In the Or Menahem Yeshiva High School in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli student and his Ethiopian friend hang up signs in the hallway that read "Our culture" in Amharic to advertise the school's upcoming Sigd celebration.
Next Monday, the 29th of Heshvan (November 16), marks Sigd, traditionally celebrated by Ethiopian Jews as a day of fasting, prayer, forgiveness and longing to return to Jerusalem.
"This is a chance to express the feeling of pride that the yeshiva has in having [Ethiopian olim], and make [the olim] proud of their tradition," says Rabbi Roni Lottner, dean of studies.
At Or Menahem, Sigd is a chance for the Ethiopian students to work together with their native Israeli peers and give the larger high school community a taste of their culture. On Thursday night, students, parents and faculty will circulate among eight stations set up to display Ethiopian traditions and history. In addition, Ethiopian and Israeli students will perform a traditional Ethiopian dance and partake of Ethiopian food.
The Ethiopian absorption in Israel has been tumultuous. As recently as two years ago, 50 percent of Ethiopian families were still living below the poverty line. In August, news broke that religious schools in Petah Tikva were refusing enrollment to Ethiopian students.
Or Menahem is one of several yeshiva high schools trying to improve the situation. The Kiryat Arba institution took in 25 new Ethiopian immigrants at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. The students, most of whom had made aliya less than a year before, started school at the age of 16 and 17 and will spend four full years in the school.
The new olim have been placed in a separate class designed to help them learn Hebrew and catch up to their veteran Israeli peers.
Rabbi Doron Hadad, who teaches in the Ethiopian program, claimed that because many of the boys lacked previous learning experience (some had worked as shepherds in Ethiopia), it was difficult for them to learn what it meant to be in a yeshiva and high school framework.
After a student learns enough Hebrew, he enters the regular classes, one by one. Now, a year and two months into the program, all of the Ethiopian students have integrated into at least one class (mostly math, English and physics), and each student has taken at least one bagrut (matriculation) test. The goal of the program is for each student to complete his matriculation exams and go on to military service and to study in a higher yeshiva or university.
Some students are already looking past high school.
"I want to learn, to get a doctorate," student Belanyeh Rata told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "Maybe in English."
For now, he is keeping busy taking the second-highest level of English (next year he hopes to reach the highest level), and taking the English, math, Jewish Oral Tradition, and Hebrew bagrut exams this year.
The program at Or Menahem has been particularly successful both because students, regardless of age, commit to spending four years in high school, and because of special measures the school has taken to help acclimate the new olim.
An "aliya buddies" program set up by the school has helped the students integrate, while allowing the veteran Israelis to learn from their Ethiopian peers. Each immigrant has an Israeli partner who is there to help with schoolwork as well as ease the new student into the social scene. Recently, the new olim and their buddies went on a tour and a day of learning in Ramle about the holiday of Sigd and its background.
"The absorption shouldn't be one-directional," said Shimon Eliav, an 11th-grader who volunteers for the program. Eliav claimed to have learned from the studiousness of his Ethiopian peers, while 10th-grader Yedidyah Rotenberg said he had learned what it meant to preserve tradition from the Ethiopian Jewish narrative.
"We feel that as a yeshiva near Hebron, with the merit of living next to the burial site of Avraham Avinu [the patriarch Abraham], that we have a special responsibility to be active in society," said Rabbi Avinoam Horowitz, head of the yeshiva. "In schools we build society - in practice, not just in theory. The new Ethiopian olim make the rest of the students more aware and sensitive to the broader issues in the country and give them hands-on experience in what it means to be part of creating a healthy society."
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