To the heart of the matter

Students around the world are carrying out the important task of raising awareness about real life in Israel and educating people about the true nature and character of our Jewish homeland.

American Israel flag kippa 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
American Israel flag kippa 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
My high school recently hosted an event celebrating Israeli culture in which students performed Hebrew songs, skits and comedy scenes, to honor our Jewish homeland. It was also done to raise money for Yemin Orde Youth, a boarding school in the north of Israel that was destroyed in the Carmel fires last December. The evening was filled exclusively with Israeli entertainment and the entire event was presented in Hebrew. This was a wonderful way for a school community to show its love and support for Israel.
After a performance by a group of students of Idan Raichel’s song ‘Mai Nahar,’ I awaited the next presentation, expecting it to be another Hebrew pop song. However, much to my surprise, two Ethiopian Israelis walked onto the stage. I soon learned that these young adults were visiting with a program called Israel at Heart. Israel at Heart is a non-profit organization which brings young Israeli students to schools and college campuses around the world to share their compelling stories of their childhood and how they arrived in Israel. They shared their stories of acceptance into the Jewish state, about how they struggled to assimilate into their new surroundings and culture.
Israel is often portrayed in the media as a terrorist state which should be wiped off of the map. Universities throughout America have sponsored Apartheid Week, which aims at raising support for Arab rights in Israel, including things such as full equality and protection of their territories, as well as a destruction of our Jewish state. Israel is depicted as oppressing its Palestinian minority and unfortunately, that bias is often the only side many people see. Israel at Heart has worked to develop a solution to combat this negative perception. This past March, a delegation of 16 Ethiopian Israelis volunteered to travel around the United States to tell their stories and promote the idea that Israel, in fact, is not a racist country.
Dina Lakao is a 24 year old student of Law and Government at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzelia. Her family came to Israel on Operation Moses, a movement which brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 in an effort towards building a better life. Shortly after her family’s arrival in Israel, Dina was born and was considered a first-generation Ethiopian Israeli.
She and her 13 brothers and sisters were put in an absorption center for new immigrants and they struggled to adapt to Israeli culture and way of life. One of the biggest hardships was fitting in because of their color; they had never before seen white Jews and Israel had never yet experienced Jews with such dark skin. Whilst they worked hard to assimilate into the Israeli style of living, Israel was very supportive of the new immigrants and incorporated them as citizens with complete rights. Since they were granted citizenship, Dina, like other Ethiopian immigrants, was required to join the Israeli army, where she worked as a social worker and later as a lieutenant.
Like Dina, Havtnesh-Liat Sabahat’s family also escaped Ethiopia in a secret operation.
When she was seven years old, Havtnesh, along with 200 other Ethiopians, walked for over a week to Sudan where she was placed in a refugee camp and from there, transferred to Israel. Upon arriving in Israel, like many other Ethiopians, her family struggled to adjust to the Israeli way of living and slowly learned how to accommodate themselves and survive in the Jewish state. Another challenge that arose was getting through school without any prior Hebrew education. Since Ethiopians’ native language is Amharic, it was initially hard for them to adapt to the Hebrew language. Havtnesh, however, successfully completed high school, advanced to the army and is currently a real estate lawyer in a law firm in Ramat Gan.
One story I had the privilege of hearing intrigued me even more than the rest. Among the speakers was a young man named Adam Bashar, a Muslim from the Darfur region of Sudan. When he was eleven years old, he and his family experienced a genocide similar to the one occurring in Darfur to this day. Militia men known as the Janjaweed burned his village and brought many people to the Nalma region in Sudan, where they arrested the villagers and held them hostage for about two weeks. At that point, Adam was able to escape. Having been separated from his family after the massacre, Adam ran away with other children from his village and successfully fled to Egypt. He hoped to receive help at a United Nations refugee camp in Egypt, but the conditions there were no better than the situation in Darfur. He was beaten and tortured and the accommodations were terrible.
Many people were killed there, but he and two friends successfully, in 2007, snuck into Israel through the border in Sinai. Upon arrival, they were placed in a kibbutz which provided them with work and taught them Hebrew. Two years later, Adam was brought to Yemin Orde Youth, where he was warmly welcomed and offered a great education. Adam currently studies Government at IDC and travels around with Israel at Heart to promote the idea that Israel, in fact, accepts refugees from everywhere, not just Jews.
The Israeli delegation traveled to college campuses and schools nationwide, where they spoke to audiences of African Americans to confirm that Israel accepts people for who they are, regardless of race, color, or creed. The group also traveled to various Jewish Day Schools around the country to show that it is important, as Jews, to accept other people into our lives and our homeland.
The members of Israel at Heart carry out the important task of raising awareness about real life in Israel. Their work educates people all over the world, making them conscious of the true nature and character of our Jewish homeland.