Netanya's Ethiopian community learns to help itself

The Forgotten People Fund, dedicated solely to aiding Ethiopian olim, has remained undeterred in confronting the daunting problems facing the community as itadjusts to Israel's culture.

netanya ethiopian 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
netanya ethiopian 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The people of Ethiopia are known for their endurance. The Jews of Ethiopia have shown tremendous endurance through the centuries with their tenacious attitude toward the dream of returning to Zion. Now they need such tenacity when adapting to modern life in Israel - a complete transition from the simple, rural life they led in Ethiopia. Their aliya has been taking place over the last 20 years - sometimes in massive numbers with banner headlines and at times quietly with scarcely a murmur from the media or government. It is an aliya beset not only by the usual problems and challenges of new immigrants, but also additional hurdles of a people finding their place in a society that is completely foreign to the one they left. Amidst accounts of the problems they suffer such as poverty, joblessness, family violence and the difficulties of their young people, emerge stories of people and organizations who are effectively helping by giving this community the tools with which to help themselves. From the time of their first mass aliya in the 1980s and early 1990s - Operations Moses (1984) and Shlomo (1991) - the city of Netanya has been a magnet for Ethiopean immigrants' absorption. The community of Jews from Ethiopia in Netanya now numbers approximately 13,000 people. As time goes on, priorities change and attention shifts, but one organization of volunteers whose efforts are directed solely to helping Jews from Ethiopia, called the Forgotten People Fund (FPF,, has remained steadfast. The FPF's overriding goal for the past 15 years has been to help this community feed their families. "Unfortunately, the situation of most of the families from Ethiopia has improved only slightly since they arrived," says FPF chairperson Anne Silverman. "The gap between those who have and those who have not in Israel is widening. Currently, we help 500 families who are most needy on a regular basis, after checking with social workers to avoid duplication of efforts." "Instead of a reduction, we find that the numbers are increasing," says Silverman. "On the other hand, due to more local and overseas support we have widened our services and are likened by some local social workers to the 'MDA of social services,' whose motto is: 'If you call them, they come.' When distress calls come in, we go to the homes with social workers; we listen and see where we can be of assistance. We contribute money to pay utility bills, cover school expenses, help defray medical costs, purchase needed furniture, and even pay for transportation for families to visit sick relatives in distant cities and hospitals." "We want to see a better life for these lovely, gentle people," Silverman explains. "It has been our good fortune to have tremendous support not only from our members in Israel but also from various overseas sources, including funds and foundations in the US, Holland, Switzerland and the British Friends of Forgotten People. It is our joy to be able to supply some of the needed extras in life that give people the strength to help themselves." Once a week, volunteers go to the Rashi School in Kiryat Nordau near Netanya, where some 90 percent of the students are from families who originated from Ethiopia, to tutor in English. The families are large, and there is scant money for food and no extra money for after-school activities. "These children are as bright as a button," emphasizes Silverman, "and it is a delight seeing them learn and progress rapidly with our extra attention in an informal atmosphere." In February this year, the fund helped girls in the Rashi school celebrate their bat mitzva with a gala event and Shabbat at Ramat Shapira, an Educational Center located in Beit Meir outside Jerusalem. This celebration of a young woman's entrance into the Jewish community proved a confidence-builder in the lives of these girls. "We want to help these people integrate into Israeli society and help them help themselves," says Aida Miller, vice chairman of FPF. Miller manages the fund's "hands on" outreach program, and coordinates with the social workers of families in need of assistance. "When I see that in addition to no food in the cupboards or refrigerator there is also no hot water, heating or closets, I ask permission to send the plumbers and carpenters our fund works with to ease the situation. After the work has been completed, we ask the family to contribute to the cost, if at all possible. These people are proud to be contributors to their own welfare - they just cannot do it all. With our help, they gain the experience of how to deal with these situations." Elderly olim and those toward the end of their working career are at a disadvantage, both financially and socially. Last December, the fund initiated a nutrition course for the elderly at the Sapir Center in Netanya's disadvantaged Dora neighborhood. "We began the nutrition course under the leadership of FPF volunteer Sima Biton, who provided three lectures on what to eat in Israel, given by a professional nutritionist in Hebrew and translated immediately into Amharic," relates Miller. "The course focused on the most nutritious foods for the elderly to eat, how to prepare these foods (many of which were not known in Ethiopia), and where to buy them. The foods were actually prepared during the lecture and after the lectures the participants sat down and had lunch. Sima told me how much the seniors enjoyed the program and the meal that followed. She realized that many of them were hungry. We suggested that the FPF provide breakfast for the seniors on the days that the center is open for activities for the elderly. Now approximately 35 people come three times a week for a breakfast that provides not only the nutritional requirements but also serves as a forum where the seniors can ask questions about their personal welfare, the medications they take and medical care. It is also an opportunity for them to get out of their small apartments and into a socializing environment." The organization is also starting a gardening project on the grounds of the Sapir Center where the senior men can grow and harvest vegetables, continued Miller. "The FPF will provide the tools, drip irrigation, seeds or plants, and the fencing. The responsibility for the upkeep of the garden and harvesting its bounty will be the seniors." The FPF works with Pnina Zinger, Director of the Department for the Elderly and Social Welfare in Netanya, and Lakia, a representative of the Ethiopian community who organizes the activities for the elderly at the Sapir Center, in sponsoring handicrafts and embroidery courses for the women and monthly lectures by a "kes" (community rabbi) for the men. On Jerusalem Day this year, the city of Netanya arranged for buses to bring many of these seniors to the memorial ceremony in Jerusalem honoring those who died on their journey from Ethiopia to Israel. The municipality previously provided buses for the FPF to take senior community members to museums and other sites in Israel. "The trips to various historical and cultural sites were guided by leaders who speak Amharic," says Zinger. "It's our goal that these travels will increase this community's awareness of the ancient and modern history of Israel." By spreading the word of their travels, these people can be the "givers" and not only the "takers" in their community, says Zinger. Members of the Ethiopian community in Netanya have benefited from the kindness of many other local charities, including the This Land Is Mine Olim Fund which awards young Jews from Ethiopia scholarships to universities and other institutions of higher learning, the Open Pantry which supplies food parcels to large and needy families in the Netanya area, and the English Speaking Residents Association in Israel (ESRA). Putting food on the table is often the first hurdle that Ethiopian immigrants face when starting life in Israel. In 1999, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption ostensibly conducted a careful evaluation of the overall social service program for the Ethiopian community, in order to address other serious problems and challenges the community faces. The government decided that assistance in close proximity must be available to this community, and established local Absorption Ministry branches within neighborhoods populated by Jews from Ethiopia. Each branch office, called a Moked, is staffed by Amharic speakers in order to help with the daily issues. One of the first branch offices opened was in the Azorim neighborhood of Netanya, in July 2000. It consisted of one room, one telephone line, one broom and one employee, Dr. Seffefe Balay Aycheh (pronounced "Eicher"). Dr. Sefefe, as he wishes to be called, has first-hand experience about what it involves to make aliya from Ethiopia. "My family made aliya in 1987," he relates. "My wife and I came with our four children, then aged three to 14. In the beginning, all our time was invested in settling our family, learning Hebrew, widening our education and training for our professions. My wife received training as a nurse in Ethiopia, and then completed her first degree in social work at Tel Aviv University. My first two degrees in medicine came from universities in Ethiopia, and after our aliya I was accepted by Tel Aviv University where I received a PhD in epidemiology and public health. Today, my wife and I are grandparents and the elder of our two daughters has just earned a Master's in biochemistry from Tel Aviv University." Dr. Seffefe and his wife's parents were not able to come to Israel, but they passed on to their grandchildren an important legacy - a dream of Israel, a better life and integrity to their family. Dr. Seffefe relates that his father was a simple man, a farmer and in his eyes, a man of great intelligence. "I admire him, and although my parents did not succeed in getting to Israel, his words are always in my thoughts. His determination has been a model in my life. He was a member of the Ethiopian army during the Italian occupation, which fought for five years with simple guns and spears. The Ethiopians won - the first time that a black army won over a white one. More importantly, it was his determination that the dream of Zion be ever before us, and that I should be an educated person. It started with the name he chose for me." "It's very important among the Jews from Ethiopia to choose a good name." explains Dr. Seffefe. "A name may be given according to an event that occurred when a child was born. It could be a remembrance of an event that occurred in the community, a point in history or as an expression of a father's hope or dream. My name, Seffefe, means 'to float' and precedes my father's name, Balay, which means 'upward.' He wanted me to reach a good social position. Although my position as director of the Moked usurps my profession in medicine in Israel, I find satisfaction in fulfilling this responsibility by helping my community adjust to life in Israel." The center now has a staff of five. The quarters of the local absorption center have expanded to three rooms with two telephone lines - which seem to be in constant use - and the center is open daily from 9 am to 8 pm. "Our program objectives are twofold: to work with people - individually or in small groups - to find ways of solving problems within their homes and families; and to educate and update the families about their new environment, the rules and norms of society, and every aspect of their absorption," says Dr. Seffefe. "We are constantly assessing the needs of the community, the structure of the families and its children, and then building activity programs to fulfill these requirements." One of the most pressing needs is to be considered a full Jew by the government, and Dr. Seffefe says that the community owes Rabbi David Chayim Chelouche, the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Netanya, a debt of gratitude. "In agreement with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, he recognized the Jewishness of our community and it members, and was appointed by the Supreme Court in 1989 as the first and sole official marriage registrar in Israel. We are indebted to his careful research into the history of our people. The book he wrote, The Jews of Chabash (the ancient name for Ethiopia), brought to light our customs and observations of the mitzvot, and his genuine and personal attention to our people." Rav Chelouche's advocacy of Jews from Ethiopia opened the way for further rabbinical and community acceptance. After instituting programs to educate Ethiopian families and respond to their personal and family needs, Dr. Seffefe and his staff developed programs to train a cadre of young people to be volunteers and leaders within the community. Through workshops and conferences, they have begun training their youth to assume leadership roles and be their voice in Israeli society. "It is evident on a local as well as national level," explains Dr. Seffefe, "that as long as you do not have anyone in the city council, you do not have a real voice. It is our goal to train our youth to reach a level of involvement in the city council and workings of the local government. As we become more involved in the everyday life of the country, we can be recognized as a people known for their skills and traditions, who are working to overcome their problems. This year, we were able to educate the public about the Seged holiday that we celebrate around the time of Pessah. We are a part of the Jewish people and are proud of our heritage." Dr. Seffefe and his staff intend to make the center a bridge between government programs and individuals. "Here individuals can express in their own language what is happening to them and what their needs are. We can then guide them to the correct government offices where they can reach the right people. We can translate written letters, helping the individuals respond correctly, and find ways to solve problems in the workplace. We have helped over 2,300 people thus far." Finding work is a major hurdle. Dr. Seffefe points out that educated people in the 22 to 40 year age bracket are coping; 30 to 55-years-old with no education are considered suited only for service jobs in gardening, hotels and house maintenance. Many times their employers take advantage of them. The over-40s have the hardest time adapting. They do not have experience of city life, and lack the educational background and skills suitable for a western society - yet they may still be the breadwinners for their families. "They exist on minimum income, and it is our responsibility to help them," says Dr. Seffefe. "We have to be a voice for them as well as for the younger members." Responding to this dilemma, Dr. Seffefe and his staff have expanded the Moked's activities to include job searching. Over 600 immigrants have turned to the Moked's service, with a small percentage finding employment. He reports that the situation has grown tighter, with poverty on the rise. Rising to this challenge to ensure a better future for members of the community, Dr. Seffefe and his staff were able to enroll 21 men (aged 25 to 40) in a licensed truck drivers' course, 16 adults in a hairdressers' course; and the Moked has helped over 50 children find places in additional education and enrichment programs. "We are trying to help ourselves," concludes Dr. Seffefe. "Due to poverty and cultural differences, there is a rise in family violence and suicides. Through personal counseling services and identifying the situations at risk, we try to provide solutions. We have found that there are times when utilizing community elders to provide guidance and support is of tremendous value. We are a proud people. It is of great importance to us to be able to say that we are proud of our community, our children, and to be Jews in the Land of Israel."