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Ethiopian Jewry: Integrating Ethiopian-Born Youth into Israel

by Wendy Elliman

In the fall of 1998, 50 Ethiopian-born Israelis became Boy and Girl Scouts – the spearhead of an imaginative new program known as Project Sheba

Eight years after the spectacular rescue of Ethiopia’s Jews known as Operation Solomon, and 14 years since its no-less-dramatic predecessor, Operation Moses, Israel’s 60,000 Jews from Ethiopia are not yet fully integrated into Israeli society.

"Ethiopians in Israel see themselves – and are seen by many others – as a community unequipped to climb Israel’s social pyramid," says Anat Penso, regional head of the Education Division For Immigrant Youth of the Joint Distribution Committee-Israel and a member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Ethiopian Education.

With 60 percent of Israel’s Ethiopian-born community aged 18 and under, Penso knew that the most effective help would focus on these youngsters.

"As a teenager, I was an ardent Scout," she says. "My youth movement experience has molded my life. It came to me that this is an ideal way to help Israel’s youngsters born in Ethiopia. Growing up together in a movement, youngsters acquire similar social codes and cultural values. They share experiences, involve themselves in issues that concern them and their peers, and develop a sense of belonging to their nation and their people."

As Penso quickly discovered, no more than a handful of young Israelis from an Ethiopian background had joined Israel’s youth movements. The reason was not hard to find. "Ethiopian-Israelis are very anxious to succeed, and they know that education is the way up," explains Ethiopian-born Tsabi Mangasha. "Our concept of education, however, is the formal kind. That concept has been reinforced by the help the government offers Ethiopian schoolchildren – extra lessons taught at school in the afternoons. The community sees informal education, like youth movements, as frivolous and a waste of valuable time."

Convinced that the best way to prove her point was to get a program going, Penso recruited partners: the Coalition for the Advancement of Ethiopian Education, the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry and the Israel Scout Federation (Tzofim). According to her, Tzofim was chosen because it is "creative, experienced and non-political, it caters to both religiously observant and secular youngsters and, with over 35,000 members, is one of Israel’s largest youth movements."

Together, they created Project Sheba, a program designed both to bring Ethiopian- born Jewish teenagers into Israel’s Scout Federation, and to assure a meaningful experience for them. The program was launched last summer, with the appointment of two national coordinators – Ethiopian-born Tsabi Mangasha, 26, and Israeli-born Tami Gelkob, 23, a former scout.

"We recruited 27 Ethiopian 9th-graders," says Gelkob, "and ran a camp for them, together with Israelis. We were clear about one thing from the start: the camp was not solely to ‘instruct’ Ethiopians about Israel, but also for young Israelis to gain knowledge of the Ethiopian community."

Rahel is an Ethiopian-born youngster who participated in the summer camp. "We had a lot of fun – even though we spent the first day in shock!" she says. "We hadn’t realized that camping meant sleeping bags on the ground! More important, though, was that we were there as people, as fellow scouts, and not as Ethiopians. That’s not to say our Ethiopian-ness was brushed over. Ethiopian families hosted us all, and spoke to us about life in Ethiopia and how they made it to Israel. After these talks, Israeli-born kids at the camp started asking me about my family and our own journey to Israel. I think it’s the first time anyone outside our community has ever been interested."

Sheli, who was born in Israel and comes from a prosperous community near Kfar Saba, was one of those Israelis. "That summer camp was the first time I’d had anything to do with Ethiopians, other than read about them in the newspaper," she says. "We talked and visited one another’s homes. To my shame, I didn’t know that people in Israel lived like that. But I got to know the Ethiopians as individuals, and to understand that their community has huge differences within it, as does ours."

Recruiting youngsters from an Ethiopian background for the summer camp was relatively easy, says coordinator Mangasha. Getting them to join year-round Scout troops was far harder, but 10 suitable candidates from each of the first five pilot areas (Ramle, Beersheba, Netanya, Afula and Kiryat Yam) were eventually convinced.

"Project Sheba is a tiered program," explains Gelkob. "During its first year, these 50 youngsters will become active members of their local Scout troops, and at the same time do leadership training, each group of 10 guided by two veteran Scout leaders. Next year, these first 50 ‘graduates’ will recruit 11- and 12-year-olds from their communities to join local Scout troops, which they’ll now be leading. And meanwhile, another 50 Ethiopian 15- to 16-year-olds will be recruited in another five localities (Hadera, Hatzerot Yosef, Rehovot, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi) to begin their first year of membership and leadership training. The plan is that in each locality, the program will run for the six years it takes for the first 11- and 12-year-olds recruited and led by older Ethiopians to reach leadership age." Sheba is expected to be an effective program, achieving results rapidly and at a low cost, says Penso.

"We’re very optimistic," she says, "that, through the Scout Federation, Israel’s young Ethiopian Jews will find their place in the mainstream."

Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, June 1999,: Israeli Foreign Ministry