One child at a time

Established in 2004, the Ethiopian National Project is making inroads into the integration of immigrants.

The primary program is SPACE, which enables pupils ‘in their critical years’ to stay after school to receive tutoring, with the aim of providing both emotional and academic support. (photo credit: PHOTOS ENP)
The primary program is SPACE, which enables pupils ‘in their critical years’ to stay after school to receive tutoring, with the aim of providing both emotional and academic support.
(photo credit: PHOTOS ENP)
Jews from all over the world have been coming to Israel in droves since the state’s founding – among them, the tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who began arriving in the 1980s. However, coming from an agriculturally based society, Ethiopian immigrants have faced immense challenges integrating into modern Israel, and have been far less successful at doing so than the millions of Soviet Jews who arrived in the ’90s. While there are famous success stories such as Yityish Aynaw, the country’s first Ethiopian-born Miss Israel, the reality is that around half of the community remains below the poverty line, and many older Ethiopians are illiterate.
One of the organizations trying to help Ethiopian Jews in Israel is the Ethiopian National Project, which was founded in 2004. However, unlike many similar groups, it is not just an organization for Ethiopians; it is also run by Ethiopians. Ethiopian Israelis serve as staff members and community liaisons, allowing the community to state its needs rather than having them assumed.
According to Grace Rodnitzki, the group’s director of international relations, having Ethiopians be “not just beneficiaries but participants” has been critical to ENP’s success.
ENP ultimately concluded that the community had two major needs: work and education. Rodnitzki describes how the organization saw young people committing crimes, falling behind and dropping out of school. She also notes that “many young Ethiopians were being sent to boarding schools, because it was believed that they were unable to keep up at standard schools.”
These factors inspired ENP’s two major projects for teens at risk: SPACE (Scholastic Performance and Academic Community Empowerment) and youth centers.
The primary program, according to Yisrael Rosenberg, an associate in ENP’s International Relations Department, is the SPACE program, which enables pupils “in their critical years” to stay after school to receive tutoring, with the aim of providing both emotional and academic support. Professional teachers offer four teaching hours each week in subjects such as math, Hebrew and English, and help students prepare for matriculation exams. The groups are small – no more than eight students per teacher – which allows for individualized attention. Each participating school is evaluated to determine the specific needs of its students, and ENP tutors are in regular contact with the students’ teachers.
According to the organization, education is the gateway to fulfilling the Ethiopian community’s other need – work. The philosophy, states Rodnitzki, is that education allows for better jobs, which means a better future, a way out of poverty, and ultimately becoming successful members of Israeli society.
Rosenberg explains that SPACE aims to fill gaps that result from many older Ethiopians’ inability to guide their children through the Israeli educational system due to languagebarriers, cultural barriers, or illiteracy.
The youth centers, meanwhile, aim to keep the young people in the Ethiopian community – where poverty is rampant – out of trouble. Municipalities provide ENP with free space for the centers, of which there are 20 scattered across the country. They offer everything from cooking classes, soccer clubs and dance groups, to driving instruction and Amharic language courses (as a way to help youngsters stay connected to their roots). In addition, they teach leadership skills to parents and community leaders so they can play a greater role in the children’s progress. All of the programs are free.
As proof that its programs are working, ENP points to a sharp decrease in juvenile delinquency in the community, as well as increased self-confidence (Ethiopian youth are now expanding their memberships to mainstream youth centers and clubs), and improved performance on matriculation exams.
A 2012 report, Ethiopian National Project: Scholastic Assistance Program, New Findings about Program Impacts on High School Performance of Ethiopian-Israeli Students, states that in 2010 eligibility for matriculation certificates increased from 49% to 62% and that eligibility for matriculation certificates that meet university admission criteria increased from 29% to 44%. ENP students are also showing greater pride in their heritage; Rosenberg says “They are getting their own schools to observe Ethiopian holidays with school-wide ceremonies.” ENP does not evaluate its own success.
Instead, its work is externally evaluated.
The organization has also received a boost from two young volunteers in Colorado.
Josh Yeddis and Ben Brettman were part of a young leadership mission to Israel in 2010 with the Allied Jewish Federation of Denver (now Jewish Colorado).
The mission included a visit to ENP’s Denver Community Center in Lod, where they heard the harrowing story of an Ethiopian immigrant’s journey to Israel. Brettman, who moved to the United States from Germany as a child, identified with the story, and it left him inspired. Along with his friend Yeddis, he created the Fulda Foundation to help at-risk Ethiopian youth in Lod.
“To me, it was an easy decision to help, as I have always been taught growing up that one must give more than they have received, and this was my opportunity to make a difference and change lives for the better,” says Yeddis.
Their first project was in 2011. With the help of Jewish Colorado, they brought seven young adults to Lod, where, among other service projects, they renovated a SPACE program study hall. Most recently, the foundation brought young adults from four states to renovate ENP’s Schacher Club youth center in Lod.
Yeddis and Brettman hope to help struggling Ethiopian youngsters get their grades up, pass army entrance exams and become productive members of Israeli society.
In addition to their relationship with ENP, Yeddis notes they chose Lod because “…the Lod community has many issues including drugs and violence and if you can give one of these kids the opportunity to make something of themselves by getting their grades up to a level of them being able to pass their entrance exams to the army, then their chances of becoming productive members of Israeli society become much greater. To change the life of one of these kids is the ultimate goal and makes everything we do worthwhile.”
However, there are often obstacles to such goals, and groups like ENP face many challenges in trying to achieve them. Aside from a small budget, there is the tendency among community elders to mistrust authority. ENP requires parental signatures for every participant in its programs, and obtaining those signatures can require several in-person visits to assure parents that the program will be beneficial to their child. Last year, ENP had a budget of just over $5 million – a modest sum considering the group’s goal is to reach every Ethiopian youngster in need. The organization says the lack of funds means that fewer children receive tutoring and fewer teens have access to youth centers. In addition, the organization’s volunteers often come from major population centers like Jerusalem, where the closest youth center is in Beit Shemesh – making getting to and from it on a daily or even weekly basis challenging.
Critics of ENP say the group should focus on the community at large and not just the children. However, Rosenberg maintains that it is important to focus on the current and next generations and hope that the older generations cope as best they can.
“Children are the bridge,” he says.
“Their success will help achieve a smoother transition for the entire community.”
At present, ENP reaches approximately 4,000 Ethiopian youngsters a year. Having initially focused only on high-school students, it now focuses on junior-high pupils as well and plans eventually to expand the SPACE programs to even younger children, so that by seventh grade, participants are studying in the top matriculation track. By starting with the youth, the organization believes it can give its participants the opportunity to become leaders not just in their own communities, but in the army, university, yeshiva, and all segments of Israeli society.