Enacting a Mitzva

Ethiopian olim and British youngsters team up to 'look after one another and feel a sense of belonging to one global Jewish world.'

Bar mitzva boys Oliver Jobling from Manchester, England and Ethiopian Yeshmabel Warez from an absorption center for new immigrants in Safed needed no common verbal language to communicate when they met for the first time earlier this month. Their body language said it all, to each other and to their proud, smiling families gathered around. Hardly a dry eye was to be seen as a grinning Jobling presented his Israeli counterpart with a skateboard he had brought from England, decorated with the name of his Ethiopian "twin" and inscribed with his own nickname, Olly. Warez's delight at receiving such a gift needed no translation. The boys were among 40 Ethiopian bar and bat mitzva youngsters (20 boys and 20 girls) and 10 peers from Britain participating in one of the most innovative and emotional twinning projects between Diaspora Jewry and Ethiopian new immigrants in Israel. This year's joint celebration of transition from childhood into adulthood was also the 10th anniversary of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) of Great Britain's Bar and Bat Mitzva Program, founded and spearheaded by Manchester businessman Larry Gould and wife Michelle, whose son Ilan was among the Anglo-Ethiopian mitzva twins some years ago - as was Sophie, the daughter of Karen and Peter Goodkind of London who are today major donors and supporters of the innovative program. The six British boys and four girls, together with their parents and siblings who came to Israel for the collective celebration, represented a quarter of the British children twinned with peers presently residing at the Tzahal Nine absorption center in Safed. "Some of the British children here now, as well as British 'twins' who were unable to be here this time, have visited their Ethiopian partners at the absorption center over the last year," explained Yonatan Freedman, director of the absorption center, where some 70 families comprising 500 adults and children are presently housed. "There are seven or eight people on average in each family at the center. The most veteran of them have been here for one-and-a-half years, and the most recent arrived just a matter of days ago," continued Freedman, who prior to taking up his present position was an aliya emissary (shaliah) for the Habonim-Dror movement in the UK. Based in Manchester, Freedman was responsible for the movement's branches throughout Britain and Ireland, his duties also taking him to Scotland, from where two of the British bar mitzva lads hail. "When in Manchester and Glasgow I came into contact with some of the local families who had committed themselves to this marvelous project. At that time, of course, I had no idea that fate had planned I would be so involved in the project from the Ethiopian immigrant side on my return home," smiled the Kibbutz Hulata member, who recently visited Ethiopia. Bar and bat mitzva "twins" are encouraged to correspond with each other via email (translated by the UJIA) and have formed more than cyber-friendships. The British children also experienced a learning curve taking them on a journey through the Ethiopian community's history, culture and present-day challenges. "This brings an age-old tradition into the 21st century, emphasizing the invaluable link between Israel, Ethiopia and the UK. There's an arvoot - a guarantee - that the Jewish people, whether near or far, will look after one another and feel a sense of belonging to one global Jewish world," concluded Freedman. Preparing the Ethiopian children for their bar and bat mitzvot involves four months of weekly classes at the absorption center, focusing on Jewish identity and connection to the Land of Israel. In addition, the children are encouraged to volunteer to help others, participate in local trips and attend structured Shabbat programs. They also study at Safed's Livnot U'Lehibanot, a Jewish Agency project involving young adults from overseas. The ceremony, held at the Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem, was followed by a festive banquet for family and friends of the exuberant youngsters, obviously relieved that the study program they undertook to learn more about their Jewish identity and heritage had prepared them well for the special day - for which they were complimented by Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, who addressed the children and their families. A group of 45 British teens on tour of Israel with the UK's Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) also joined the young celebrants and their families for the service and banquet. The teens represented the 500 Jewish teens on tour with FZY in Israel this summer, the organization having put the twinning program at the center of its tzedaka (charity) initiative, mobilizing its membership in Britain to raise money for the project. Roxanne Kaye of FZY is one of the touring British teens able to see the fruits of the movement's fundraising efforts in Britain for the Ethiopian immigrant children, some of whose Hebrew is still weak (they received Amharic translations from time to time from ever-attentive counselors). "I am so incredibly excited to go through the bar mitzva experience with these kids," she said. "The children have obviously looked forward to this truly overwhelming event for some time, and I am grateful to be part of a youth movement in Britain that has helped give them this opportunity." Michael Freeman, director of FZY in Israel, has had his hands full this summer with one of the largest numbers of Israel tour participants of any European youth movement. "The Ethiopian Bar Mitzva Fund really embodies FZY's ideology of strengthening the connection of these new olim to their Judaism and ensuring a future for the Jewish community here in Israel. We are immensely proud to be involved and hope to see it continue to thrive in future years," said Freeman, a former Londoner. Each of the Ethiopian children received a set of new festive clothing, talitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) for the boys, and candlesticks and Magen David pendants for the girls. They also ascended to Jerusalem from Safed bearing gifts for their British "twins," who will surely have many a story to tell their friends back home in Manchester and Glasgow.