Ninety percent culture

The organizers of an upcoming fund-raiser aim to empower Ethiopians by showcasing their talent.

Among Ethiopians there is a very well-known Amharic saying that goes "Kas vekas unkulal be'igro yehedal." Literally translated, it means "Slowly, slowly the egg will walk on its own." That saying could well apply to the gestation process of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP). What started in 2004 as a projected nine-year program is now taking a lot longer to propel itself. "The financial crisis brought us to our knees," says Tracey Shipley Amar, marketing director for the ENP. For several years the nonprofit organization had enjoyed the luxury of being funded by world Jewry and the Israeli government, she explains. But now the donations are not coming in as fluidly as before. Previously working with 7,500 teens aged 13 to 18 in 28 youth centers in 26 cities across the country from Afula to Beersheba, ENP now has 6,500 teens in 23 centers. "Every year we have to cut hundreds of kids from our programs," Amar laments. The ENP programs include after-school scholastic assistance, Atidim programs for challenging academic endeavors, neighborhood outreach centers for youth at risk, preparation for the army, and workshops designed to empower parents and community lay leadership. To help raise funds and, just as importantly, to raise awareness about ENP and its needs, Amar and her colleagues, with the help of events producer Lior Avshalom, are presenting a concert to showcase the rich dynamic of the Ethiopian culture. Entitled "Ethiopian Cultural Benefit for ENP," the show features a roster of the most talented Ethiopian professional and amateur entertainers in Israel. The concert serves a dual purpose, explains Amar. On one hand, it serves to introduce the Israeli public to the fascinating world of Ethiopian music, dance and theater - "an opportunity to show off the beauty and the strength of their culture," as Amar puts it. On the other hand, it helps the performers and everyone involved in the show to feel good about themselves and what they have to offer. This aspect of self-esteem is very important, Amar explains, because over the years Israel has often raised funds for Ethiopian endeavors by playing the sympathy card, focusing on their low economic status, their agrarian culture and their need to be trained - or retrained - to fit into Israeli society. "But you can't try to make these people feel good about themselves when you portray them as miskenim [victims]," says Amar. "We want to change that concept. We want to make them [the Ethiopians] feel good and have Israelis be in awe of them," she says. The bottom line is that the show is a fund-raiser, says Amar. "But you can't raise funds for an organization that no one knows about," she reasons. To that end, the show is free and open to the public for all to enjoy. The purpose, says Amar, is to show Israelis "who we are, what we do, and why we're essential." And culture is the best way to bring that out, she says. Due to the popularity of this event, reservations must be made in advance, as there will be no tickets given out at the door. So how is this a fund-raiser if the entrance is free? Envelopes will be placed on each seat so that audience members can have the opportunity to make a donation to ENP after the show. The organizers are certain that once the audience sees and appreciates the people and projects involved, they will want to render their support. ENP's partners in this project are the Begin Heritage Center, the Jerusalem Municipal Absorption Office and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. "We want this event to be exciting and emotional," says Amar. "In the past, most Ethiopian fund-raisers have focused on talking and not on culture. We want this event to be 90 percent culture and 10 percent talking." And that it will be. The show is chockful of singers, dancers, musicians and actors, all of whom are volunteering their time and talent for this benefit concert. It will take place at the Begin Heritage Center, which does a lot of work with the Ethiopian community. The center, too, has volunteered its services, donating the auditorium, sound and lighting for the show. This is an extremely appropriate venue for the concert, says Amar, as Menachem Begin had a very big place in his heart for Ethiopian Jewry. He is noted for having said, "Bring my children home. Even if they have to sleep under the stars, bring them home." Feeling very much at home on the stage, the emcees of the concert are two well-known actors, Tehila Yeshayahu-Adga and Benny Getahun, who perform in a popular Ethiopian show at Confederation House called Teret Teret. A headliner in the concert is Kanobesh, one of the most famous Ethiopian folk singers and dancers in Israel. She performs all over the country with her keyboardist, Ovadia Mersha. Similarly, Solomon and Adgo are a popular duo who play traditional Ethiopian music on the krar, a five-string, bowl-shaped lyre; and the masenqo, a single-string violin. In addition, some half dozen groups of teenage singers and dancers will take the stage to perform in Hebrew and Amharic, most of them formed by youngsters from the ENP youth outreach centers. Bubot Sh'horot is a group of 10 teenage boys and girls from Lod who will perform traditional Ethiopian songs and dances under the leadership of actor, comedian and choreographer Tesfahun Alomo. Lev Lelev is a six-member song and dance troupe from Petah Tikva as is Chelti from Arad. Nitzenet is a troupe from Jerusalem that consists of nine girls performing traditional Ethiopian dances. And Shavei Zion, also from Jerusalem, is a group of six young male rap singers whose theme is "It's tough being an Ethiopian in Israel." In a theatrical mode, three actors will perform a sketch from Teret Teret, which is Amharic for "I will tell a story." Yeshayahu-Adga, Getahun and Ayachewe Baya will enact an Ethiopian folk tale to the musical accompaniment of top singer, composer and jazz saxophonist Abate Berihun. On a more dramatic note, the Hulogob theater group will present a monodrama entitled "Levada" ("Alone") in which Yeshayahu-Adga tells the compelling story of a single mother trying to find love. Amar is certain that the audience will love the show and will gain a new respect and admiration for this proud but modest community. In fact, she hopes that people will see these performers and say, "I want you for an event!" Ethiopian Cultural Benefit for ENP, March 31, 6:30 p.m., Begin Heritage Center. Tickets must be ordered in advance. There will be no tickets at the door. To reserve, send an e-mail to: To order by phone, call 052-613-0737. For more information about ENP, visit the Web site: ENP is a partnership between the United Jewish Communities, the Israeli government, representatives of Ethiopian Jewish community organizations, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel and Keren Hayesod-UIA.