Israel’s First Ethiopian Heritage Center Opens

Pride in the past, hope for the future: Shlomi Gedamo sees the Lipson Ethiopian Heritage Center as an historic opportunity to build bridges between communities;photo courtesy World ORT.

The Lipson Ethiopian Heritage Center in Kiryat Yam, the first of its kind in Israel, has opened. The Center, a prominent part of the Alex and Betty Schoenbaum, Science, Educational, Cultural and Sports Campus inaugurated in 2010, is an initiative of World ORT.

Kiryat Yam, a mostly blue-collar seaside town whose 45,000 residents include thousands of Ethiopians, has benefited from the well-used campus facilities which include a science center, planetarium building, an oceanarium and an athletics stadium – all testament to the vision of Betty Schoenbaum, the nonagenarian driving force behind the campus.

As to the center, “She wants to see Ethiopian kids integrating into Israeli society and this center has everything necessary to make a significant contribution to that,” said Shlomi Gedamo, the center’s director.

The Heritage Center presents the history and culture of Jews in Ethiopia, their gradual re-connection to the rest of the Jewish world, the bravery, determination and sacrifice shown in the journeys to Israel, accounts of the individuals who helped bring them to Israel, as well as information on the better known mass rescue missions – Operations Solomon, Moses and Joshua – but also the difficulties faced by the olim in their new home.

Gedamo, who as a seven-year old, trekked through bandit-infested Sudan to reach the Promised Land, has lived the history. He told eJP, “This center is an historic event in Ethiopian life in Israel; it’s the first one of its kind. Our center is a way of bringing Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians together and to say, ‘Look, you don’t even know who I am. Find out who I am and then decide if you like me or not.’ Once they know who we are they will understand us better and will have to re-evaluate their prejudices … to undergo a cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching).”

The Heritage Center is the latest in a series of initiatives which World ORT has undertaken in support of Ethiopian Jewry stretching back to 1958 when the organization sent two representatives to Ethiopia on a fact finding mission that included a meeting with Emperor Heile Selassie. This mission led eventually to ORT’s educational work among the Beta Yisrael community in the Gondar province of Ethiopia.

In the 1970s, World ORT established 19 schools for the Jewish community in Ethiopia, employing hundreds of teachers and educating thousands of students. Synagogues were built in 10 Jewish villages, and training programs were developed to help the religious community leaders and to train Hebrew teachers. Two health centers were opened, in Ambober and Tedda, and medical teams traveled to villages to service the needs of the more remote Jewish communities. World ORT also helped farmers to purchase seeds, tools, and livestock in order to help them to become self-sufficient.

Following Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon, World ORT provided education and training opportunities for many of the new immigrants, including a joint program with the Ethiopian National Project bringing advanced science and technology education to young people in Be’er Sheva; and work in the youth villages of Kadoorie and Kfar Chassidim to help youngsters at risk to improve their chances of integrating into Israeli society.