Ethiopian Jews face hurdles to fulfill dreams in Jewish homeland

Mentamer Beleta, an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant to Israel, now works to help other Jews of Ethiopian descent at the Family Empowerment Center in Yokneam. Photo: Eric Berger


YOKNEAM, ISRAEL — When Mentamer Beleta, an Ethiopian Jew, arrived in Israel at age 12, she suddenly felt as though she had moved away from the agrarian life depicted in the Torah.

She and her parents and four brothers landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv at night and saw bright lights everywhere. A guide drove the family to Mevaseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem. Beleta was expecting to find the land of milk and honey described in the bible.

“It was a real shock,” Beleta said through a translator. 

She found a place that was starkly different from her Ethiopian village, where there was no electricity, where most residents were either farmers or weavers, where life revolved around the seasons. She had the sort of existence she read about in the Torah among the other black Orthodox Jews.

It wasn’t only the modernity in Israel that surprised Beleta and her family but also that there were white Jews.

Despite that culture shock, not knowing Hebrew or English and looking different than most Israeli Jews, Beleta managed to graduate from Bar Ilan University with a degree in social sciences. She now works as a community coordinator at the Family Empowerment Center, where she helps other Ethiopian Jews.

“This is a success story. With all the challenges, this is a success story….Sometimes all sorts of other factors [interfere]. It’s definitely not an easy path,” said Yaron Yavelberg, the Israeli representative for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which has provided funding to help the Ethiopian Jewish community in Yokneam, where the center is located, for more than 20 years.

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A few years ago, Federation lay leaders and professional staff asked Yavelberg, “Until when?” – as in, how much longer will the organization need to continue providing funding targeted at one particular community? 

Yavelberg saw it as a legitimate question.

He had to explain to Federation representatives in St. Louis that helping an immigrant community integrate into Israeli society is a process that takes time.

If there was any doubt as to whether challenges still remained for Ethiopian immigrants hoping to find a better life in Israel, they evaporated in July when an off-duty police officer shot and killed Solomon Tekah, 18, an unarmed Ethiopian immigrant. The incident sparked days of protests around the country, including demonstrations in which highways were blocked.

“Even though many Israelis said, ‘You lost us, this was violent,’ we know in Israel that the only way to get people’s respect and attention is [with] force, is not waiting for someone to give it to you [but] just claiming it,” Yavelberg said. 

Ancient roots

The Jewish community in Ethiopia, also known as Beta Israel, dates back to sometime between the first and sixth centuries. Scholars debate the origins of Beta Israel and when the people started practicing the religion.

The largest wave of Ethiopian Jews to Israel began in the 1970s during a civil war in their country in which they were the victims of violence. Many came to Israel through covert rescue operationsorganized by the Israel Defense Forces and foreign governmental agencies such as the CIA. 

Starting in late 1984, Israel brought 8,000 Ethiopians to the Jewish State during the secret Operation Moses, which lasted seven weeks. In 1991, Israel rescued more than 14,000 Ethiopians during another secret mission, Operation Solomon.

By the early ’90s, about 100,000 Ethiopian Jews were living in temporary camps around Israel. In 1992, Yokneam Mayor Simon Alfasi, a Moroccan immigrant, visited a camp near the city and invited 30 families to come to Yokneam and supplied them apartments. Jewish Federation of Atlanta helped sponsor the effort. A few years later, St. Louis Federation also formed a partnership with Yokneam and Megiddo, a neighboring kibbutz. 

Some 1,400 Jews of Ethiopian descent live in Yokneam  out of a total of about 130,000 around the country.

The four staff members atFamily Empowerment Center provide language classes, career assistance, financial and housing assistance, and education about their rights as Israeli citizens.

In addition to a language barrier and a shift to an urban life, Ethiopian immigrants in Israel face challenges from racism, said Leron Harpazz, a social worker at the center.

She has had clients who have been turned away from jobs because they have an Ethiopian-sounding last name, she said. About 23 percent of Ethiopian Jews live below the poverty line, the highest percentage among Jews in Israel, according to a National Insurance Institute report.

A challenging life

When Ksaya Tzahi was an infant in the early ’80s in Bahir Dar,Ethiopia,all five of her older siblings died within a few days of a virus, she said. (She doesn’t know the name of the virus in Hebrew or English.) 

Tzahi also became ill but managed to survive, so her parents renamed her Ksaya, which means “gift as compensation” in Hebrew. While they saw her survival as a miracle, the deaths took a toll on them. They divorced, and Tzahi’s mother struggled with depression. 

In 1991, her father remarried and immigrated to Israel —  Ethiopians Jews in 1971 were granted the same right of return as Jews from other parts of the world — but Tzahi, her mother and her baby brother remained in Ethiopia.

A couple of years later, the three tried to make aliyah, but Ethiopian authorities prevented Tzahi’s mother from emigrating  because the divorce had not been officially finalized, which meant her father would have had two wives in Israel. So her mother remained in Ethiopia while Tzahi and her brother left. 

“Of course, I wanted to stay with my mother, but the life there was difficult,” Tzahi said through a translator. “There was no food at home, and we didn’t know if we could survive because of all the health issues and viruses that were there.”  

In Israel, Tzahi and her brother moved in with their father and his new wife in Yokneam. Tzahi not only was struggling emotionally over the separation from her mother, but also with the new language and with her stepmother. 

Tzahi went to a boarding school in Akko in northwestern Israel on the Mediterranean, where she found some solace. But during breaks — to avoid going home — she sometimes slept outside or in synagogues.

“I am very grateful to God because I could have easily gone to drugs and ruined my life,” Tzahi said.

After graduating, she served in the IDF and then worked with children with developmental disabilities in Tel HaShomer, a neighborhood near Tel Aviv. She returned to Yokneam when her father became ill; despite their differences, she felt an obligation to care for him.

While there, Tzahi met an Ethiopian man and very quickly became engaged, married and pregnant. But her husband was violent and beat her. During the seventh month of her pregnancy, he beat her so badly that she was forced to have an emergency delivery. After the baby came, her husband continued his abuse until she escaped to a domestic violence shelter.

“Since then, I felt that I needed to take care of my life and be independent enough that my kids would not suffer,” she said.

Tzahi met Shosh Zehavi, then the director of the Family Empowerment Center, who helped her find and pay for an apartment, divorce her husband, receive child support and receive government aid. A social worker, Avishag Cohen, drove and accompanied her to court dates over debts she owed.

“They took care of all the small details and made sure that I was able to stand on my feet,” Tzahi said. “The Empowerment Center was like my family. Shoshi and Avishag, it was like having a mom and a big sister.”

Her real mom remained in Ethiopia. While Tzahi was in the IDF, she pleaded with the Israeli government to help her bring her mother to Israel. Eventually, the government granted her request and allowed Tzahi to take a short leave from army service. But by the time she reached Bahir Dar, her mother had died after years of mental and physical decline. 

“I didn’t fulfill my dream of bringing my mother to Israel,” Tzahi said.

She was not alone in that. During Operation Moses, the IDF rescue effort in 1984, about 2,000 Jews died while walking from Ethiopia to Sudan or while in Sudanese refugee camps before they could be airlifted to Israel, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. 

An example of success

Beleta walked two weeks from her village to Gondar. In Israel, she not only had to learn Hebrew,but also translate for her parents, who were olderand spent much of their time at home. She tried and failed multiple times to get into Bar Ilan but now has a bachelor’s degree, is married with three children and helps other Ethiopian immigrants.

“I know the challenges, but I also know how to speak to them, and I’m an example of how you can succeed,” Beleta said.

Beleta declined to comment on the death of Solomon Tekah, the 18-year-old who was shot by the police officer. But Tzahi said she feels “frustrated from the situation and the inequality that we can see in the news and in Israel.”

“We are good enough to be in the IDF, we are good enough to give things to the state of Israel, but when we need things, we feel discriminated,” Tzahi said.

To try and address that inequality, Jewish Federation of St. Louis this year has donated $241,500 in its partnership with Yokneam and Megiddo, $109,000 of which went to the Family Empowerment Center.

Michael Oberlander, former Jewish Federation of St. Louis chief philanthropy officer, said the organization’s question to its representatives in Ethiopia about funding was meant to be “a little provocative, and to find out how long are we going to think of this as a separate issue. … In other words, how long are we going to treat this community of Israelis, who happen to be of Ethiopian descent, as opposed to Bukharan or Armenian or Polish or English, differently? And the answer we got is, ‘It’s going to take several generations.’ ”  

Eliad Ben Shushan, director of the Yokneam-Megiddo- Atlanta-St. Louis partnership, said: “We have much more work to do in order to make the assimilation and absorption much more efficient so they will feel at home.”

‘Israeli chutzpah’

Tzahi, now a mother of three boys, is working in a supervisory role over the cleaning staff at a technology business park. 

Her oldest son, Yair, the one born during the emergency delivery, flew to Atlanta in July to compete on the city’s soccer team in the JCC Maccabi Games. He is 16. His generation has “Israeli chutzpah,” Tzahi said. “They can speak and not let other people discriminate against them.”

On his participation in the Maccabi Games, she said:

“I have no words to express the feelings and excitement when Yair was chosen to participate and to represent Israel and Yokneam. … I felt for the first time the happiness and the feeling that I was a good mother.”