Cushioning their future

The Ethiopian Quilting Project will hopefully become a chain of community-based, money-making co-op factories for traditional patchwork quilts.

Getu Zemene 521 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Getu Zemene 521
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
We all have no doubt heard the well-known adage that if you give a man a fish, you have fed him once; but if you teach a man to fish, you have fed him for the rest of his life. Ra’anana resident Terry Mowszowski, however, gives this old bromide an ambitious new spin, declaring, “Teach him how to fish, and he will probably be opening a restaurant soon and employing the best of chefs.”
That is the basic idea behind a new project to help Israel’s struggling community of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants. This novel, out-of-the-box initiative involves neither fish nor restaurants, but establishing what will hopefully become a chain of community-based, money-making co-op factories, employing Ethiopian men and women, using new technology to make traditional Ethiopian patchwork quilts. Project organizers believe that these colorful craft objects, already popular and in increasing demand throughout Israel, Europe and the US, promise significant profits if marketed correctly.
The project was launched in Ra’anana last month at an event called Ethiopian Olim Success Night, which drew upwards of 150 people to the expansive backyard garden of Loretta Belik. Longtime Metro readers are probably already aware of the Belik family’s commitment to social service. Belik’s husband, Harvey, was one of the first doctors in the world to rush to Haiti to assist survivors of the 2010 earthquake. He has also donated his time in a free clinic for African refugees and migrants in Tel Aviv; is involved with activities like Peace Team, a mixed Australian Rules football team of Israeli and Palestinian youth; and volunteers with Budo for Peace, which brings Jewish and Arab children together for lessons in martial arts.
Loretta Belik, for her part, has involved herself for the past several years with the problems of Ethiopian olim, and has helped many individual new immigrants adjust to Israeli society and achieve success.
Belik acknowledges that the task of providing such help can sometimes be difficult, not only because of the unique challenges Ethiopian immigrants have had to overcome, but also due to the vagaries of language and culture. She says, “Ethiopians never say ‘no.’ Everything is ‘yes,’ even if it’s really no. They can’t say no, they can’t let anyone down, so they always say yes. So if you ever want to help any Ethiopians, just remember that when they say yes, just check to see if it’s a real yes or not.”
Several successful Ethiopians were on hand at Belik’s backyard soiree, largely to show that Ethiopian immigrants can in fact achieve success – despite the obstacles put in their way – if given the proper assistance. Twenty-six-year-old Kokit Hylo recalled coming to Israel as a small child and spending her first three years with her family in an absorption center. Now fluent not only in Hebrew but in English as well, Hylo is studying law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
While proud of her accomplishments thus far, she explains, “I can’t turn my back on my heritage, or my background. My parents did not assimilate here the same way that I did, and their experiences are different from mine. But I guess that is the result of coming here as a small child. What you deal with is your reality; you don’t have to adapt to anything. Older people have had to deal with many obstacles, many difficulties.”
Yossi Vasa recalls trekking 700 kilometers on foot with his family from northern Ethiopia to Sudan. Because the departure of Jews was forbidden by the Ethiopian government, his family, like many others, traveled secretly by night. Beset by robbers all along the way, they finally arrived at a transit camp in Sudan, where hospitality was short, medical supplies meager and food almost inedible. Two of his brothers and a grandmother died at the camp, before 10-year-old Vasa and what was left of his family were finally flown to Israel.
Once here, he says, his immediate reaction was shock from the discovery that other, non-Ethiopian Jews were white. “It was very scary. I was wondering if they were actually born that way. I was wondering if this was going to gradually happen to us as well, like some sort of medical problem. I was very innocent. I didn’t speak the language. I just walked around with a smile on my face. I didn’t know what people were saying to me. It was my first encounter with Israelis. I didn’t feel insulted by anyone. I was so happy. And when people said ‘Kushi’ [a slur against blacks], I said ‘Yes! Yes! I have a new name: Kushi!’ I was very optimistic and positive.
“Then I began to learn Hebrew, and that’s when the problems began. Because then I realized what was really happening around me, what people were really thinking about me. I’ll never forget the first school I went to. Everyone was white. Everything was white. It was very hard for me.”
Today Vasa is a successful actor and playwright, who writes and performs his own plays. His one-man show, It Sounds Better in Amharic, has received critical acclaim in both Israel and the US.
And last but not least is Getu Zemene. Back in Ethiopia, Zemene spent more than a decade being almost solely responsible for the lives of some 10,000 people, supervising a staff of over 150, keeping order, dealing with crises, settling disputes, working with aid organizations and the Ethiopian government, building and running a large elementary school, establishing programs in adult education and employment, building a synagogue and running Passover Seders for 6,000 people. From 2000 to the end of 2010, Zemene was the director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry’s multiservice residential compound for Falash Mura (Beta Israel members who converted to Christianity under pressure) in Gondar, and thus the leader of a community that at its peak numbered upwards of 10,000 people. Zemene served the community in this role until the compound was taken over by the Jewish Agency, and he and his family were brought to Israel on January 1, 2011.
We first met Zemene in January 2012, after he and his family had spent a full year languishing at the Ra’anana absorption center, without employment, prospects, or much hope. Now, a year and a half later, with the help of Belik and others, Zemene is busy working at a hi-tech company in Ramat Hahayal, his son is in the army and studies in the mechina program at Hebrew University, and his two daughters are at Amit Renanim high school in Ra’anana – one with plans to become a cardiologist.
Despite these obvious success stories, all is far from well with the Ethiopian community as a whole. “We have got in Israel today maybe 120,000 people from Ethiopia,” says Zeev Bielski, former head of both the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization. “Some of them came from Ethiopia, some of them were born in Israel. This week was the last flight of people coming to Israel from Ethiopia. I have been there; I have seen the conditions in which these people were living. We brought them here to Israel. We failed with the absorption. It takes so long; maybe for the next generation, maybe even for the next, next generation, until they will feel fully Israeli and be absorbed here.
“And there are so many difficulties for these people who came here to Israel in good faith, who were coming ‘home.’ They got on an airplane for the first time in their lives. After four hours, they were in Israel. They came to a place with a different mentality, a different culture. And in one minute, they had to become Israelis. It was so difficult, and we didn’t do what we needed to do.
“But now, with new ideas like this project, maybe we will start doing the right things for the right people. This project will be wonderful for the Ethiopians, and wonderful for Israel.”
The Ethiopian Quilting Project, as it will be called, aims to provide employment and income for unemployed and impoverished Ethiopian men and women, while developing and expanding upon traditional Ethiopian handicraft. It will spring from the production and business expertise of two dedicated individuals, master quilter Mowszowski, and textile manufacturer Aarran Levy.
“Our vision is to seed a co-op of men and women in suitable accommodations with the right type of equipment and supplies, in order for them to make quality products for sale, locally and abroad,” says Mowszowski. “We hope this medium will help them to keep their colors of Africa and their culture alive, within the framework of their personal creations, once they have learned the art of patchwork and quilt-making.”
While patchwork can be done on a sewing machine, quilts are made on something called a longarm machine, which typically consists of an industrial sewing machine, a table ranging anywhere from three to 4.2 meters long and up to 1.2 meters wide, with several rollers on which layers of fabric are placed and made into a quilt. The bestselling longarm machines are made by a company called Gammill, Inc. in the US state of Missouri, and cost around $35,000.
Levy, who made aliya with his family six years ago from Manchester, says that two of these machines could provide employment for the 30 to 40 Ethiopian men and women he hopes to start with initially. “I have a textile business based in the UK,” he explains. “But we have some manufacturing facilities in China. We thought that maybe we could move some of the manufacturing here to Israel, and open a small production factory that we could set up and run. We thought about this, but it really wasn’t until we had spoken to Terry Mowszowski, who showed us her ideas on quilting. That’s when we thought that this area could really work.
“There have been other projects, other people who have tried to help. But we thought that this was something that could provide an income and also work on a daily basis for at least 30 to 40 men and women. Quilting is a huge, huge business at the moment, and it’s really growing – not just here in Israel, but also outside Israel, the US and Europe. We really felt that we could get this working.”
After a period of initial start-up, Levy hopes to establish branches throughout Israel in places with large numbers of Ethiopian immigrants, like Hadera, Netanya, Rishon Lezion and Beersheba. Although it will begin as a charity – and one in need of fund-raising and contributions – Levy stresses that the middle-term goals for the project are to become self-financing and sustainable, with longterm hopes of profitability.
“It’s going to be called the Ethiopian Quilting Project, initially,” he says. “But we’re going to have a name for the business, because we plan for this to be sustainable. And we’re developing the business plan and marketing strategies now, so that rather than remaining a charity it will become an actual business.” Mowszowski adds, “To empower a group of people and to give them the tools to be self-sufficient and creative takes time and effort, and of course money, but will hopefully pay off big-time for those who are willing to learn and do.”
It is certainly worth the effort. Asked by someone sitting in Belik’s garden what the Ethiopian immigrant community has to contribute to Israeli society, Vasa replies, “I don’t think we have any exotic knowledge. That will not be our contribution. But what has helped the Ethiopians through their challenges is their feeling of community, coming together in happiness and sadness. You can see this at a funeral, where everyone is crowding around the bereaved family. People supporting each other emotionally, financially.
“This community feeling is something that has helped the Ethiopian community survive here in Israel. These are the values that I want to teach my children. And these values are what we have to contribute to Israeli society.”For further information about the Ethiopian Quilting Project, contact either Terry Mowszowski,; or Loretta Belik,