My Parents Are My Heroes: Ethiopian-Israeli Teens Connect with Their Heritage

A group of children at the synagogue in Gondar; photo courtesy Michal Shmulovich/Times of Israel.

by Benjamin Rutland
exclusive to eJP

As the bus bumped along the unpaved roads of Northern Ethiopia, the varied sounds of Ethiopian pop, American R&B and an occasional Israeli classic blared from the smartphones of the participants. The soundtrack reflected the multi-layered identities of the 15 outstanding Ethiopian-Israeli teens who participated in a roots tour of Ethiopia during Hannukah this year. I had the privilege to join the group as a representative o f The Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod in order to help document the experience.

Ethiopian Jews began to arrive in Israel in significant numbers from the mid 1980’s. Although there are many successful Ethiopian-Israelis who have made an important impact on Israeli society, the community as a whole has suffered from low educational and socio-economic achievements.

The roots tour pilot program was the brainchild of the veteran Ethiopian-Israel journalist Danny Abebe, who writes for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Abebe felt that many of the community’s problems resulted from the difficult relationship between Ethiopian children and their parents. The children, who pick up Hebrew relatively quickly, often have to look after their parents, act as translators and help them to navigate Israeli society. As a consequence the children are often embarrassed by their parents and feel alienated from them.

While serving at Galei Zahal (Army radio), the commander of the station Col. Moshe Shlonsky told Abebe that he should visit Ethiopia to reconnect to his roots. After his service Abebe delayed a planned visit to South America and visited Ethiopia without telling his parents. When he returned to Israel and told his father about the trip his father broke down in tears, the first time that Abebe had seen him express emotion, much less cry.

Tears, laughter and thoughtful silences

The tour was an intense emotional experience for both the teenage participants and the accompanying adults. During the 12 day trip the group was based mainly in Gondar in Northern Ethiopia where The Jewish Agency runs a community center, school and synagogue for those waiting to make Aliyah (a process which is due to be completed by 2013). From Gondar the teens visited villages where their parents came from and sites of significance to Ethiopian Jewry. They also volunteered at The Jewish Agency facilities with the children who are waiting to make Aliyah. The Jewish Agency also organized the ground component of the tour.

The tour had too many emotional highs to list, but one of the peaks was the visit to the village of Jenda. The grandparents of one of the participants, Zahava Aregito Zagaya’s came from Jenda. Upon arrival at the village we began to ask the residents on the street if anyone knew Zahava’s grandparents. It didn’t take long to find someone who said that Zahava’s grandparent’s house was only 10 minutes away and that he would take us.

After a 45 minute trek through the fields, accompanied by dozens of local children who were excited at the arrival of the strange group, we arrived at a group of wooden houses. An elderly lady said that she remembered the Zagayas well and explained where Zahava’s grandfather’s house used to stand and where his fields where located. Zahava listened politely, but was not convinced that the man she had heard about was really her grandfather. Then another woman called her over and began to recite the names of her aunts. A wave of emotion visibly swept over Zahava’s face and her eyes filled with tears as she realized that she was indeed standing in her grandfather’s village. Prior to her selection for the trip, Zahava’s father had told her little about his life in Ethiopia. On the walk back to the bus, the organizers gave Zahava a phone to call her father on. For the first time in her life Zahava told her father “I love you dad” and he replied that he loved her too.

Amongst the many other highlights of the trip included: cleaning up the memorial at Wolleka to those who were killed on the way to Sudan, and singing Hatikva during the ceremony to honor them; waking up at 4am to escort Olim to the bus that would take them to the airport before flying to Israel; praying in the synagogue of Ambovar, a former center of Jewish life in Ethiopia; and climbing the hill near Ambovar where the Sigd (a unique Ethiopian Jewish holiday) was celebrated.

The participants’ experience volunteering with the children and teens who are being prepared for Aliyah in The Jewish Agency’s school and synagogue was particularly significant. The students ran a series of educational activities on Hanukkah; told their personal stories; and ran games for the children. For the local children, seeing a group of confident well-dressed Hebrew-speaking Ethiopian-Israelis sent a message that they too would integrate into Israelis society after their arrival in Israel. After Havdalah on the group’s last night in Gondar (a Saturday), a group of local teens gathered around the boys in the group and began to sing with gusto “Le’shana Ha’ba Be’yerushalaim” (Next year in Jerusalem). For them it was a reality, even if they had only a limited conception as to what lay ahead of them. Throughout the week each member of the group had bonded with the children. As they said their goodbyes and prepared to board the bus, the children broke out into tears, followed by almost all of the teens. One teen, Nati Wote bent over a seven year old child, holding him tight as he hugged him. “Don’t lose this. Look after it with your life” he said as he handed him his contact details, “and when you get to Israel, you find me!” The little boy clenched the piece of paper tightly and ran off, crying.

Almost all of the participants met close relatives whom they had never met before or had not seen for many years. Many of the relatives were waiting to make Aliyah and would soon be reunited with their families, but some were not entitled to make Aliyah. These reunions, which largely took place in the small one room houses without plumbing where the relatives lived, were bittersweet with neither side knowing when they would next see the other.

On each of the buildings at The Jewish Agency school an Ethiopian proverb in Amharic and Hebrew is painted. One of them read “a bird can’t fly without wings and honor cannot be gained without work”. The tour had a significant impact on all of the participants. The participants felt that their Ethiopian identities were strengthened and that they could return to Israel with heads held high. Many, such as Zahava Aregito, have chosen to start using their Ethiopian names in addition to the Hebrew ones they were given in Israel. The participants learned to value what they had in Israel and in particular their parents. The interactions with both the residents of the villages and the children being prepared for Aliyah reminded the teens of what their parents had left behind and what their own lives would be like had their parents not left Ethiopia. During the tearful farewell at the synagogue, they all saw themselves reflected in the young children.

In summing up the tour, one of the organizers, David Mihret, Head of the Steering Committee for Ethiopian Immigrants in the Educational System said “Our Ethiopian identity is a central element of our personal and communal identities. During the tour the teenagers connected to their Ethiopian identities, which also allowed them to strengthen their connection to their Jewish and Israeli identities. As one of the participants Gila said ‘I returned more Ethiopian, more Jewish and more Israeli’. The participants learned to appreciate and respect their parents. I think that we achieved our goals.”

From a personal perspective I was deeply moved on the tour. Standing in the synagogue at Ambovar and looking at the teens around me I thought that our great-grandparents had no idea that the other existed, yet here we were, proud citizens of the State of Israel praying together. One evening towards the end of the program, the teens were asked who was their hero? They almost all responded that their parents were their heroes. It was then that we the adults, knew that the program was a success.

Lessons learned

The tour presented logistical and educational challenges for the organizers. The participants were a mix of two groups with different histories: 1st generation immigrants born in Ethiopia (Shearit Yisrael or more commonly known as Falash Mura) and 2nd generation (Beta Yisrael). As noted, many of the participants had relatives who are not entitled to immigrate to Israel, which caused some of the participants to be frustrated.

Many of the elements of the program worked and are likely to be retained in the future. These included the volunteer work with the children, cleaning up the monument (in future visits cemeteries will be cleaned up), and the phone calls to parents from the villages. On future tours, I hope to see greater use of informal education tools, the inclusion of younger (Ethiopian-Israeli) counselors, and a greater focus on the link between the participant’s Ethiopian and Israeli identities.

The use of a roots tour to enhance Jewish identity is not a new idea. For many years Jewish organizations have run roots tours to Europe and North Africa. In recent years small groups have also begun to visit Ethiopia, including school groups, but these have been isolated cases. Currently, there is no central body to organize tours to Ethiopia for larger numbers, to build a logistical infrastructure or to integrate educational lessons. The partners to this project are currently engaged in an evaluation of the pilot before deciding on future steps to expand it. At this stage a second tour is being planned for another 15 teens with the objective of ensuring a 50-50 split between those born in Israel and those who immigrated as young children.

The project was supported and organized by The Jewish Agency; Keren Hayesod; the Rashi Foundation; the Society for the Advancement of Education; the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; The Ministry of Education; the Ariella Foundation within the framework of Samai: The Centre for Media and Excellence for Ethiopian-Israeli Youth.

Benjamin Rutland is Spokesperson to the Foreign and English Language Media at the The Jewish Agency for Israel.

Also see Out of Africa, and Back – stories by the Israeli-Ethiopian teen participants.