ESRA: Gaining by giving

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” – Anne Frank

ORIT SABHAT, Ethiopian-born and active in the Students Build a Community flagship project. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ORIT SABHAT, Ethiopian-born and active in the Students Build a Community flagship project.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
These past weeks have been filled with pain and joy.
We commemorated Yom Hashoah – remembering the six million, of whom 1.5 million were children, barbarically annihilated solely because they were Jews. We can but wonder how Jewish demography might look today had the “cultured” Germans not decided to end the lives of two thirds of European Jewry. My blood pressure rises when I hear the word “Holocaust” used in reference to other killings, however traumatic and painful, for there is no example in history that compares to the meticulously planned and executed murder of six million of our brethren.
On the heels of Yom Hashoah came the suffering of our citizens in the South subjected to a non-stop bombardment of rockets resulting in deaths, injuries, property damage, plus the trauma of having to rush back to shelters exited only moments before.
Remembrance Day followed, when we pay tribute to those who gave their lives to ensure the survival of the one Jewish state. It is exceedingly painful to witness a father saying kaddish for the child who fell defending his country. How do parents come to terms with a loss of a child? My late mother-in-law lost her daughter, aged 25, through illness. She said this is something you never overcome because it is the wrong way round, a lifelong loss, a precious future snatched away forever.
The transition from a day of mourning to a day of celebration seems incomprehensible yet this is the reality as we left the sorrow of Remembrance Day and entered the joy of Independence Day.
The country’s achievements are little short of miraculous since 1948. David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the State of Israel was immediately followed by the War of Independence when Israel had to fight for survival against a coordinated attack by well-equipped Arab armies from countries larger and more populous than us. Our fledgling state was assisted by some 4,400 overseas volunteers – mahalniks – who left their respective countries in order to defend the tiny imperiled homeland. It is heartening to see that there are still young Diaspora Jews who leave their studies and the security of a loving family to volunteer to join the IDF as Lone Soldiers. These are the mahalniks of today.
Volunteering has played an enormous role in the history of our nation. The country has non-profit organizations whose volunteers make a difference in the lives of those facing a range of challenges. Perhaps the greatest achievement of these past 71 years is the successful absorption of millions of immigrants from diverse backgrounds. Often it is the volunteer, who has experienced the challenges of integration into a new society, who can play a meaningful role in successfully helping other recently arrived immigrants to feel at home in their new environment.
MAY 14 is the date on which Ben-Gurion declared independence, and this year on that date the English Speaking Residents Association celebrated 40 years since its founding by the far-seeing and energetic Merle Guttman, ESRA’s life president. The predominately volunteer-based association serves to ease the absorption of English speakers into Israeli society by providing them with social, cultural, educational and support activities.
It isn’t easy to transfer from one country to another, especially with a different language and culture. ESRA assists challenged immigrants by offering counseling (in English) by ESRA volunteers trained to alleviate the sense of disorientation and loss often experienced by new olim.
ESRA’s English tutoring program, recognized and valued by the Ministry of Education, affords the opportunity for some 300 volunteers to enter schools to help the students improve their spoken English. The students progress in language skills as the olim enjoy conversations and connections with their students, a real win/win situation.
From its formative years, ESRA has played a constructive role in the absorption of immigrants; initially supporting those from the former Soviet Union, then rolling out programs geared toward absorbing olim from Ethiopia.
The Magazine spoke with Orit Sabhat, born in Ethiopia, who is currently studying education and social sciences following her service in the IDF’s Intelligence Unit.
SABHAT WAS not yet two years old when she arrived from Ethiopia with her mother and three siblings via Operation Solomon in 1991. Her father remained in Ethiopia, reluctant to leave his brother who was serving in the Ethiopian army. Sadly, the brother was killed in action and never made it to Israel. Today both parents are here together with their 12 children.
Sabhat is active in ESRA’s flagship project “Students Build a Community” – a project that began in a heavily Ethiopian neighborhood in Netanya in 2006, offering carefully chosen students rent-free accommodation in areas of severe deprivation in exchange for their mentoring neighborhood children. It has proven to be an outstanding success; creating a better future for the children fortunate to be guided and ultimately for the entire community.
Sabhat has been part of the SBC project for the past three years, mentoring, in total, 12 boys and girls aged nine to 12 years from differing backgrounds. Currently she is caring for four girls of Ethiopian origin, providing a wonderful role model.
Sabhat explains the difficulties her youngsters face. Having seen how her own parents struggled to settle into a totally different environment from that in Ethiopia, she understands that parents sometimes feel isolated because they do not know Hebrew well, yet their children choose to communicate with them only in Hebrew.
“We students are endeavoring to give the help to our youngsters that their own parents find difficult to provide,” Sabhat says. “It isn’t solely about helping the kids with their schoolwork; more importantly, they need someone who believes in them. These children often suffer from emotional, social and learning difficulties. They are introverted, finding it hard to express their feelings. My role as a mentor takes on significance when I become the ‘big sister’ providing a safe place to talk, express feelings and build self-confidence. Aside from the satisfaction of seeing my youngsters grow, the project has helped enormously with my studies. It has been my good fortune to work with a wonderful team headed by ESRA’s dynamic volunteer head of projects, Nina Zuck, from whom I have learned much.”
What’s in Sabhat’s future?
“I dream of setting up a school for young talent with an emphasis on art and sports. During my years of working with youngsters, I found that there are multi-talented children unable to develop their talents within the current educational system “
Toward ESRA’s 40th anniversary, I interacted with a number of volunteers who have made a positive difference in the lives of others. Not one wanted thanks. The standard response was “Don’t thank me for giving because I gain so much from being able to give.” 
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.