In Heftziba, a crowded Ethiopian neighborhood on the eastern edge of Netanya,
residents are busy preparing for the coming Succot holiday. On this warm
evening, the whole neighborhood has congregated in the central courtyard between
Heftziba’s prefab apartment blocks.
Groups of men construct succot, while
others chop branches off nearby trees for the roof covering. Children run
everywhere. Anywhere else in Israel, this patch of concrete would be a car park.
In Heftziba, it’s a playground and community meeting space.
Netanya’s two Ethiopian immigrant neighborhoods, Heftziba is entirely
mono-ethnic. It’s not that a lot or even most people living here are Ethiopian –
everyone here is Ethiopian.
Out of 396 apartments, 392 are inhabited by
Ethiopian families. The other four have been rented by ESRA – the English
Speaking Residents Association – as part of an innovative social project to
mentor Heftziba’s most vulnerable residents: its children.
Students Build a Neighborhood, ESRA’s project developed out of a grassroots-led
revolution that in the space of a few years, has transformed Heftziba from a
drug-infested ghetto riddled with crime and gang violence into a peaceful and
clean place to live.
When Netanya absorbed 11,500 Ethiopian immigrants in
the late 1980s and early 1990s, the municipality decided to house the newcomers
all together in two small clusters rather than disperse them throughout the
The results were disastrous. Rampant poverty and unemployment,
social segregation and racism, coupled with extreme culture shock, quickly
transformed Heftziba into a ghetto full of drugs, alcohol, delinquent teens and
racial tensions. Disaffected, angry and discriminated against, Heftziba’s youth
dropped out of school, formed gangs and clashed – West Side Story-style – with
white teens from neighboring Kiryat Rabin.
Then, several years ago, a
group of Heftziba residents decided enough was enough and cleaned up the place
themselves – literally, with brooms – and asked for help from the municipality
and local organizations. That’s when ESRA got involved, says Nina Zuck,
the organization’s co-chairman.
Three years ago, the Netanya municipality
contacted ESRA and asked for help with a project in Heftziba.
that if the municipality would partner us, we would get on board,” says Zuck.
The municipality agreed. ESRA’s Students Build a Neighborhood project was
“We rented apartments in Heftziba and offered them rent-free to
students from Netanya Academic College,” explains Zuck. “In return, the students
volunteer in the community for eight hours each week.”
The students are
each assigned four local children, whom they mentor over the course of the
academic year. Six of the eight volunteer hours are spent mentoring, and the
remaining two hours are given in community services.
“At first the
students help the kids with homework,” says Zuck. “As the kids gradually start
to trust them, they start to work on social skills and other
Rafi Ingida, 29, is one of ESRA’s student mentors. Born
in Ethiopia, he came to Israel with his parents at the age of three. He is the
eldest of seven children; his siblings were all born in Israel. Ingida knows
Heftziba well: He grew up here. His parents still live in the
What are the major problems for kids growing up in
“There’s an enormous gap between these kids and their parents,” Ingida
replies. “A major issue is communication. For example, lots of parents
don’t speak Hebrew at home. And the kids don’t speak Amharic.”
the world over occasionally stumble into the generation gap between them and
their offspring, but the problem is far harder for Ethiopian
These parents grew up in rural, agrarian communities in a
developing country. The majority left Ethiopia functionally illiterate in their
native Amharic, having never gone to school. How can they understand what life
is like for their kids in hi-tech, fast-paced Israel? Ingida says another
problem is Heftziba’s large families.
For parents trying to cope with
five or more children, sometimes a child’s school or social problems get
overlooked, especially when the parents themselves are struggling.
DIFFICULT for me to say this,” confesses Ingida.
“But sometimes kids
don’t get enough support at home. It’s hard for the parents. Sometimes they
can’t control their kids, so the kids go wrong. We want to give all Heftziba’s
children individual care.”
One of the first students to get on board when
the project started three years ago, Ingida has been involved ever since. His
apartment – which he shares with another student volunteer – is on the top floor
of one of the four- and five-story apartment blocks encircling Heftziba’s
central courtyard. Ingida is lucky; his block is the only one in Heftziba with
an elevator. Everywhere else, you have to take the stairs.
Twice a week
in this spotless and homely flat, Ingida and his roommate mentor lively nine-,
10- and 11-year-olds.
“We teach the kids how to sit still and study,”
says Ingida. “We teach them how to cope.”
Ingida and his fellow student
volunteers – not all of whom are Ethiopian – are excellent role models for these
young children, adds Zuck.
“The kids get to see how an Israeli student
lives,” she explains. “And thanks to people like Rafi [Ingida], they see that
Ethiopian kids can go on to study in college, that they can be successful
If it’s role models that Heftziba needs, Ingida fits the bill.
He served three years in the IDF’s Golani Brigade and still does reserve duty
(he fought in the Second Lebanon War – an experience he describes as “very, very
tough”). Now entering his final year as a student of logistics and economics at
Bar-Ilan University, he is thinking about his future.
“I’d love to work
for a company with international connections,” he says. In addition to his
volunteering and studying commitments, Ingida adds, as an afterthought, that he
works at a paying job, too. The only thing he doesn’t have time for is a
girlfriend, he jokes.
Modest and easygoing, with an infectious smile,
Ingida is a well-known and respected figure for many of Heftziba’s children. As
we stroll between the apartment blocks, two bright-eyed preteen girls, clad in
the modest-yet-trendy denim skirt and bright T-shirt ensemble beloved of Israeli
girls everywhere, run up to say hi and ask the time, giggling at their own
Across the street at the Heftziba Community Center, a gaggle of
teenage boys are hanging out. A few years ago, they might have ended up in a
street gang. Now they are playing ping-pong.
Inside the center, the
Heftziba Ethiopian Youth Choir – another ESRA project – is rehearsing. Twelve
and 13-year-old girls sit demurely in a circle and pay close attention as choir
director Eva De-Mayo gives them instructions. Then the girls burst into song, in
beautifully enunciated English.
It’s easy to see why the Youth Choir is
the apple of Heftziba’s collective eye. “It’s lifted the whole neigh-borhood,”
Right now, these girls are busy rehearsing for a
fund-raising concert at Tel Aviv’s Opera House, where they will perform with
singer Achinoam Nini. Neither the girls nor their parents have ever been to the
Opera House before, and everybody is excited. It’s incredible to think
how far these people have come.
Ingida, his parents and hundreds of
thousands of other Ethiopian Jews endured a perilous journey on foot, all for
the chance to make Israel their home. They still feel the tremors of the
enormous culture shock that hit them when they first arrived in Israel. Yet
despite seemingly insurmountable difficulties, here in this tiny Netanya
neighborhood, people are determined that their kids will have a good
A long, hard journey still lies ahead, but Zuck is convinced that
Heftziba’s children can make it.
“These people, they’re survivors,” she
says.Heftziba’s Ethiopian Youth Choir will sing with Achinoam Nini in
ESRA’s Gala Benefit at the Opera House, Tel Aviv on October 17.
For tickets call
(09) 955-0657 or (09) 748-0541. All proceeds will go to ESRA community projects.