Dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb, replete with long white, mock-chiffon shawls and colorful headdresses, the women gather with their children to receive their daily staple of food distributed by a collection of Jewish aid agencies at the Gondar Beta Israel Association Feeding Center for children under six and nursing or pregnant women.
After collecting a plateful of food, the women sit side-by-side on long benches and the children play, enjoying a feast of oats, barley, potatoes and other delights. They seem happy and healthy, and obligingly pose for cameras as our group of American Jewish community professionals and lay leaders shuffles through.
"In Ethiopia the tradition is to feed family members in the order of their importance or how much income they contribute to the family," explains Doron Krakow, senior vice president of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), who has spent much time over the past few years learning about the traditions of the natives in this very rural Ethiopian environment, as he shows our group around the compound that houses the feeding center. "That means the father eats first, then perhaps an older son or a mother and the youngest children get whatever is left."
The feeding center and its compound, which also includes a large synagogue or community hall, a set of classrooms for teaching Judaism and a mikve, is run by an Ethiopian-based charity, the Beta Israel Association. Funded by the North American Coalition of Ethiopian Jews, via donations from the UJC, it attempts to break that particular tradition by providing two solid meals on the premises for roughly 3,000 young children and 500 pregnant or nursing women.
"We give the mothers who bring their children here a free sack of dried corn so they can take it back to their families and feed the other members too, but this way they can ensure that the mothers will bring the youngest members here first," continues Krakow.
Built from a patchwork of Israel-blue corrugated iron pulled together to form a gigantic shack, the compound is only one part of several Jewish-focused operations dotting this rural town. The work done here by an alphabet soup of international Jewish organizations is aimed at supporting, reeducating and preparing thousands of Falash Mura - Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity under duress - families who are hoping one day to move to Israel and join the 110,000 Ethiopian Jews who have already made aliya.
The primitive nature of the center's construction and that of the people gathered inside exemplifies the dramatic challenges they face in the absorption and integration process.
"No group of immigrants has come from so far back to so far forward," states Krakow, emphasizing that this is hopefully the final chapter of the Falash Mura aliya and that "now it is important to focus on the issues facing those arriving in Israel."
The contrast between the scene at the feeding center and modern Israel is astounding and it would be of little surprise that those who arrive in the coming months or years find themselves embroiled in a desperate struggle to find work, support themselves and generally adapt to their new lives.
Employment and education issues notwithstanding, their whole African world, based on communal support, politeness and respect for the elders, is completely turned upside down. Where they were once provided with two steady meals a day and free health care at Jewish aid organization clinics, a little more than one year after arriving they are forced to stand on their own two feet and fend for themselves in a country well-known for its aggressiveness and time-consuming bureaucracy, as well as its progressive philosophies regarding women's lib and child development.
A WEEK-AND-A-HALF after my visit, I track down a family that made aliya on the same night my group returned.
Zemetu Mekonen, 31, is standing shyly in the hallway of her newly painted three-room apartment in the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, just outside Jerusalem. Her five children, two to 11, hang about aimlessly looking for something to do. There are no toys and the room they use as a bedroom also doubles as a kitchen.
In the bedroom/kitchen, a handful of freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee beans sit cooling in a frying pan on the coffee table. The smell fills the small apartment and before sitting down to answer some of my questions, Mekonen pours the beans into a blender and tries to switch it on. It takes her a while to work out that the machine has to be plugged in, but with some effort she manages to crush the beans with this newly discovered device. It takes her less than a minute to prepare them for the ritual coffee ceremony, a process that just over a week ago she would have had to do by hand.
Mekonen, who has ditched her traditional garb for something more up-to-date but still dons a headdress, takes a break from her chores to sit down and talk about how she is settling into her new life.
"We are very happy to be here," she says smiling. "We are happy that we are with our family and happy that we have left Gondar."
With the help of a translator, she tells me that the family left its farming village of Alafa two years ago and had been waiting in Gondar to find out if their application for aliya was successful.
What did she do in Gondar?
Her children ate at the feeding center and received health care from the Joint Distribution Committee's Solomon Clinic. She did not learn Hebrew and, she says, neither did her children.
In the corner of this bedroom-cum-salon sits a brand new, gleaming white refrigerator. It is almost like the family's centerpiece, a tall statue signifying the family's recent journey from mud hut to modernity and a treasure they are too scared to touch.
"Do you know how to use it?" I ask her simply, pointing at the fridge humming quietly in the corner.
At the Israeli Embassy compound in Addis Ababa, we were told that once a potential immigrant is given a date for aliya and enters the final phase of his journey, he is given guidance on how to use such technology as a refrigerator. The embassy, which also houses the Jewish Agency's operations in Ethiopia, even has a special classroom set aside to show the future immigrants things like how to clean their teeth using a brush and paste and how to use the toilet.
But Mekonen just smiles and shakes her head.
"We were taught about some things in Addis," she recalls, adding that what she heard about there did not make much sense until she arrived here. "They taught us the basics but there are still many things we have to learn here."
Asked whether she has left her apartment yet and gone out to explore her new surroundings - the Harel Mall is only about 100 meters from her front door - Mekonen again shakes her head.
"I have not learned how to speak Hebrew yet, so my brother [who made aliya several years ago] has been bringing us food," she says nervously.
Nachman Shai, UJC's senior vice president and director-general of its Israel operations, shakes his head when he hears that the family has still not ventured outside the confines of its apartment.
"It is hard for us to imagine how they are feeling because for us this modern world is so natural," he says. "Their lives over there are so ancient and they are propelled into a modern world here. What do we expect?"
"It will take a generation at least before they will start succeeding here," he observes, noting that it is only in recent years that the children of Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in the 1980s have started to serve in the IDF, a huge step toward integration in Israeli society. It will take time. The Jews who came to America [in the early 20th century], what did they do? What do Mexican immigrants in the US do? It is only the beginning and if you consider where they've come from, they are doing very well."
WHILE SHAI is optimistic that the immigrants will eventually succeed in much the same way as other nationalities who arrived here in the last 60 years did, research and statistics on the Ethiopian community paint a rather gloomy picture of a community spiraling out of control.
Unemployment has risen steadily since 1995 and, according to figures collected by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, stands at more than 60 percent. Earlier this year a study conducted by the Bank of Israel found that the income of Ethiopian immigrants who do work is roughly half that of other Israelis and more than half of all Ethiopian households live below the poverty line compared to about 16 percent of the Jewish population as a whole.
However the IAEJ estimates the number of Ethiopians reaching higher education has more than doubled over the past ten years and that the number of Ethiopian academics is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000. The problem, says IAEJ, is that many are unable to find work in their professions and that is a serious factor affecting the morale of the younger generation.
A 2005 report on juvenile delinquency among immigrant youth for the Knesset's Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee noted that the number of police files opened against Ethiopian teens has steadily increased since 1996 when it was 139 to 933 in 2004.
The committee has also found that at least 20% less Ethiopian students were eligible to take the high school matriculation exam and as many as one quarter of 17-year-old Ethiopians fail to finish high school.
However, perhaps the harshest statistics are those pertaining to domestic violence - murders of women by their husbands within the Ethiopian community accounted for 33% of all spousal homicides in 2006.
"We've raised these issues so many times and asked previous absorption ministers to change the whole concept," comments Labor Party MK Collette Avital, a former chairwoman of the Knesset committee. "The big problem is not that the government doesn't invest money; it does. But at the end of the day, the results are not what they should be and the situation is getting worse. They are not being integrated properly and Israel in general is becoming less tolerant and more racist."
She notes that the fact that many Ethiopian academics are unable to find work is mostly because of the "way they are being treated by the places that they go. When people find out they are Ethiopians, they don't get offered the jobs. It is the same problem in the schools, on the buses and with the health care systemâ€¦ and unless we deal with it, the problem will only get worse."
OF COURSE, as Avital points out, the integration problems faced by many Ethiopian immigrants are not due to lack of trying. Many of the aid organizations that serve them before they move to Israel, continue to offer support and assistance after they arrive. Today's new olim live for up to two years in an absorption center, then they are given generous government subsidies to purchase apartments and there is a wealth of in-school and after-school programs to help them.
"We need to work in more of a holistic way," states Shmuel Yilma, head of immigration and absorption programs for the Joint Distribution Committee, who came here from Ethiopia as a child in the early 1980s.
"We saw the families in Gondar and, for the most part, they are happy over there. Then something happens when they arrive here - the father does not know where he is, he loses his traditional patriarchal role over the family. They arrive here and everything changes."
"It is very difficult for the men to deal with the new status of the family when they arrive," agrees Shai. "Most of them do not have a relevant profession, they don't speak Hebrew and they have little knowledge of the modern world."
Yilma, who has been working with immigrants for the better part of a decade, believes that "the aim should be to strengthen the whole family as a family and not just work solely on the children or the women but on everyone. There are many programs to help women alone, but if they modernize and the men don't, then that is a cause of friction in the family."
Yilma is one of a handful of professionals who has been contributing his ideas to a specially appointed government committee set up earlier this year to look into ways of improving the absorption and general situation of the Ethiopian community.
While the committee did not focus on the immediate needs of the new arrivals but more on the problems of the veteran community, Yilma believes that the key in improving the integration in the long term lies in the initial stages of aliya.
"One of the main problems with the Falash Mura is the issue of religion," he says. "These people are not coming here as Jews and not only do they have to grapple with the transition to a new life, but also with the whole conversion process."
Under an amendment to the Law of Entry, which allows the Falash Mura to immigrate, the population coming now must spend the first year here converting to Judaism. They spend their mornings studying Hebrew, and their afternoons are taken up studying Judaism. The children must study in a religious public school.
"They are so busy with this that they have no time to learn Hebrew properly or find work while they are in the absorption centers," Yilma points out. "Psychologically, the process is extremely hard."
SOME BELIEVE that the situation as it stands in Gondar is also a major contributing factor to the problems the new immigrants encounter when they first arrive and later as they try to integrate.
Outside the JDC-run Solomon Clinic in Gondar, I meet Israel. Wearing a purple button-down shirt and with a physics textbook tucked under his arm, this healthy-looking 18-year-old, who even tells me he has a cellphone, says he is planning on making aliya within the next year.
"I want to live in Tel Aviv," he says proudly. "I don't mind if I have to go to the army, but I want to see the beach."
He explains that his family has been living in Gondar for 10 years waiting for approval from the Israeli government to emigrate. In the meantime, he says, he studies Judaism and Jewish history so that he will be "prepared" when he arrives.
But his face falls when I ask him if he speaks Hebrew.
"No, but I want to learn really badly," he says and asks me to send him a Hebrew book so he can learn the language while he is waiting.
"These compounds are taking the independence away from the people," says Negist Mengeshe, director of the Ethiopian National Project, a non-profit organization that funds educational projects for children and teens. "People are forced to beg twice a day for food and rely on handouts instead of helping them to become more independent."
Mengeshe highlights the surprising situation in Gondar, where a hive of Jewish aid organizations care for people in terms of nutrition and health and even teach them the basics of Judaism but fail to provide them with tangible tools to survive in modern Israel.
"It's complicated," explains Yilma. "The point of time that someone knows they are eligible or not is very short - two to three weeks at the most - and that is not enough time to get them ready."
He says we must concentrate on the process here once they arrive.
"The system really has to make an effort to understand our background," he says. "They took us from mud huts and threw us into a city. Perhaps if our absorption would have been into smaller places like kibbutzim or moshavim - places a little more familiar to our native area - it could be very different."
From Falasha to freedom
Shmuel Yilma speaks in polished English as he treats the participants of the CCD mission to a glimpse into his past as a child living in rural Ethiopia. We are sitting in the rundown schoolroom of the former Jewish school in Ambover, a farming village near Gondar that was once the spiritual center of Jewish life in Ethiopia but is now home to roughly 2,000 Christians.
It is hard not to miss the irony that this well-dressed, well-presented man was once a shepherd, in charge of his family's flock and responsible for taking it out to the fields to graze.
"This picture is still very strong in my mind," begins Yilma, 39, who was among the first Ethiopian Jews to arrive in Israel via Sudan on Operation Moses in 1980. In fact, the images of his former life are still so vivid, that Yilma, who now heads the Joint Distribution Committee's department of aliya and integration and works with immigrants from all over the world, has even put pen to paper and authored a book in English entitled From Falasha to Freedom, a detailed account of his childhood and the journey he undertook to reach the Promised Land.
For Yilma, his freedom came not only through the treacherous journey from his childhood village of Adi Worewa in the Tigre region of northern Ethiopia to Israel but also thanks to his excellent mind and aptitude for academic studies.
"I was very privileged," concedes Yilma, who was eight years old when his father chose to take him out of the fields and enroll him in a local government school and evening classes at the local synagogue to study Judaism.
"We would pray all the time that we would be able to leave for Israel soon," says Yilma, who recalls vividly the night his family set off. He was 11 years old and although the adults refused to share their plans with the children, Yilma says he knew in the days leading up to their departure that something was about to change.
The family then received word from his uncle, explains Yilma. "He was a Jewish teacher who had fled Ethiopia to Sudan and had been recruited by the Mossad to gather up the Jews and notify them it was time to make aliya."
"We walked for two months," he continues. "We could only travel at night because it was not safe to move during the daytime. At first we were 30 people, but slowly our group got bigger and bigger as more people joined us."
All the tales of escape from Ethiopia include such a large group and it is surprising that they managed to steal out of the country without drawing too much suspicion. Yilma is aware of the phenomenon and explains it as a "miracle."
"It was something out of our control, something that we have never been able to explain," he says.
Yilma and his family were not typical of most Beta Israel families making their way to Israel at that time and, luckily, spent no longer than a month in Sudan.
"We were one of the first groups to make it to Israel in 1980," he recalls, recounting how the family was transferred to an absorption center in Ofakim where they stayed for two years learning Hebrew and about life here.
"Arriving in Israel was a big shock," says Yilma. "It was such a contrast to what I was used to but the biggest surprise was that there were white Jews! I had never met white Jews before and was totally surprised."
Yilma got over his surprise and like any 11-year-old scholar, quickly adapted to school in his new life.
"They put me straight in the classroom and it was the right thing to do. I had no choice but to make an effort to understand what was going on and make friends," reflects Yilma, who also took extra classes in the afternoon to bring his Hebrew up. "Even if you don't speak the language and the move has not been straightforward, when you are a child you find a common language and just start playing football or something."
Perhaps it was this hands-on experience that propelled him toward becoming only the second Ethiopian-Israeli to win an officer's epaulet in the elite Paratroop Brigade or to complete both a BA in educational administration and an MA in educational counselling, or maybe it was just his excellent mind that pulled him through to where he is now.
Whatever the reason, when you follow his journey from farmboy to professional, it is clear that the roots do not always make the man.
Leah Betahulin's aliya story will be remembered as one of the more inspiring moments of the 2007 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission to Ethiopia last month. The slender 26-year-old recounted to the more than 170 Jewish professionals and lay leaders, as well as the 90 immigrants about to make aliya, a story about her first days in Israel in 1984.
"We were taken to live in the absorption center in Kiryat Gat," says Betahulin, who was only three when she left the village of her birth with her parents and made the arduous journey. "My sister and I had never seen an elevator before and we were obsessed with playing with it. I remember that we used to push all the buttons on that elevator as part of an ongoing game. We played with it so much that in the end we broke it and got stuck inside."
Betahulin has come a long way since the absorption center. Today, she is actively involved in helping her community via the Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000 program and the Federation of Greater Toronto's special campaign in Rehovot.
"My parents always wanted us to have the best," says Betahulin, who spent two years as an emissary in Canada. "After four years in the absorption center, we moved to Rishon Lezion. They wanted to be in the center of Israel and in an Israeli environment."
She says that hers was one of only 20 Ethiopian families in the town at that time and she was the only Ethiopian in her high school.
"I see myself as more Israeli than Ethiopian," she says. "Growing up we were not so connected to the community. We made aliya so that we could become part of the Israeli community."
After finishing high school and a stint working for Magen David Adom as part of her national service, Betahulin enrolled in Bar-Ilan University to study political science and public community studies. It was during that time she began to lecture to birthright israel groups and she was soon picked up by Israel at Heart, a New York-based organization that speaks out for Israeli causes on US campuses.
In 2004, she was sent to work for Hillel at the University of Western Ontario and since returning has working for the Jewish Agency and the Federation of Greater Toronto.
"I love giving something back to the community," she says. "We have already implemented some programs in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood in Rehovot, where 60 percent of the residents are Ethiopian."
Betahulin describes some of the outreach work she has done in that poverty stricken neighborhood, where Ethiopian youth gangs wander the streets with nothing to occupy them. And she noted the irony that she shares the same roots with these youngsters, many of whom have given up hope.
"If you have a person at home who is supporting you, you are more likely to succeed," Betahulin says, when asked why she has become a model citizen of sorts and others end up falling through the cracks. "If your parents are there pushing you that makes life much easier."
She says it was thanks to her parents' commitment and dedication to her future that she came out unscathed from a potentially damaging aliya experience. "My mother and father always worked and we never felt like anything was missing from our lives."
Asked whether her parents are proud of her achievements, Betahulin laughs and then gets philosophical.
"I know that I am fulfilling the dreams of my mother. She did not have the opportunity to learn formally and after visiting the place where I was born, I understand better where they came from," she says. "They were only in their 20s when they brought me and my sister to Israel. They carried us on their backs and even with all the difficulties they faced, they still managed to give us everything... I really don't think I could have done what they did."