Bridging the Gap

The fear and distrust between the Ethiopian community and the police are deepening. In a project which is the first of its kind in Israel, an attempt is being made to bridge this chasm.

JNF-UK IS proud of its support for the mechina and the Tears for the Heart project. (photo credit: JNF UK)
JNF-UK IS proud of its support for the mechina and the Tears for the Heart project.
(photo credit: JNF UK)
The fear and distrust between the Ethiopian community and the police are deepening. In a project which is the first of its kind in Israel, an attempt is being made to bridge this chasm: The Or Me’ofer pre-military program, together with the police of neighboring Kiryat Malachi, came up with a one-of-a-kind idea to bridge that gap.
In Bat Yam on a January afternoon in 2019, 24-year-old Yehuda Biadga, an Ethiopian, was killed by the police. Yehuda’s parents had reported that their son had mental issues, hadn’t taken his medicine and had left the house carrying a knife. The police found Yehuda, who had served in the IDF but was released due to “trauma,” and, according to their report, ordered him to drop the knife twice. Yehuda refused.
One of the officers, feeling that his life was in imminent danger, opened fire. Two bullets to the chest. Yehuda died instantly. After a police inquiry, the police officer who had been responsible for Yehuda’s death was cleared of any wrongdoing. An infuriated, frustrated and disappointed community, along with their supporters numbering in the thousands, peacefully protested in Tel Aviv against what they claimed was an ongoing pattern of police brutality and discrimination toward the Ethiopian-Israeli community.
The tragedy was brought even closer to the students of Or Me’ofer, a pre-military mechina (college preparation), since Biadga had been a good friend of one of the students there. They were all angry and hurting. Rabbi Kobi Levin, head of the mechina, understood how painful the situation was.
Or Me’ofer is a one-to-four-year program that, if desired by the student, will prepare him for matriculation exams. Jewish studies, however, are mandatory as are leadership classes, the aim of the latter being to prepare the student for the outside world. There is also an additional option of training to be a fully certified electrician. The students are also prepared for army and community service. There are trips all over Israel to familiarize them with the country, plus lectures and workshops on a wide variety of subjects, many given by successful graduates with the aim of encouraging the students to become active themselves. The students in the program come from all over the country and are between the ages of 18 to 24. All of them are Ethiopians.
The mechina is funded in part by the UK branch of the Jewish National Fund, and scholarships are available if needed. The school is located in the village of Mercaz Shapiro, eight minutes from the city of Kiryat Malachi and is part of Yeshiva Or Etzion.
AFTER BIADGA’S death, Rabbi Levin invited Shai Mizrachi, chief superintendent of the Kiryat Malachi police, to meet with his students who shared their anger, distrust and even fear of the police.
“In our conversation, we found that we have many issues in common and we were able to talk freely about them and discuss how we can improve the relationship between us,” he says. “We came up with a project we call ‘Tears of the Heart.’”
In the weekly program at Kiryat Malachi police headquarters, the students are “big brothers” to some 20 Ethiopian kids living in town. With a population of 30,000, half of whom are Ethiopian and half of those are teens, it is the perfect place for “tikkun olam,” in Jewish teaching, this refers to acts of kindness performed to improve the world. Together with the mechina, the police and the town’s social services, the boys were carefully chosen and the project is coordinated by an Ethiopian-Israeli police officer, one of many serving in the Israeli police force. The meetings are a safe place for the kids to discuss their personal struggles and negative feelings toward the police.
In turn, they are learning how the police work and, along with their role model mentors, have discussions, get advice and support in a variety of educational areas and engage in a game of soccer or basketball at the end of each meeting. If the teens meet the program requirements, their criminal records will be erased so that they can serve in the army and even the police.
ONE OF the program’s mentors will be 23-year-old Matan Agumas from Petah Tikva. When he was 16, while sitting with two friends on a city bench, the police approached him, having been summoned to a nearby event. Without explanation, the boys were taken to the local police station where, after several hours of questioning, his friend muttered the word, “racist.”
That’s when Matan and his companion were taken to the bathroom, the only area that was not equipped with cameras. There they were allegedly tasered and beaten. At 2 a.m., they were released to their parents, who were very worried about their children’s disappearance. After being told what had happened, they hesitated filing a complaint out of fear.
“It was a terrible time in my life,” says Agumas. “I couldn’t go back to school because everyone there ignored me and looked at me like a freak. My friends dropped me and I became shy, withdrawn and miserable, I was in shock by the way the police had treated us and it changed everything. I was pretty messed up.
“My older brother told me about Or Etzion and its mechina, Or Me’ofer where I can combine yeshiva studies with Bagrut preparation. This was perfect and I signed up immediately, but before I could complete all my matriculation exams, I was called into the army. I was a combat soldier doing ground intelligence. After finishing the army, I returned to Or Me’ofer and am working on preparing to complete my Bagrut, besides taking more leadership classes. I’m now taking classes to get my electrician’s license – a new option here.”
Just six months after the January killing of Biadga, another Ethiopian young man tragically lost his life. Solomon Tekah was with some friends in a park when an off-duty policeman also felt his life was in “imminent danger” even though some witnesses claim that Tekah was not armed. This time, thousands of protesters across the country took to the streets to express their anger. What started as peaceful demonstrations soon turned violent, causing huge traffic jams, vandalizing police and civilian cars and even setting them on fire. Four policemen were injured. Major roads and highways had to be closed, including the entrance to Kiryat Malachi where the demonstrations were loud and clear.
Agumas explains why he’s taking part in the project.
“I came from Ethiopia when I was six years old and was taught, even at that early age, that Israel is the country for the Jews and my family is Jewish,” he says. “When we got here, as I got older, I saw that it wasn’t so easy and that there were problems. The incident with the policemen was the first time I had anything to do with them and it made me realize that we had to unite. This mentoring project gives me the chance to help do that.
“Make no mistake, I am very angry at those specific policemen who did what they did to me and my friends, but in a way, it was a good thing because from there I came to Or Me’ofer and got wonderful opportunities and met wonderful people. I know that there will always be some bad apples in the bunch, but we have to educate them as well. This program helps me do that.
“Sadly, one of the kids who was with me on that bench in Petah Tikva made a mess of his life and is in prison. The other is serving in an elite branch of the IDF. I don’t know if that incident with the police affected my friend in prison, but frankly, if it hadn’t been for Or Me’ofer, who knows whether I might have ended up behind bars. Now it’s my turn to give back by being a ‘big brother.’ I’m excited about the chance.”
YONATAN GALON, CEO of JNF-UK, which has supported the mechina for years, is also proud of the “Tears for the Heart” project.
“The program gives students of Ethiopian heritage the chance to play a bigger role in Israeli society,” Galon says. “The cooperation between the students Or Me’ofir and the police is a key part of the JNF-UK vision: that all the parts that make up the jigsaw puzzle of Israeli society will fit together. This includes increased opportunities for everyone, no matter from where they came or where they live, especially those coming from the Negev.”
Police chief Mizrachi is very excited about “Tears of the Heart.”
“This is a unique plan, the first of its kind in Israel,” he says. “Me’ofir and our team have put a lot of thought into this program to get it just right and I’m more than optimistic that this will be the blueprint for similar programs throughout the country, if not the world.”