Necessary steps toward integration

While thousands of Ethiopians across the country gather to celebrate Sigd, for many, living here is not always a celebratory.

Zehava Tesefay and members of the IFCJ staff gather at Jerusalem's Sigd celebration at Armon Hanatsiv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Zehava Tesefay and members of the IFCJ staff gather at Jerusalem's Sigd celebration at Armon Hanatsiv
A profile of an Ethiopian-Israeli woman who rose the ranks from cleaning lady to an executive at a burgeoning hi-tech company in the span of two years was featured by The Marker earlier this month.
That article about Shoshi Jember is an inspiring rags-toriches story to be sure, but Zehava Tesfay, programming head of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews (IFCJ), lamented that such stories are the exception, not the rule.
“When we talk about social gaps, we’re talking about the problem in an overarching way, not looking at one example and saying ‘Oh, see? Everything is fine,’” said Tesfay, who is of Ethiopian descent, referring to the Jember profile.
“We need to come to terms with the fact that Ethiopians really face dead ends here in Israel in their day-to-day lives, where progress isn’t possible.”
Her comments coincide with the Sigd holiday, a traditional day of fasting and prayer commemorating the Ethiopian Jewish community’s 2,500 years of yearning to return to the Holy Land. And while this holiday is usually a demonstration of joy and hope in the Ethiopian community, the grim reality is that much work needs to be done in order for the community to be fully integrated into Israeli society.
Not much has been done since the 2013 State Comptroller report published its first findings on Ethiopian society, which said that despite visible and significant efforts by the government to advance the community’s integration, undeniable gaps still remain in fields such as employment, education, army service and welfare.
Recently, several high-profile incidents – mass demonstrations over police brutality and the Avraham Mengistu family’s attempts to release him from Gaza falling on deaf ears – have raised awareness that when it comes to equality for Israeli citizens of Ethiopian descent, much work needs to be done.
The Fellowship understands this and is fully committed to closing these gaps.
“For a quarter of a century, the Fellowship has done more to help Ethiopian immigrants than any other nonprofit in Israel,” the organization’s founder and president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, said.
For example, the IFCJ was heavily involved with the historic Operation Wings of Doves, which brought 8,000 Ethiopian immigrants from 2010 to 2013 and has contributed roughly $53 million to make their aliya dreams come true.
The Ethiopian aliya is a miracle in and of itself. After waiting decades for permission from their government to come to Israel and then nearly a decade in refugee camps waiting for a flight that would finally take them home – their journey to the country was not an easy one.
Eckstein vowed that those years of hardship will not be in vain.
“After doing everything we could to help bring Ethiopian Jews here, we couldn’t stand idly while they were victimized by discrimination or lived in poverty,” Eckstein said.
“When we look at the work of the Fellowship with the Ethiopian community, we’ve been engaged since the very beginning. We are very much attuned to their reality and the hardships they face,” Tesfay said.
“I’ve spoken to Ethiopians in university and they tell of people assuming they are custodians, not students, simply because of the color of their skin,” Tesfay said, as one example of the kind of casual discrimination community members face.
Because there is much work to be done, the Fellowship leads several programs to ensure the country’s Ethiopian community is fully integrated into society.
“Our services run the gamut. We help those in economic distress, fund nonprofits specializing in assisting Ethiopian immigrants, provide vocational training to young members of the community and have built 22 spiritual centers where the community can celebrate events, pray in its unique way and preserve its wonderful traditions,” Eckstein said.
Two years ago the IFCJ implemented its Azimuth program, which aims to help the young generation of Ethiopians.
Before, during and after their army service, Azimuth tries to ensure that these young men and women are given the same opportunities as everyone else. This includes, for example, pre-army courses that help them obtain coveted roles in the IDF or financial planning courses once they are discharged so they are able to handle the daunting responsibilities of adulthood.
Such programs aren’t one-offs. In fact, the IFCJ has invested more than $43 million in these programs in the belief that a fruitful life in Israel doesn’t begin and end with aliya.
This article was written in cooperation with the IFCJ.