very well showed that this event was solely for Ethiopian-Israelis or for those who are directly related to this community. Any person that shows to be interested in the Jewish Ethiopian history and shows respect for their past is not necessarily immediately admitted. In this way, without letting Ethiopians share their past with other Jews, the Ethiopian-Israeli history is, in my view, kept as a unique story and a mechanism of exclusion: the Ethiopians remain excluded from the rest of the Jewish community (and therefore the rest of the Jewish community is also excluded from the Ethiopian-Israeli one). I think this is not only a disadvantage for Ethiopian-Israelis that are fighting to fully integrate into the society, but also a disadvantage for an already separated Israeli society.

In my opinion, organizations like ENP can do a lot to empower Ethiopian-Israelis, but as long as distinction exists, they will always be a ‘special group’ within the Jewish community, which will disadvantage them in all aspects of life. This is why I think that Remembrance Day for Ethiopians should be held on another day (despite the beautiful symbolic connection with Jerusalem Day) in order for it to become a day that also the rest of Israel can remember those Ethiopians who didn’t make it to Israel and to provide the rest of the society with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of their fellow citizens.

This might be step closer to a successful multicultural society.

Tutoring: Day One

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I arrived at the Rechavia Gymnasia school on Tuesday, especially since I didn’t know who I was going to be working with or what we would be working on. When I met my first student, however, Rivka (pseudonym), my anxieties disappeared. Rivka is a 7th grade Ethiopian-Israeli girl who greeted me with a smile and almost immediately started asking me questions about myself. I could tell that she was fascinated from the moment that I told her I was from the United States, and that I went to school in New York. The Israeli kids have a fascination (as do kids around the world) with American pop culture—the celebrities, the music, the movies, etc, etc, etc. She basically tested my pop culture knowledge until she realized that I really don’t know much about it all…I am not a big fan of TV or movies (mostly because I just don’t have time to watch them), and most of the music that I like is definitely not what kids today consider “popular” music. However, even when she ran out of questions to ask me about pop culture, she continued to talk and ask other things as well, such as questions about my family and about learning languages. I told her I spoke Spanish and her eyes lit up—the other thing that Israeli kids are fascinated by here are “telenovelas”, the Spanish soap operas. I find that hilarious for a few reasons—for one, I’m surprised that they have telenovelas here, and secondly, that kids here watch them. I’m also surprised that they’re allowed to watch them! I’ve never seen these particular telenovelas, but I just know that American soap operas are not exactly kid-friendly, so I can’t imagine that these are much better, but I could be wrong.

I think Rivka could have talked all day if I hadn’t stopped her so that we could actually get to work. I hated that I had to stop her because I really think that talking is the best way to learn a language, but the reading and writing stuff is definitely important too, as is the grammar, so onto grammar we went. She was learning the future tense. We worked through her homework, getting sidetracked often due to her curious mind, and eventually finished. My next student was already ready when Rivka and I finished, so I quickly said goodbye to her and jumped right to student #2, hoping for as much success as I had seen in my first tutoring appointment.

My second student’s name was Sarah (pseudonym), and from the outset I could tell that she wasn’t nearly as comfortable with her English skills as Rivka was. I didn’t think it was going to be a problem, but soon I realized she didn’t even want to do as much as read outloud in English to me. I tried to convince her that the only way for her to improve was if she complied and read, but she just didn’t seem to want to do that. Thankfully, one of her friends had come over, and he spoke English almost perfectly, and for the next half an hour or so, he basically served as a translator for us. We got a bit of work done, but I was frustrated because I felt like even though her friend was helping, he was also distracting to her.

After her almost giving up twice, she finally gave in and decided to try complying rather than fighting against me. Once that happened, we got much more accomplished and she did really well! She and I worked quite a bit with the past tense, and I realized how ridiculous English really is—there are so many exceptions to the rule and so many words that just don’t read how they are written or don’t write how they sound. I felt really bad! It’s moments like those that I feel very grateful for having grown up with English as my first language, but at the same time, moments like those also reveal to me how little Hebrew I know (in trying to explain things like that to her) and how much I need to learn. Tutoring is a tough thing, especially when neither person has a firm grasp on the other’s language, but considering it was the first time, I think it went fairly well, and I’m looking forward to going back again next week!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Jerusalem, Commemorating the Bravery of a Pioneering Generation of Ethiopian Israelis

This blog was originally published to the Jewish Federations Of America website in honor of Jerusalem Day on May 8. Read it on their website »

-Amber Massey

I, like many other Jews in the Diaspora, had heard about the famed Israeli Independence Day, with its numerous fireworks, and barbecues. In fact, it sounded very similar to Independence Day celebrations in America. However, it wasn't until I arrived to Jerusalem for the first time almost two months ago that I learned about another national holiday – Jerusalem Day. What's even more unknown about this day, even in Israel, is the Ethiopian Jewish cultural significance of the day, as it is the date chosen to remember Ethiopian Jews who perished during their journey from the heart of East Africa to Israel during the mid-1980’s.

This memorial day was given yet greater significance when it was bestowed as a formal, national day of remembrance by the Knesset. The day is marked by a somber ceremony at the Memorial for Ethiopian Jews on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, held in the presence of the President of Israel, and often attended by the highest dignitaries, including the Prime Minister, Supreme Court Justices, and ministers of the Israeli government.

Israel Nat'l Photo Archive
Ethiopian Israelis visit the memorial at Mt. Herzl
"Why is the Remembrance Day held on Jerusalem Day?" someone asked me after I informed them of my plans to attend the ceremony on May 8.  Why? I didn't have an answer for her, since I am neither Ethiopian nor Israeli. However, I did recall a conversation I had with an Ethiopian-Israeli not too long ago. Being both of African descent and hailing from two different sides of the world, we were curious about each other's unique cultural experiences in the Diaspora. Then, the discussion moved to Jerusalem, and what it meant to be here, the land of our ancestors of whom we mention during prayers every Shabbat. It was one of those rare and honest interchanges that connected two strangers, fluent in two different languages, from two different cultures to a singular perspective: that our connection to the land was not necessarily influenced by the philosophies of Theodore Herzl; that our "Zionism" was less a political construction, and more a spiritual one based on prophesy and a promise... a promise of return to the Promised Land, to Zion, to Jerusalem. To be here in Jerusalem, to feel the Jerusalem stone beneath our feet as we prayed at the Kotel, to breath the mountainous air of Mount Zion – just to be here was a blessing that only a few generations ago was an impossibility or just a dream.

Israel Nat'l Photo Archive
Ethiopian Israelis face challenges, but are
immersed in all aspects of Israeli life
And so, there is no better day than Jerusalem Day to remind the new generation of Ethiopian-Israelis of the dream and strength of their elders, and of their responsibility to continue their own path to success by striving to overcome the social and economic challenges their communities faces here in Israel. These youth – they are paving the way for their communities and for Jews of African descent across the Diaspora who still hope and pray to see Jerusalem.

The multicultural significance of this community's presence in Israel is why I am choosing to stand with the community at Mount Herzl on Wednesday, and what will continue to inform my work with the Ethiopian National Project (ENP) this summer. My connection to the progress of Ethiopian-Israelis is intertwined with the hopes I have for my own family – my little cousins, my future children and grandchildren, for the children and grandchildren of my friends who are Jews of Color in the United States and in Israel. I hope that the next generation of Jews around the world can experience a Diaspora that knows that being a Jew breaks all color barriers, that each community within Israel has faced their own unique struggles, and that the face of success in Israeli society can be  black, tan, white, and any shade in between. I'm sure those who have worked and died to get here would want nothing less than equal opportunity in Israel, and I'm glad to help an organization that is dedicated to making my ancestral home a more inclusive, balanced, and diverse place to live.

The Rougher Edges of These Stories

This blog was originally published to the Jewish Federations Of America  website in honor of Jerusalem Day on May 8. Read it on their website »

- Violet Baron

Ethiopians on their way to Israel during a rescue operation 
The popular Israeli band Hadag Nahash has a song called “Hine Ani Ba” or “Here I Come,” which gives a sense of the contrast between Israel’s cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Starting out in Jerusalem, the song’s protagonist aches to get out of the ancient, religious city that he finds stifling, and to start a new life in the individualist Tel Aviv.  The catch is that once he’s there, he yearns to return to the eternal city from which he left, which he notes is more wholesome and pleasant to him than Tel Aviv.  Ultimately, he leaves again for Tel Aviv, because of its stress on happiness over piety—but the decision is not a simple one.  This struggle is accurate—Jerusalem is a city apart, and cannot be easily compared with any other city in Israel, or in the world.
Some non-natives equate Jerusalem with Israel itself, viewing this ancient and religiously focused city as a microcosm of the Jewish State.  This perspective does not take into consideration Israel’s secular and socialist beginnings, dominated by the Labor Party for several decades.  It was not until more recent years that religion rose to the forefront of Israeli politics, with Ultra-Orthodox residents rising exponentially in number and demanding more out of the government.  However, for a short visit Jerusalem might appear just as it does in storybooks and in Jewish education: an enchanting Jewish city, with roots reaching back thousands of years.

When one arrives at the ancient wall around the Old City of Jerusalem, it’s hard not to be transported immediately to the Middle Ages, when a Walled City was something to take note of and turrets were a common, un-ironic architectural feature.  In fact, Jerusalem’s walled status does still have meaning in modern-day practice: Purim is celebrated a day later here, as it has been for centuries.  This ancient and Medieval Jewish medley blends with more recent innovations to the city:  shortly before sundown on Friday evening, a siren sounds throughout the downtown area, signaling the start of Shabbat.  At this point nearly all stores are closed and the streets empty out, as many residents can be found in their homes, blessing the Sabbath and eating a traditional meal with their families.

A new visitor could be blown away by the cultural significance of the wall and siren, and forget Jerusalem’s other walls and sirens that have huge impact on the world we live in today. There is also, of course, the Western or Wailing Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple to which millions of Jews come to pray.  That wall is technically located in East Jerusalem, which brings to mind the Separation Wall between Israel Proper and the West Bank. This wall lacks the characteristic Jerusalem Stone, and it is a constant reminder of the tumult and tension of the region.  In addition, there is the national siren to commemorate those killed during the Holocaust and the fallen in Israel’s many wars and battles.  Finally, there is the Tzeva Adom missile warning siren, which those living in Israel heard too many times last November during the Amud Anan Operation with Gaza.  These sirens and that wall are less tourist-friendly but just as relevant to Israel’s history and future.  Someone who yearns to return to Israel, and to Jerusalem in particular, must learn to live with all of these things.

During the mass Exodus and migration of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980’s and 1990’s, thousands of African villagers crossed miles into Sudan on foot, seeking to escape their Marxist leader and reach the famed Jerusalem of legend; the Holy City that survived the Jewish Diaspora through story and prayer.  Many did not make it and perished along the way, while others survived the incredible journey but continue to struggle with poverty and culture shock in the modern city and elsewhere in Israel.  On Wednesday we honor Jerusalem and remember those Ethiopians who could not make it here.  We would do well to remember the rougher edges of these stories as well: the continuing challenges that our walls and sirens signify, and the Ethiopians who completed the physical journey here but are struggling daily for economic stability and success within Israeli society.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Education and also a lot of fun!

Written by: Leoni Groot

It has been a long time since I last wrote for ENP’s blog, but this is because I went to China for 3 weeks! It was a great experience and I had a really good time. I am so happy that ENP gave me the freedom and opportunity to take a break and travel somewhere else in the world. Now I am back with even more energy and enthusiasm!

So what has been going on since I came back? The day after I got back I immediately went to the office to resume my everyday routine again. Even though I “suffered” from jetlag, coming back to ENP that day was a good choice: it was great to see Grace after more than a month (she went to the States before I went to China) and to be involved with ENP again.
In the office, I continued working on the website. I am collecting all the data about the cities where ENP is operating in that I will put, eventually, on this webpage. It can be time consuming because I have to gather information from different sources (the Internet, ENP reports and other research reports), and there is not always a lot of information about the Ethiopian community in the smaller cities. However, it is still really interesting to read ENP’s reports and to realize how successful they have been so far. For example, they found out that after implementing the Scholastic Assistance program in schools, Ethiopian-Israelis have gotten significantly higher grades in the subjects in which they are receiving help. Not only that, but the average grade of the Bagrut exams of the youth that attend this project in some cities (like Afula) is higher than the average grade of other Jews. This is fantastic news!

Last Sunday I went back to the Youth Outreach Center in Petah Tikva. Even though there were only few kids there that day, I enjoyed it very much. I gave a class to just two girls this time, but it was so much fun, because they were really willing to learn. I created an exercise where they had to listen to a song by Tupac and fill in the missing words on the paper with the lyrics. Even though it was a little bit difficult for them, they were really trying their best. After playing the song a few times, I saw that they had done really well with the exercise. I explained words that they did not know by putting them in a different context or by explaining them with different words. One girl said that she had learned so many new words since she began taking these classes with me; I was really happy to hear that.
            After that, we discussed the lyrics more deeply and compared what this rapper said about the USA with Israel. Even though we finished the exercise after fifteen minutes of discussing, I stayed longer with the girls in the class. Later, another girl joined the class as well, because she was looking for a place to do her homework, and one of the girls helped her with it. I had a conversation with the other girl, and we drew cursive on the white board. I started to explain her that I am not living in Holland, but in the Netherlands, and I clarified the difference: Holland is made up of two provinces (North and South Holland) and the Netherlands is the name of the country as a whole. She wrote a summary of what she had learned with drawings on the white board (see photo). She finished her summary after I showed her a YouTube movie ( to help clarify even further. She found it really interesting to learn this, and she then explained it proudly to the youth coordinator and the other girl from the class (in English!).
Yesterday’s experience made me aware that I do not go there to teach them only English, but also to enrich the knowledge of those who are willing to learn more than just what is in their schoolbooks. Their happy faces after learning something new and their enthusiasm make me even more enthusiastic to go the this Youth Outreach Center twice a week to do something meaningful in the lives of these youths.