Mazal tov!

In Kiryat Bialik, youngsters from London and Manchester mix with their new Israeli friends despite not being able to discuss Brexit or soccer scores in any common language.

Karen Goodkind with some EBBM mothers (photo credit: Courtesy)
Karen Goodkind with some EBBM mothers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Kiryat Bialik, a small town just north of Haifa, would not normally spring to mind as a must-see tourist site. An immigrant town with unexceptional architecture and no compelling natural beauty, it appears to have nothing to lure visitors from Sydney or San Francisco. Yet, each time Karen Goodkind lands here from her home in London, she makes the trek to the heart of the Krayot, a world away from Hampstead.
Goodkind is not alone; more British are coming each year. What’s the attraction? Founded in 1934 by German pioneers, Kiryat Bialik has welcomed waves of newcomers who often arrive with nothing: North Africans, Eastern Europeans, Russians and Argentineans.
A quarter of its 43,000 inhabitants were born abroad, including some 1,000 Ethiopians. And whereas immigrant absorption is usually coordinated with local authorities, when the government plunked 80 Ethiopian families into the town, the municipality was left out of the loop.
“It was a challenge,” recalls Mayor Eli Dukorski.
“Challenge” is a small word; absorbing this aliya was layered with complications.
Beta Israel Ethiopians are Jewish, according to then-Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who in 1973 declared them a descendant tribe of Israel. In an ask-two-Jews-a-question twist Ashkenazi chief rabbi Shlomo Goren disagreed, but Yosef’s ruling won out; the immigrants were accepted after a mikve dunk.
The Falash Mura raise more questions: Are Beta Israel Ethiopians who converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries also eligible for aliya? The answer changes with each government reshuffle.
Today some 130,000 Ethiopians call Israel home. Although the success stories are sparkling – an Ethiopian Miss Israel, a sprinkling of Knesset members – in general the statistics are bleak: a disproportionate number of Ethiopian pupils don’t finish school and too many are in prison for petty crimes.
Poverty and lack of education are only part of the problem; a huge issue is the gulf that develops between parents and their kids. Many Sabra children shun the culture of their elders; parents, busy trying to survive in a strange new world, often don’t have energy to tell tales of faraway fields and the rich earth of Africa.
Enter Goodkind, program chair of a United Jewish Israel Appeal Ethiopian Bar/Bat Mitzva Program (EBBM) that twins 80 kids a year from around England with their Ethiopian peers.
“We chose Kiryat Bialik,” Goodkind explains, “as we were impressed by their integration efforts.”
These were not so straightforward: religious authorities demanded the children study in religious schools; neighboring towns were not keen to accept them. So Kiryat Bialik piloted a program to integrate Ethiopians into mainstream education, with largely positive results. Other initiatives include co-opting Ethiopian parents to night patrols to try to stem drunkenness and vandalism; this program, too, has had some success.
And now there’s the annual British Bar/Bat Mitzva bash.
Years ago I interviewed the late Rabbi Mickey Rosen, who claimed that shuls in England were “like pubs without the beer.” Perhaps things have changed in the new cool Britannia, but a bar mitzva in Kiryat Bialik still has to be very different from one in Norris Lea.
No ties. Few speeches. No prayers for the health of the Queen. Plenty of sunshine and singing and drumming together to a hypnotic, happy beat.
Somehow youngsters from London and Manchester mix with their new Israeli friends despite not being able to discuss Brexit or soccer scores in any common language.
A trip to Jerusalem adds to the joy, but connecting the kids is only part of the plan. At the heart is the yearlong program in Kiryat Bialik that introduces adolescents to their own parents. In the weekly workshops children hear, sometimes for the first time, of the feasts and famines back in Africa, of the bright blue sky, of family left behind.
Belai, a wiry farmer who has lived in Israel for five years, tells the group that while he worked hard in Ethiopia, he “is now resting” in his new home.
That’s a nice way to describe the chronic unemployment that faces many of these immigrants, unequipped for the fast modern world.
Back home Belai’s kids would have begun working alongside their dad at the age of six; here parents feel lost as their offspring come home with Hebrew and wanting help with complicated math. At the EBBM sessions parents and children can share feelings and memories and family lore. It’s a powerful medicine.
Dasash, a soft-spoken teenager, is now a counselor of the group. “During my bat-mitzva year I got to know my mother,” she explains. “Learning about my own identity gave me self-confidence that I lacked before.”
Feedback from the sessions is unanimous: “I learned to talk to my children,” say the parents; “I learned to listen and love,” the children reply.
EBBM is good at firsts – British participants get a first taste of Ethiopian hospitality as they break warm, dense, freshly baked Dabu bread with their hosts, washed down with coffee so strong that Tetley’s Tea seems forever lame.
For me, being in an Ethiopian home was, sadly enough, a first, too; I think I had never before heard an Amharic word. Goodkind, however, who lives across an ocean, is on kissing terms with her friends here and has enough words to at least say amasagganallahw when welcomed into their space. The Buna Coffee Ceremony doesn’t faze her; she throws back a cupful with delight.
I watched Goodkind, who is beautiful and elegant, and who moves with such ease between such different worlds, and I thought how, actually, we are all immigrants, all looking for our place and our part to play. My parents, too, never learned five words of Hebrew in their years spent here; their Lithuanian parents struggled in South Africa with a foreign tongue. And now here we all are in this exuberant, exhausting land, and here we will stay – all credit to the wonderful people who try to make the living easier.
In these chaotic times, where essential work on the railways can topple a government, and corruption seems to bubble up on every building site in town, initiatives like Goodkind’s shine out brightly, giving hope for better days ahead.
As the New Year swings round again, may we all be good and kind to one another and to ourselves, and may God finally prove that He knows how to do peace on earth, or at least in our little corner of it, at least for a bit.
Shana Tova to us all.
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The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and IDC Herzliya. [email protected]