Helping Ethiopian Jews break the cycles of poverty and racism in Israel

By Gila Noam, Israel and Overseas Director

130,000: That's the total size of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Israel. But open up an Israeli newspaper these days and you'll be struck by how frequently this community is featured, often on the front pages. Reports of "white" Israelis banning the sale of apartments in their neighborhood to Ethiopian-Israelis; quotes of a school bus driver's racist comments to his 10-year old passengers; debates on whether to close down schools with 80% Ethiopian students and integrate them into mainstream schools; and yet another case of an Ethiopian-Israeli husband and father brutally murdering his wife within earshot of their horrified small children.

Participants in the Olim B'Yachad program

No doubt, this community is having the toughest time of any group in Israel's long history of integrating immigrants from 102 countries. Not so surprising when you think about what it takes for Ethiopians to find their place in the Israeli mainstream: make the huge leap from a traditional agrarian society to a modern Westernized economy; wear a wristwatch for the first time; struggle to learn a new language while being illiterate in one's native Amharic (as indeed 80% of this community are); find the inner strength to deal with the chaos caused by the breakdown of traditional family roles and retain their dignity as parents and as human beings.

STEP BY STEP, THIS COMMUNITY IS FINDING ITS PLACE IN ISRAELI SOCIETY End of story? Doom and gloom? Far from it, because with the huge challenges, there is also much positive news to report. Step by step, this community is finding its place in Israeli society. The good news may not attract the headlines as much as the bad, but it's real, exciting, and growing day by day.

For the past two decades, our Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund has been a driving force in helping to create so much of this dramatic change by funding programs that support social justice and promote equal opportunity. Just a few examples: In 2004 there was a total of 4 Ethiopian-Israelis working in Israel's thriving hi-tech industry. Today there are over 200. How did this happen?

This 50-fold increase can be attributed almost entirely to the vision of Asher Elias, a young Ethiopian-Israeli computer engineer, who left his own hi-tech job to combat discrimination by developing a unique program, "Tech-Career." The program provides opportunities to better integrate Ethiopians into higher levels of Israeli society through technology and software training, ultimately placing participants in high tech industry careers. The unique methodology of this program, cloistered in the serene setting of a kibbutz so that students can totally immerse themselves in their studies, has achieved amazing results, with its graduates not only finding jobs, but also giving back to the community by serving as role models for Ethiopian-Israeli teens. Watch how.  

OVER 50% OF THE ETHIOPIAN-ISRAELI COMMUNITY IS CAUGHT IN A DEVASTATING CYCLE OF POVERTY There are many Ethiopian-Israeli single mothers with minimal formal schooling who attend the Jewelry Arts School initiated by Isaac and Orna Levy. Through their high-end jewelry design business, Yvel, the Levy's are deeply committed to training and employing their students, securing a livelihood for graduates in either in Yvel or at other high-quality jewelry firms. Today, these mothers are exhibiting and selling their art all over Israel and their beaming faces speak volumes about what this program means to them.

Yifat Ovadya

Another example of growth, change, and hope borne out of the vision of one person is Yifat Ovadya, a young attorney in one of Israel's most prestigious law firms. Yifat simply couldn’t tolerate the fact that university graduates in the Ethiopian-Israeli community were working as security guards, or not working at all and had slim chances of being interviewed for jobs commensurate with their education. And so, in 2007, she left her law practice and developed the Olim B'Yachad program that has recruited over 200 prominent business and professional leaders who mentor Ethiopian-Israeli university graduates in a holistic and intensive way, and open doors which would otherwise remained firmly shut. Today, of the 360 graduates of the program, 85% are employed in jobs in some of Israel's leading law and accounting firms, in hi-tech, and in other rewarding jobs, which take full advantage of their expertise. In turn, program graduates are giving back, volunteering to help other Ethiopian-Israelis.

Challenges can be overcome and success can be achieved

These groundbreaking and high-impact programs target different populations within the Ethiopian-Israeli community, and they have many things in common. All were developed by visionaries who care deeply about the Ethiopian-Israeli community and about Israel as a just society. All are being funded by the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. And all are transforming the lives of thousands of Israeli’s from the entire mosaic of this complex society. And in so doing, they are all helping Israel realize the promise of its origin – a country based on freedom, justice, peace and equality for all its citizens.

Categories: Israel, Overseas


January 27, 2012


The Federation