The community leaders

Dorit Shitrit (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Dorit Shitrit
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Shortly after the protests by Ethiopian Israelis took to the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Dorit Shitrit, as executive director of Jerusalem’s Greater Baka Community Center, traveled to Lod to meet with other heads of community centers, to discuss how they should handle the uptick in tensions.
“I thought on the one hand, I understand them. Racism is a problem, and it hurts. But I didn’t like the violence against the police and all the things that happened at the protest.
“It’s important for them to say what they think and what they feel,” Shitrit maintains. “I was reminded of the protests by Moroccans [in the 1970s] against the country because of racism.”
For her own center, Shitrit felt comfortable and confident that the antagonism on the streets was not present in the community. The Greater Baka Community Center encapsulates the neighborhoods of Baka, Shikunei Talpiot, Talpiot, Arnona, Abu Tor and Mekor Haim. The entire area is a diverse mix of native born Israelis and families originally from Russia, France and Ethiopia. Shitrit’s responsibility, in her position over the last 12 years, is to bridge the many and varied gaps between these neighborhoods, which include children from different ethnic backgrounds as well as those with special needs.
“I come with the notion that everyone is equal, and everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed.”
Born in Baka, Shitrit explains that she was aware of the need for social justice from a very young age.
“I’m here because I want to be with people, to help them. Together, the community can do positive things for this area, and for Jerusalem.”
With a PhD in childcare education, Shitrit works in coordination with the city municipality and local schools to design and implement after-school programs and activities for students.
In all six neighborhoods of Baka, Ethiopian Israelis number around 700 – about 2.5 percent of the population, with 487 born in Ethiopia. It’s a large minority with a variety of needs. Their neighborhoods are noticeably more neglected than their neighbors, and instances of crime are higher.
Yet a turnaround came about two years ago, Shitrit recalls, when – with the help of the Greater Baka Community Center, the municipality and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – a new community center, Beit Hayedidut, came into being specifically for the Ethiopian Israelis in the area.
“The main thing is it’s for the adults,” Shitrit notes, adding that it is a place of prayer, activity, community and a hub for the elderly to congregate.
Entirely comprised of area volunteers, it promotes programming in culture, education and youth activities.
The parents have even formed a task force to patrol the streets on Thursday and Friday nights, collecting any loitering youths and encouraging them to go to the center. Shitrit applauds this move because it comes directly from the community.
Beit Hayedidut’s manager, Ethiopian-Israeli Tzion Getahon, says the center has already had a positive influence on the community. “I want to develop this as a place that displays the heritage of the Ethiopian community – so people from the outside can come here and see who we are. I’m in the process of development; in a few years, I hope to realize my vision.
“It’s a process, and I hope that I succeed. Then, people who are trying to help the community can come and learn about us, and our culture and heritage.”
When the demonstrations started, Getahon says the community got together to discuss their frustrations and experiences, and “try to make sense of what happened at the protests.
“People spoke from the heart with a deep pain.
Almost everyone ended up talking about their own experiences and the problems they and their families have faced in the past as Ethiopians in Israel,” Getahon recounts. “Some of the stories they told, about treatment they’ve received, were hard to believe – even for me, who is out in the field every day.
“It really opened up a floodgate and everyone opened up when they realized, ‘It’s not just me that this happened to.’ Everyone has a common experience that they went through.”
At the meeting in Lod, Shitrit said more than once that she heard Ethiopian Israelis assert they need to be more independent, to not rely on the state for programs and assistance.
Shitrit says that with her focus on the Shikunei Talpiot area, she’s proud that area kindergartens are mixed. She’s aware of some classes that are all Ethiopian Israelis, and while she thinks this is a disservice to children in the process of integration, she believes the parents have the prerogative to decide which school their child attends.
Shitrit firmly believes in the power of education from an early age, and the role of parents in stressing the importance of this and involving them in the process. She says that when her community center organizes activities around the holidays, she’s happy to see that Ethiopian Israelis make up the majority of participants.
While Getahon believes the government needs to take action in eliminating discrimination and racism, he adds that Ethiopian Israelis need to be partners in advancing their place in society. “We have talented people, who can be partners and participate in all facets of society and make an impact.
That’s the only way for things to change.”
More emphasis needs to be put on field work, he contends, noting that committees and officials sitting in an office are not sensitive to the reality on the ground. “If a committee is established to deal with the issue and it doesn’t see what’s really happening out there, then the situation will just repeat itself and the same mistakes will be made.
“It is unacceptable that in a country so innovative and progressive, a phenomenon like this continues to exist,” Getahon concludes. “It hurts.”