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YAFIT ABUHAI speaks at a NEW College Program graduation ceremony last month. Abuhai is finishing her degree in occupational therapy at Hebrew University and will soon begin an internship..(Photo by: Courtesy)
At Nishmat, young Ethiopian-Israeli women have ‘a room of their own’
By SONIA EPSTEIN
07/17/2019
“My parents didn’t learn [in an institute of higher education], so they don’t understand as much the place of academics in one’s future,” says Yalo.
An hour after we begin speaking, Yafit Abuhai politely dips out of the conversation we are sharing with two of her classmates at Nishmat-The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women. Abuhai is about to graduate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she studies occupational therapy, and needs to prepare for her final exams. Our interview has been something of a study break for her.

“It’s a very focused environment,” Nishmat’s director of development Julie Weisman says of the school.

Abuhai is one of about 45 female Ethiopian-Israeli students in the Nishmat Ethiopian Women’s (NEW) program for college and pre-college students. She is finishing the three-year scholarship program, which gives what Weisman calls “360-degree support” to the young women while they attend university, providing academic aid, housing, career-development workshops, Torah learning, pocket money, and exposure to role models from the Ethiopian-Israeli community.

The NEW pre-college program, called Maayan, helps women matriculate into these higher educational institutes. Maayan provides college counseling and psychometric exam preparation, in addition to the types of support the three-year college program offers. It also places special emphasis on educating the young women about their Ethiopian heritage.

“All of these things help us continue on the first-generation path,” Abuhai says. “It gives us the power to begin and to continue and to finish our degrees.”

Numerous programs exist to support the Ethiopian-Israeli community, each operating from a different angle. The Joint Distribution Committee of Israel is the biggest donor to these programs, supporting broad initiatives like the Ethiopian National Project, and narrower programs like Eshet Chayil, which helps immigrant women find employment while they are supporting families.

Even within the specific frame of educational organizations, plenty of programs exist. Heather Burton, Nishmat’s public relations manager, says she ran a foundational report and found that there are 10 other organizations similar to NEW/Maayan.
The Achotenu program at Hebrew University, for example, helps Ethiopian-Israelis receive their nursing degrees. The Tech-Careers program trains Ethiopian-Israelis for careers in hi-tech. Olim Beyachad takes a broader approach, helping Ethiopian-Israeli university students find employment in their chosen fields of study.

“But no one is like Nishmat,” Burton claims. “They might give money, but no one gives everything that we give – the community, the living arrangements, the support.”

For Ethiopian-Israelis, that guidance is especially important, given that this student population is especially at risk of dropping out of college or not enrolling in the first place. Nishmat’s mission is to reverse that trend.

Only 22% of Ethiopian-Israeli women aged 30 to 33 held higher education degrees in 2014, according to a November 2017 study from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. That number is roughly double for the rest of the female Jewish population (43%).

This occurs in spite of the fact that roughly 53% of Ethiopian-Israeli women qualified for a bagrut (matriculation) certificate after high school in 2013, up from 38% in 1999. (Among the rest of the female Jewish population in 2013, 65% qualified for bagrut.)
Between the end of high school and the start of college, then, there is a high drop-out rate for Ethiopian-Israeli students. Much of NEW’s mission is to make sure these young women are not falling through the cracks.

I ASK Abuhai and her two classmates, Rivka Yalo and Reste Belay, what they see as the most common reasons why an Ethiopian-Israeli woman might not finish her degree.

Academic work, aside from its difficulty, can be alienating, Yalo says.

“In my neighborhood, there are many Ethiopian immigrants, and it’s difficult to return home and sometimes be the only college student and have to study,” she says. “Something good about Nishmat is that we’re all a community of female Ethiopian immigrants. We have the same difficulties. There’s something that we all recognize.”

The program provides housing for the women, who all live together near Nishmat in spite of attending different universities and pursuing different areas of study. They commute to their schools, which NEW stipulates must be nearby.

That immersive community is key to the program’s mission of seeing the young women through college. It’s what allows Abuhai to withdraw from our conversation and easily resume her exam preparation as needed.

“What Nishmat provides, a lot of the time, is a place to study,” Burton says. “At home, there’s a lot of family responsibility. Our students have a space to study, a quiet space.”

Yalo notes that the expectations of higher education can be foreign to students’ families. Indeed, most students come from large families where one or both parents are unemployed.

“My parents didn’t learn [in an institute of higher education], so they don’t understand as much the place of academics in one’s future,” says Yalo, whose family immigrated to Israel in 1984 through the arduous Operation Moses. “In Ethiopia, you could get along without academic studies.”

Belay experiences a similar inter-generational rift. “I know that my mother would be much more comfortable if I were at home,” she says.

The oldest child, Belay could be helping care for siblings, or working a job to increase her family’s income.

“I could be near home, if not at home, continuing what my role was before,” she says. “When my mother picks up the telephone, she wants to talk about this and that, and I say ‘Mom, I can’t, I need to study.’ Every one of these things causes difficulty.”

The NEW program provides ambitious students with what they might find impossible to locate otherwise: a place away from home where they can remove themselves from some of the external pressures that could easily inhibit their studies. But living with each other, rather than at their universities, they have constant access to guidance and support.

It’s a transitional space, but ultimately one that has proven to be beneficial to the women’s success: 90% of women in the Maayan pre-college program are admitted to college each year, and more than 60% of Nishmat graduates with higher-education degrees find employment in their fields of study, compared with 15% of Ethiopian-Israelis nationwide. Since its founding in 2000, NEW has helped 350 students earn undergraduate and graduate degrees.

As a midrasha, an institute of Jewish studies for women, Nishmat is funded through the Religious Services Ministry, but also receives private support as well as money from the Education Ministry, which funds its “Identity Seminars on Wheels” program that was developed in 2015. Women from NEW, like Abuhai, Yaho, and Belay, use their training to inspire audiences of middle- and high school-age girls throughout the country, holding workshops on topics like combating racism.

The 2017 Taub Center study specifically lauded the efforts of programs like Nishmat, which it attributed to the “remarkable” progress in the education of Ethiopian-Israeli women over the past two decades. But it puzzled over why equal progress has not been made among the male portion of the population, of which only 8% of the 30-33 age cohort held a higher education degree in 2014.

THE GIRLS have some ideas of their own. Belay says the pressure to go out and immediately begin earning money, most often through menial labor, is greater for young men because men in Ethiopia’s social structure are usually the source of a family’s livelihood.

“You’re a king at home,” she says of Ethiopia. “Here in Israel, it’s truly different.”

Belay notes that Ethiopian men arriving in Israel encounter “a spiritual difficulty. There are so many frustrations as an immigrant, and so the motivation of boys dwindles... the woman has more patience.”

On top of that frustration and pressure, there are the well-documented discrimination and over-policing that threatens young Ethiopian-Israeli men – the subject of numerous protests and heightened national outrage since the killing of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah by an off-duty police officer earlier this month.

Programs like Nishmat are effective not only because they create supportive spaces for students, but also because they seek to undo the systemic disadvantages students have faced throughout their lives by actively advocating on their behalf in order to gain them entrance into colleges.

One student, for example, wanted to go to medical school but was not performing well on traditional psychometric exams. Nishmat worked with the Feuerstein Institute, which administers an assessment that measures students’ academic potential rather than their static IQs, and the student received permission to apply to university with these alternative testing results.
“The university saw that this student was at such a high level intelligence-wise that they accepted her and she’s thriving,” Weisman said. “Now she’s starting her fourth year of medical school.”

For Maayan students, the exposure to Ethiopian history through Nishmat’s programs is almost as empowering as the academic support they receive.

The women in the Maayan pre-college program explore their families’ stories for three months leading up to Sigd, an Ethiopian celebration of renewal that occurs 50 days after Yom Kippur. In honor of the holiday, the students stage a performance for hundreds of people about their heritage and immigration experiences.

Many of them learn about aspects of their identity that were hidden from them until they were forced to ask their parents. Yalo’s family arrived in Israel through the Sudan, losing many people over the course of the secret, harrowing journey.

“For them, it was very difficult to talk about [their history],” Yalo said. “Once they got to Israel, the past was in the past. They were in Israel and that was what was important.”

But once the students learn these stories, they carry them with them through their subsequent years of education.

“Looking backward helped me look forward and understand where I want to go in my life and what I want to do,” says Abuhai, who is about to earn her degree in occupational therapy. Yalo is studying special education at Efrata College of Education, and Belay is studying social work at Hadassah Academic College.

Abuhai says her outlook on her future is shaped by Nishmat’s founder and dean Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who encourages her students to look at the disadvantages they see in their society, and set out to repair them.

“I’m always thinking about how my professional work can advance the Ethiopian community in Israel,” Abuhai says. “I ask myself, ‘What can I give to make a difference, to improve and influence things here?’”
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