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Inspired by Ethiopian Immigrants in Israel

Updated: Apr 3

I was very excited to see the “Volunteer & Study” option on the Conservative Yeshiva website a few months ago. As I was interested in learning about “Torah in Action”, volunteering seemed to be a good idea for putting into practice what I learn in the classroom.

And it was indeed!

The wonderful team of Skilled Volunteers for Israel set me up with two organizations: the Ethiopian Experience Project and the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry.

The objective of the Ethiopian Experience Project is to bring Ethiopian culture closer to Ethio-Israeli children through dance, arts and learning. For example, through the Malkat Shva program, Ethio-Israeli children learn how to dance traditional Ethiopian dances. As part of my volunteer experience, I taught conversational English to three 15 year old boys who participate in the program. I was amazed to learn that although the parents of these children are first generation immigrants to Israel, the younger generation has hardly any connection to Ethiopian Jewish culture – often, the children don’t even speak their parents’ language. While this might be surprising at first, isn’t this similar to the situation of second generation Eastern-European Jewish immigrants to the US, who only heard Yiddish when their parents didn’t want them to know what they are talking about…?

The boys I taught English to were really amazing and very motivated. I wish all 15 year-olds were this motivated! J We spent a large part of our time on Google Earth, where we would “travel” to destinations they wanted to visit, and we talked about their dreams and future plans. One young man, who also participates in the Malkat Shva project, taught me a lot about Ethiopian dances and food – now I need to look for an Ethiopian restaurant in the Boston area!

One day, Tracey introduced me to Zion, who is the leader of the Ethiopian synagogue next door to the neighborhood community center. Zion shared with us how he left Ethiopia on foot. How he traveled from his village to Gondar, from Gondar to Addis Ababa, from Addis to Sudan through the desert.  He described how he lived in a refugee camp in Sudan, and how he managed to start a new life in Israel. Listening to his story was not easy.

I studied International Development and have read many accounts of poverty, famine, disease, and forced migration; but it is very different to read such accounts and to hear it from someone who lived through them. Listening to this story of human strength and perseverance reminded me of our 40 years of wanderings in the desert and how many times the Jewish people lost faith during those trying times. To Zion, the goal was to reach Jerusalem, and this goal gave him enough strength to persevere. I usually recite “l’shana haba b’Yerushalayim” on Pessach and Rosh Hashana automatically, merely enjoying the tune… but Zion’s story definitely gave a new meaning to the phase in my eyes…

My volunteer experience at the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry (IAEJ) was very different in nature. I was asked to help the organization with their public communications. I was very surprised and honored when I learned this… I definitely didn’t know how my professional experience could be so aptly put into service.  My contact at the IAEJ was Orit, who is about the same age as I am and who briefed me on the work of her organization.  I was so fascinated by her experience and the work of her organization that I just wished our 3 hour-long meetings would never end!  I learned a lot about the issues the Ethiopian community faces in Israeli society.  At the end of my volunteer commitment, Orit and I  decided to keep in touch and continue to work together remotely on a presentation (Prezi) that would present the mission of the organization in a succinct and interactive way. I am very much looking forward to keeping in touch with the IAEJ through this initiative!

I would like to thank the wonderful staff of Skilled Volunteers for Israel for their work and enthusiasm. I came in without expectations on what kind of volunteer experience they could develop for me with only three weeks to contribute as a volunteer.

This was my first time in Israel – given the “situation” this summer with the conflict in Gaza and rockets launched towards so many places in Israel, including Jerusalem  and my lack of prior experience in Israel, I was not sure what to expect from only three weeks of volunteering… now I can admit that as the end of the three weeks program approached, a little ball formed in my stomach, just thinking of taking the plane back to the US.

I would definitely recommend volunteering in Israel with Skilled Volunteers for Israel– we received all the help and assistance we needed and an unforgettable experience in Israel that certainly no organized tour could replicate.

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