operation moses

It is with a bit of a struggle that I have tried to put this post together, but I wanted to try to write it sooner than later.  Throughout my blog, I have mentioned time and time again how the families that we are working with have endured a very long, difficult road in order to get where they are today. 

Most of these personal stories are untold, and I think that has made it hard for the outside community to truly understand what the Ethiopian-Israelis have gone through.  We have had the opportunity to listen to bits and pieces of peoples’ stories of their travels to Israel. I hope through this post it will become a little clearer as to why the Ethiopian Jewish community is so special, as well as shed light on why their stories don’t necessarily define who they are, but rather reinforce their strength and courage as a people. 

While we were in Rishon Le’zion this past weekend, we heard Samuel’s (name changed for privacy purposes) personal story.  Samuel lived a fine and happy life as a young kid growing up in Ethiopia.  Like many Jewish families in Ethiopia, his family lived in a remote village with no electricity or running water.  His whole life he was told of a wonderful place the Jews in Ethiopia had only dreamed of – the dream of one day living in Jerusalem. 

In order to make this dream a reality, during the year of 1984, Samuel and 52 of his family members began a 10-month journey to Israel. This journey, deemed Operation Moses, was the long trek from Ethiopia, through to Sudan and then secretly airlifted by the Israeli government and Mossad up through Europe and back down to Israel.  

These operations and journeys are not what most would consider a “typical” immigration. Hundreds of Ethiopian Jewish families picked up what they could, grabbed their horse and stock and walked, and walked and walked thousands of miles through the desert for days and nights on end.

As they traveled through the desert, the days became longer and the heat became hotter. Due to the danger of the treks, the families were extremely vulnerable to robbery and kept much of their walking for the night.  Samuel’s family sewed their money to the inside of the children’s clothing so when they encountered bandits, their money would be safe.  

There was a tremendous amount of disease and morbidity during these treks and it took the lives of many people – some due to heat exhaustion or malnourishment, some due to getting lost and never returning to camp or others who lost the strength to go any further.  By the time Samuel’s group reached Israel, they had lost three family members along the way, bringing their group down to 49 people.  It is commanded in Jewish law to give Jews a proper burial, but during the treks it reached a point where so many people were dying that their family members had to bury their bodies anywhere they could find.
Due to this, many Ethiopians are still mourning to this day. They may not know what happened to their family, they may not know how they died or where or if they are even buried. At the time, all they knew is that they needed to keep going to make it to Israel.

Samuel's family arrived to Israel approximately 10 months after beginning their journey.  They built their lives and Samuel went on to graduate high school, and then join the Israeli Defense Force as a paratrooper.  In 1991, he was asked to be part of Operation Solomon and helped to airlift thousands more Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to Israel.  Since the late 1970’s, these treks and various national operations have brought approximately 100,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.  Samuel's story is just one of many, and he is an incredible example of the strength and courage of the Ethiopian people. 

As you can imagine, this community is having a very hard time immersing into the many facets of Israeli society.  I’ve come to realize though that it is the roots of this community that hold them together, and without knowing and accepting those roots, it seems it will be very hard to move forward.  These stories need to be told and this community needs to be heard.  I know it will take time, but I also know that in order for us to understand more, we need to hear more.

When I was accepted to the Yahel Social Change Program I had some sort of idea of the kind of work I was going to be doing or people I would be meeting, but as I stated in one of my previous posts, this trip has become much more than that.  Over the past few weeks, I have been attempting to find the place where my expectations of the program meet my actual experience here in Gedera.  Throughout my time here, I am trying to see the world through the eyes of our Ethiopian counterparts - the special people with whom we our connected to this community.  Besides the volunteering that I am doing and the relationships that I am building, I feel I am responsible for much more.  So I will be using this blog to not only document my experiences, but also to shed light on the history, issues and feats within this community.  As time goes on, I hope to share some more personal stories as well as the issues that we are learning about along the way.  If you ever have any questions or comments about anything I write, please, please ask me.  I want this blog to act as an on-going conversation…

taken from my first experience at mercaz klitah merchaviya (an ethiopian absorption center in merchaviya, israel) in 2007


it takes a village to raise a child.

Since I last wrote, the Yahelnikim (the Hebrew word describing us as Yahel program participants) started what we were brought here to do…volunteer! As our orientation period concluded, we all looked forward to getting our hands a bit dirtier and actually beginning our work in the community.

To begin, my normal week from now on will look like a little something like this:

Sundays: usually set aside for group block activity, volunteer work or study tours around Israel
Monday-Thursday afternoons: I will either be working with the Homework at Home program, at the Youth Center or with my specific individual group of kids
Monday and Thursday mornings: I will be working in my individual placement in the FBN home office
Tuesday morning: Yahelnikim go to Ulpan for Hebrew language study
Wednesday morning: We have a Beit Midrash session and/or speakers regarding our topic for the month – this month’s is “roots”
Friday and Saturday: I usually tour around and visit friends and family around the country…every weekend is free except for the last weekend of every month

FBN headquarters
As I just quickly mentioned, each Yahel participant has an individual placement around the community in addition to our other volunteer work.  I am working in the FBN home office with the communications and development team of two people.  I was so eager to begin my work with them this week because this project taps right into my exact background and skills.  My past training and exposure in journalism, graphic design, public relations and grant writing will really help me give all I can give to FBN during my time here in Gedera.  This week I conducted research on the link between youth envisioning their future as a factor in staying out of trouble and the connection between at-risk youth succeeding in poverty and the presence of a community role model in their lives.  These findings will be used as support in the grant proposals that FBN submits.  My individual project will entail creating a photo-bank on the organization’s server, creating and designing a newsletter/one-pager, re-designing the brochure and website, creating a social media presence for FBN and helping to write better English materials. I appreciate the opportunity that Yahel and FBN are giving me to work on these materials – it’s really right up my ally. 

This week we had the pleasure of hearing from Professor Hagai Erlich from Tel Aviv University on Ethiopian roots.  He has studied the Ethiopian connection to Israel for about 40 years, so we were all very interested in hearing everything he had to say.  One of the things we talked about was how Judaism was alive in the Ethiopian countryside for many, many years, but when Jews left the countryside and came to the cities, they quickly converted to Christianity.  In order to stay a Jew in Ethiopia, you needed to stay in remote areas.  After talking about where Jews stood throughout Ethiopian history, we had a very interesting conversation about what it is to live in Israel and to be Ethiopian.  Many Ethiopian youth in Israel are ashamed of their roots, mostly because they don’t know about them.  One of FBN’s main missions is to connect youth to their Ethiopian roots so that they can better succeed in Israeli society.  For my readers who can relate, this conversation begged the question…what does it feel like to be a Jew in America?  Would you refer to yourself as a Jewish-American or an American-Jew?

preparing for the "happening"
Our main task while in Gedera is working with the FBN staff on creating and implementing programs around the community.  We have participated in numerous staff meetings where we prepared skits to introduce the youth of the community everything that will be happening this upcoming year.  Because it is the beginning of the school year, the Yahelnikim arrived just in time to be a part of it all. This past week was the big “happening” as they like to call it, which was a start-of-the-new-year opening event at the youth center (a small trailer in the middle of the community).  

We performed skits introducing all of the programs that the kids could sign up for such as: Homework at Home, hiking guide and leadership training, international summer camp preparation and all of the youth center activities available to the community.  In addition, the musical styling's of the FBN youth music program, Anshe Aish Kolot, performed a few songs.  It was a great chance to see the energy and potential of the Gedera community – also a great chance to see all of the hard work that FBN has been doing over the past few years.

anshe aish kolot performing

The Garin in Gedera also held a country-wide staff training this week where youth leaders in other communities came here for a few hours to learn various leadership strategies, bounce ideas off one another and participate in bonding or group activities that they can then bring back to their respective communities.  It was something special to meet the youth leaders and staff from communities around the country.  These leaders implement community-wide youth programs in their Ethiopian communities much like we do here in Gedera.

This past Thursday, I did my first ever Homework at Home session.  I was pretty nervous about it because I was unaware as to how much English the kids would know or even how much Hebrew the parents would know.  This first experience was quite the culture shock... 

As I walked with Ziva, the head of the Homework at Home program, into my first apartment, we both stopped in our tracks as we walked through the door.  I had never seen anything like it.  We couldn’t see the floor, the couch, the table or the chairs because things, clothing, food, dishes and trash were piled up so high.  The kids weren’t wearing any clothes besides for their undergarments and the TV was blasting in the small room.  I had no idea how I was going to conduct an English session, let alone a conversation, in this setting.  Ziva looked at me as though she was shocked as well. Because of the nature of this program, Ziva does not know many of these families, nor is she familiar with their apartments prior to the first day of tutoring.  I was supposed to have two kids that day, so we took the young boy out of his apartment and took him with us to his friend’s apartment instead.  We went to the next apartment building and it was there that we played games, practiced some English and Hebrew words and where the second boy showed me his and his brothers’ unbelievable artwork.  What was most special about this first visit was that as soon as I walked in, the mother turned off the television and we all went into a back storage room and sat on a makeshift bed tucked in the corner.  We began by playing a game where I asked the boys questions in English and they responded in Hebrew and then vice versa. 

Ziva has tried to prepare us for anything.  She told us that we might have to have the children do their homework on the floor because of the absence of a table, or we might have to bring our child a pencil because he/she didn’t know to have one or that we might go there and none of our kids show up – she tried to prepare us for anything and everything.  But, this part of my volunteer work is something that I feel that I cannot exactly be prepared for, but rather will just have to experience.  I am sure that as time goes on I will write more about my weekly sessions and experience with my two groups in much more detail.  For now I think it is this program that will challenge me the most – but it is also this program that I feel will be one of the most rewarding for the kids and for me.

the shapira neighborhood
It might be clear to you now that the Shapira neighborhood, which is the small street where mostly all of the Ethiopian families of Gedera reside, is facing many socio-economic difficulties.  This community is home to some of the most welcoming and warm people, but the hardship they face is very apparent.  It is a community that endured a great amount of tragedy prior to building their lives in Gedera, but also a community that has a lot of potential – it is an extremely humbling experience to be volunteering here and with FBN to help the community slowly work toward reaching that potential.  And as the title of my post states, the Shapira neighborhood is a wonderful example of how it takes village to raise a child…


life on ahaliya st.

Wow, where do I even begin? Every time I try to sit down and finish this post, it seems that I am either at a loss for words because so much has happened these past two weeks or at a loss for words because I don’t know what I could even write that would do the program justice…either way I am going to try to put into words my experience so far…

Upon returning from our camping trip, it was time for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah! This holiday celebrates the end of the past year’s cycle of reading the Torah, and the subsequent beginning of the next.  It is an exciting celebration where men (and in some communities, women) dance around with the torah and sing until the sun comes up.  In order to fully experience the Simchat Torah celebration – Gedera style – two of my housemates and I synagogue-hopped, meaning we traveled from synagogue to synagogue to experience how the different communities celebrated the holiday.  A large majority of the synagogues in Israel are orthodox, where the women sit separate from the men, and as the men danced, we chatted with the women, played with all of the babies and kids, and learned about the community.  That morning we made friends with the Rabbi’s wife, young girls and many community members and as we walk around town now and see so many familiar faces, it’s nice to know that we are part of such a wonderful community. All in day’s work…
We ended last week with a historical tour of Gedera and a Yahel-family Shabbat dinner.  We learned all about the efforts and men behind the scenes who helped form Gedera into the town it is now.  In 1884, nine idealistic men from Russia came to Israel and recognized the potential of Gedera and built the village from the ground up.  As we walked around and realized the historical significance of structures that are built right in our front yard, I quickly recognized how amazing it is and how lucky I am to be living in Gedera for some time – a real Israeli town that I haven’t experienced before. 

The Yahel program sits on a few guiding principles: humbleness, collaboration, cross-cultural, empowerment and sustainability.

Although these might seem like they are just “buzz words” – this program is truly unique in the fact that we are making each one of these principles come to life throughout our work in Gedera.  This program isn’t a typical American-led volunteer program to Israel that I have been a part of before, it is a program where we actually act as an extension to FBN, are paired up with our Ethiopian counterparts, are going into the Ethiopian homes doing educational work on our own and are attempting to speak the language of community empowerment – a language that I have never been exposed to before, and a language that is sometimes very hard to grasp.  I have been taking some time to think about what each of these words mean to me and how I will apply them to my time and experience in Gedera.  So, I will write more about this as the weeks go by, because it truly is the groundwork for the mission of Yahel. 

There are three main programs we will be working on while in the community.  One is the Homework at Home program, where I will be working in the Ethiopian homes by myself with one, two or maybe even three kids on their English homework.  Although this might seem simple, the Ethiopian children struggle greatly with their education.  The parents are not involved now that they live in Israel because the parents can’t speak English, let alone Hebrew, in order to help or encourage the kids.  Additionally, the children have fallen so far behind the other Israeli kids in school, that they feel like “what’s the point?”  This is where we come in…we go into the homes to work with the kids to empower them, encourage them and help create an educational atmosphere where the parents and family are also involved.  It’s a very huge, long and sometimes daunting process, but I am ready to jump in feet first and see what it’s all about. 
The second program is working in the FBN Youth Center.  This multi-faceted program really helps to get kids off the street, teach them leadership, train them to be hiking guides and most importantly give them a safe and fun, social space.  Each of the Yahel participants will be working side by side with one of the Youth Center leaders – as we are now considered Youth Center leaders as well.  The third program is an initiative that is set up solely by us, the Yahel participants, in the community.  For the first couple of months we will be analyzing, recording and working to fully understand what the community needs and from there will design a program.  As time goes on and we are more fully grounded, I will let you all know the program we choose to create!

In between it all, we have also had quite a social calendar stacked up.  We’ve thrown a few gatherings at our house where at least 30 of the community members have come by to celebrate Avi’s birthday, celebrate our work together and just get to know each other on deeper levels than I could even imagine for only knowing one another for 2 weeks.  We’ve gone to BBQ’s around town, visitors have stopped by our house to give us welcome-to-Gedera gifts and we have been greeted with open-arms.

On that note, I’ll tell you a funny story that happened the other day…

In hopes of finding vanilla extract for our apple cake that we were bringing to one of the parties, my housemate Annie and I went on a neighborhood search.  Because we have been so busy lately and in and out of Gedera, we hadn’t of had the chance to meet our next-door neighbors yet.  Annie and I decided that would be the perfect place to start our search.  We knocked on the door and were automatically welcomed into their beautiful home with a glass of orange juice and chocolate wafers to nosh on.  As we exchanged stories and backgrounds, the 13 yr. old began telling Annie and I about his bar mitzvah.  Our neighbors don’t speak very much English, but we both tried very hard to communicate.  Our experience at their house was the epitome of the humor found in the language barrier that I mentioned in my last post.  After a 20 min conversation, Annie and I tried to ask in hebrew if his bar mitzvah was fun…but, it seemed our question ended up being translated into us asking to watch his bar mitzvah video. So as the family all gathered in the living room, we sat and watched his bar mitzvah video – which, by the way, was incredibly beautiful.  In addition to that, the boy told us that he was going to play the song that he sang to his mother at the party – he wants to be an Israeli rock star…Annie and I felt bad for asking for vanilla after this very nice, yet unexpected, visit, so we headed to our next neighbor until we successfully asked and acquired some from a man who was wearing nothing but his underwear. Typical. 

At this point in the trip, I’ll be honest with you all in the fact that although it has been a wonderful couple weeks so far in Israel, it has also been very overwhelming at times as well.  I have been on information overload.  Besides the obvious fact for me that it doesn’t feel like we’ve been here for only two weeks, each and every day has been fully packed with sessions, social events, Hebrew learning and more cultural experiences than one can count on two hands. 

I knew I was going to be challenged, and I knew I was going to need to step outside of my comfort zone – that is one big reason why I decided to go on this trip.  But, saying it and actually experiencing it are sometimes two very different things.  In addition to immersing ourselves in a brand new city and community, we are also processing a relatively new language, attempting to grasp the cultural atmosphere and learning the in’s and out’s of social justice, social change and community empowerment.  If you couldn’t tell already, I am so excited to be here, but there have been a few days where I have just felt so overwhelmed and emotionally insecure with my ability to do some of the things placed in front of me.  I think more than anything I am attempting to conquer a huge mountain– stepping outside of my comfort zone and being comfortable with being uncomfortable.  It has all tied back to that.

I want to end this post by telling you one of the positive influences that Yahel has had on the Gedera community so far.  Besides the fact that the word around town is that Americans are here and will be here for the next five months, something that is close to unheard of in this small town, our presence has brought out members of the Ethiopian community that FBN has been trying to reach for years.  These hard-to-reach youth that FBN has either never seen before, or have been trying to get involved in their programs, are so excited that we are here working and want to be a part of it all.  It’s quite amazing. That being said, for me this program isn’t only about the feel-good moments when we learned that we have had this positive impact, but rather it is about the relationships I have been building along the way.  It’s through these relationships that we will be able to make the biggest impact on this community.