Many Israelis live in a bubble – if you get out, you can help others - opinion

Many of us here in Israel live in a bubble. For ESRA, its SBC students and all those dedicated to helping people less fortunate than themselves - they live beyond the bubble.

 OSHRI HALLI: Superb role model. (photo credit: Courtesy Oshri Halli)
OSHRI HALLI: Superb role model.
(photo credit: Courtesy Oshri Halli)

How many of us live in a bubble? We continue our daily lives without spending too much time thinking about those whose lives are somewhat removed from the lives which many of us are fortunate to lead.

Moving to Netanya, 10 years ago, I thought I knew the city and its inhabitants. At the time, we had friends who lived in the well-established Nitza area overlooking the sea, with an array of restaurants and cafes close by. We chose to live further south in an area named South Beach (not to be confused with South Beach Miami to where our former Herzliya neighbors thought we were moving). The area boasts a beautiful promenade together with the promise of a lift down to the beach.

Such was my concept of Netanya, until my involvement with ESRA – a volunteer-based nonprofit organization – where I became familiar with a number of areas in Netanya, starkly different from my original concept of the city.

Netanya is one of the largest cities in Israel, with a population of about a quarter of a million. It boasts beautiful sectors, such as the ones named above, as well as a relatively new locality named Ir Yamin, which provides superb facilities for its residents. This is in marked contrast to other neighborhoods that require urgent investment – physically and psychologically – for its less fortunate inhabitants.

Helping Israeli Ethiopians in Netanya

Four such districts are Azorim, Hephzibah, Neot Shaked, and Kiryat Nordau (although there are others in Netanya with similar challenges). Hephzibah’s population comprises virtually 100% Israeli Ethiopians. Some 15,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Netanya.

 Boulders are seen falling down the sea cliffs to the beach below in Netanya, Israel. (credit: SARAH HERSHENSON)
Boulders are seen falling down the sea cliffs to the beach below in Netanya, Israel. (credit: SARAH HERSHENSON)

ESRA’s flagship project named “Students Build a Community” (SBC) was initiated, in Hephzibah, back in 2007. At the time, the place was rife with crime with the streets littered with dirt. Today the crime rate has been reduced by 80% and the streets are clean and safe to walk anywhere in the neighborhood. Without doubt much is due to the SBC project which is run with support from the Municipality.

The project affords carefully chosen students the opportunity to live rent-free in areas of deprivation in exchange for their mentoring the kids on the block. Residing in the same locality encourages these 3rd to 6th graders to develop meaningful relationships with their respective students. Each is responsible for four youngsters.

Mistakes were made in the past, specifically in Hephzibah, where the children educated in local schools were virtually all Israelis of Ethiopian descent. In recent years, this has changed with youngsters being bused to other areas enabling them to mix with a cross-section of the population.

Yet this too posed problems because there was a gap between those who, hitherto, had been educated in Hephzibah and those who had been taught in the same school since the commencement of their studies. Again, the SBC students rose to the challenge, helping their kids to catch up with their new classmates.

THE SUCCESS of this project shows itself in many different ways. Without doubt, the most rewarding aspect is that 90% of today’s students are of Ethiopian origin, with a number having graduated from being one of the mentored kids to becoming the students mentoring others.

Nina Zuck, Chair of ESRA’s projects in Netanya, introduced the Magazine to one such graduate. Oshri Halli is a 24-year-old studying for a degree in Economics and Business Management while simultaneously studying for a diploma in Land Assessment. Halli has just completed a year as the SBC student accompanying participants in ESRA’s Project of Excellence – a program which reaches out to teenagers with leadership potential who reside in Netanya’s disadvantaged areas.

The program offers a weekly, two-year Marine Biology course at the Ruppin School of Marine Sciences, where 8th and 9th graders have fun learning about the sea’s creatures, kayaking, and team rowing, to name but a few of the activities. Halli accompanies the group on their journey to and from Ruppin, as well as being a dynamic source of support and encouragement to his kids throughout the course itself.

Who is Oshri Halli? He is the youngest of 10 children, whose parents and three siblings came to Israel from Ethiopia in May 1991 via Operation Shlomo – a covert Israeli Military Operation that airlifted some 15,000 Ethiopians with non-stop flights on 35 Israeli aircraft within a total of just 36 hours.

Halli explained that initially, it wasn’t easy for his parents. They had sacrificed much to come to Israel. His father was a respected leader of his community where he owned a house and land which gave the family its livelihood.

Today Halli speaks proudly of his sisters’ achievements; one is the proud owner of a hairdressing salon, another is a chef, and another a nursery school teacher. Yet another sister, a seamstress, also runs the ESRA Sewing Class at Hephzibah where his parents and younger siblings still live.

In October, Halli will be commencing his third year of study at university and is hoping to be awarded an ESRA Scholarship to become a mentoring student for youngsters in one of the neglected areas where ESRA operates. He shares how exciting and moving it will be for him to become a mentor to four kids (with the likelihood that a high percentage will be of Ethiopian origin), rather than the mentee he was some 15 years ago. For sure, he will be a superb role model for his group of youngsters.

Many of us here in Israel live in a bubble. There are different bubbles affecting different individuals and communities. Sometimes, it is not easy to recognize the bubble in which we find ourselves. For example, on a recent visit to London – which is experiencing a rise in antisemitism – it appears difficult for some who live in their own bubble, to acknowledge that antisemitism is affecting them or their families.

In one case, for example, I noted that while denying that antisemitism impacted his daily life, this person now wears a baseball cap to cover his Kippah, which he previously wore openly.

Back to the beginning and the question of who lives in a bubble. For ESRA, its SBC students and all those dedicated to helping people less fortunate than themselves - they live beyond the bubble, having had the realization that giving is a gift of immeasurable value.

The writer is chair of Israel, Britain, and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA).