Israel offers religious courses to help Ethiopians integrate

Mikveh and ‘shechita’ courses attempts to assist Ethiopians feel part of Israel’s religious sector.

ENSURING ETHIOPIAN representation: At the course on ‘shechita’ (left) and for ‘balaniyot’ training. (photo credit: COURTESY RELIGIOUS SERVICES MINISTRY)
ENSURING ETHIOPIAN representation: At the course on ‘shechita’ (left) and for ‘balaniyot’ training.
‘One of the main tasks I’ve set for myself over this past year has been to provide members of the Israeli-Ethiopian community with the necessary tools to integrate into the country’s religious establishment,” says Rabbi Reuven Wabshat. “To that end, I opened a new course for Ethiopian women to train as balaniyot (mikveh attendants) and the first class just ended a few weeks ago. In addition, a shechita (ritual slaughter) course for members of the Ethiopian community also began, which is funded by the Religious Services Ministry.”
According to Wabshat, chief rabbi of Israel’s Ethiopian community and the head of religious services for the Ethiopian community, a department of the Religious Services Ministry, the decision to open these two courses was important. “There are currently no representatives of the Ethiopian community in Israel’s official slaughter authority,” explains Wabshat. “In addition, members of the Ethiopian community have not made much headway in integrating into jobs in specialized fields, such as in the religious authority.”
What are the main reasons for this phenomenon?
“Some individuals are skeptical regarding the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews. In addition, there’s just outright discrimination. I must note that the Chief Rabbinate recognized the Jewishness of Ethiopians’ Jewishness based on the religious ruling by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The Chief Rabbinate also relies on this ruling for all religious decisions, such as with regard to marriage registration. Nonetheless, there are still individuals who, despite this clear ruling, choose to discriminate against members of the Ethiopian community. All public religious councils around the country are required to follow the Chief Rabbinate’s ruling. For example, every woman who completes our mikveh attendant training course and passes the exams, is eligible to be employed in public mikvaot in Israel.”
Is this actually happening on the ground?
“Of the hundreds of mikvaot operated by the Religious Affairs Ministry, only a handful are operated by members of the Ethiopian community. It’s possible that Ethiopian women are hesitant to apply for this position due to psychological blocks and that all they need is someone to assist them with the process. That’s why we’ve stepped in to alleviate these obstacles. A number of women expressed interest in working in a mikveh, so now we’ve opened the door for them to apply. By the way, in mikvaot in which the balanit is Ethiopian, the number of women using that specific mikveh has risen considerably, due to their high level of professionalism and graciousness. I’ve spoken with a number of heads of religious councils and they are all happy to hire our graduates. For example, the council head in Ramle has committed to hiring two of our graduates.”
WABSHAT ADMITS that the graduates of the new mikveh attendant course will, however, have an easier time finding jobs than those finishing the ritual slaughter course.
“All the shechita work is done through contractors,” Wabshat explains. “It’s not just hard for Ethiopians to get these jobs – it’s hard for Sephardim, too. There’s a lot of discrimination in this field. Sometimes there aren’t any positions to be filled, but other times there’s a huge need for more employees in the shechita industry. We’re going to need to work hard to overcome this obstacle of discrimination.”
Wabshat emphasizes that the goal of the new course is to “correct the injustice of Ethiopians not being hired to work in the religious services establishment. The men who complete this course will have extra backing and support, and will have a much better chance of getting placed in a job. The next time a spot opens up for a mikveh attendant, for example, our graduates will have as much of a chance of getting the job as anyone else.”
Some 22 women participated in the mikveh attendant course and 21 men are currently participating in the four-month shechita course. Miriam Shata, 40, an educational counselor from Ramle who is married and the mother of three children, recently completed the mikveh attendant course.
“It’s important for there to be Ethiopian mikveh attendants,” claims Shata. “One of the reasons I wanted to do the course was to encourage more young Ethiopian women to use the mikveh, and I think if more of the attendants were from our community, these women would be much more likely to come to the mikveh. Back in Ethiopia, it was a given that all the women dipped in the mikveh. There was no discussion about whether it was a good or bad thing. We adhered to this mitzvah very stringently.”
GADI ASRASO, 40, who is married and the father of seven children from Beersheba, is a student in the shechita course.
“I was very eager to work in something connected with Jewish religious life that will also help the community,” Asraso says.
Would he rather study in a course that was open to the general community and not just for people from within the Ethiopian community?
“Well, I’m not sure I would have joined a regular course. First of all, they are quite expensive, around NIS 7,000, and this one is fully subsidized. It’s also a much nicer way to study, since we understand each other better and can help each other with the learning. I personally would have succeeded just fine in a standard course with other Israelis, but there are a number of students in the class who would have had a hard time with the competitiveness and intensity. Everyone wants to show how knowledgeable they are and that they’re better than their fellow students. We’re not like that at all.”
DIKLA BASOFKAD, a leader in the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry organization. (Credit: HILA KENIN)DIKLA BASOFKAD, a leader in the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry organization. (Credit: HILA KENIN)
“I AM responsible for providing my community with opportunities,” explains Wabshat when asked why he opened this unique course just for Ethiopian Israelis.
“It’s a form of affirmative action, and yet the course is taught exactly like all the others. It’s just that many Ethiopian men are hesitant to join a class with other Israelis and have a hard time overcoming the cultural obstacles. They feel much safer in this small, homogeneous environment. With respect to the mikveh attendant course, when I looked at the test scores of the Ethiopian women, I saw that they passed with extremely high marks. I expect the men in the shechita course will also pass with flying colors. In both of these courses, I think some of the participants would not have learned the material nearly as well. In this framework, they all helped each other and the atmosphere was extremely conducive to learning. They felt empowered and motivated to learn and succeed. We are shy, quiet people and sometimes it is hard to fit into mainstream groups.”
But aren’t you concerned that holding a separate class might harm the community’s chance of successfully integrating into Israeli society?
“The women who’ve just recently completed the mikveh attendant course will soon begin working in public mikvaot around the country, where they will be engaging with Israeli women from all sectors and communities. Only 40 hours of the training course were carried out in a separate group. Our goal is to help them find jobs in the religious establishment. That’s the goal we’re working toward. These courses are the best way for us to achieve this goal.”
YET, SOME leaders of the Ethiopian community claim that just the opposite is true – that this action, among others, is leading to increased separation.
“If I were a mother and I had a daughter who wanted to be a mikveh attendant, or my son wanted to be a shochet, then I wouldn’t want them to join a special course just for Ethiopians. I’d want them to learn in a regular class with all the other Israelis,” says advocate Dikla Basofkad, a leader in the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry.
“In my opinion, the very exclusion and separation being made with this special course for Ethiopians not only doesn’t help, but is actually harmful. In the past, for example, there was a special pre-army program called Amir that helped prepare Ethiopians for IDF service. The idea behind it was that it would help prepare them to deal with the difficulties of serving in the army. But these were kids who were born in Israel, and the IDF realized after a while that the course wasn’t necessary, so they terminated it.”
According to Basofkad, making an over-generalization about an entire population as having certain characteristics is actually actively creating a stigma.
“At the end of the day, most members of the Ethiopian community have been living in Israel for over 35 years, and we are no different from all the other Israeli citizens,” says Basofkad. “As a result, there’s no reason to hold a special course – this just serves to isolate us from the rest of society. In my opinion, Ethiopian immigrants have all the skills and talents required to succeed in this and other fields, just like all other Israelis. If a woman desires to be a mikveh attendant, I am sure that she will do well in a regular course. Even if the goal of the course is to help her succeed in the end, the fact that a special course is being held is a huge problem.”
“In my view, by holding separate classes, we are saying that this population needs special treatment, or that the other side does not accept us,” says Kasao Shiprao, an Ethiopian-Israeli who is a human rights activist. “It makes a statement, saying you are different, even if it was made with good intentions. The younger generation that was born here is just like everyone else. We don’t want or need special treatment.”
“AFFIRMATIVE ACTION is necessary if we are going to counteract the discrimination against the Ethiopian community,” says Religious Services Minister Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas). “This is a very respectable community, and for years it’s been necessary to carry out certain actions so that they could be included in Israel’s religious services. Helping and guiding them in these areas is the correct way to help them integrate into Israeli society. These courses will be a great boost in helping them enter the workforce in the religious sector and better integrate into Israeli society.”
“There is a tremendous lack of members of the Ethiopian community working in the religious sector,” continues Vaknin. “Clearly, we are not holding these courses in an effort to increase the cultural gap, but rather to increase and ease the integration process and bolster the Ethiopian community. Our goal is to empower these men and women, and help them find gainful employment in which they will serve all members of Israeli society. This is the first time we are engaging in such an endeavor and we are optimistic that it will be of great benefit for the Ethiopian Israeli community.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.