World ORT builds Israel’s first Ethiopian heritage centre


World ORT is ready to build bridges between Israel’s Ethiopian community and the wider population thanks to the Lipson Ethiopian Heritage Centre it has established in Kiryat Yam, the first of its kind in the Jewish State.

The Centre is a prominent part of the Alex and Betty Schoenbaum, Science, Educational, Cultural and Sports Campus which World ORT inaugurated in 2010, providing a shot in the arm for the blue-collar seaside town whose 45,000 residents include thousands of Ethiopians.

Its presence alongside glittering, well-used facilities such as the D. Dan and Betty Kahn science centre, the Margot and Jozef Rethazy Planetarium Building, an oceanarium and an athletics stadium is, says its Director, Shlomi Gedamo, testament to the vision of Betty Schoenbaum, the nonagenarian driving force behind the campus. “She wants to see Ethiopian kids integrating into Israeli society and this centre has everything necessary to make a significant contribution to that. It’s all ready to go; we just need help to start the engine. Every donation we receive empowers us to grow and assimilate better into this country,” said Mr Gedamo, who trekked through bandit-infested Sudan as a seven-year-old to reach the Promised Land he had heard his community’s elders talk about for as long as he could remember.

The Heritage Centre presents the history and culture of Jews in Ethiopia, their gradual re-connection to the rest of the Jewish world, the extraordinary bravery, determination and sacrifice shown in the journeys to Israel, accounts of the individuals who helped bring them to Israel, as well as information on the better known mass rescue missions – Operations Solomon, Moses and Joshua – but also the difficulties faced by the olim in their new home.

World ORT is seeking donors for a range of programmes which have been prepared to provide local Ethiopian-born adults, who have found it particularly hard to adjust to life in Israel, with training in practical skills such as computing. Younger Ethiopian Israelis acting as guides will introduce groups of schoolchildren and other visitors to the Centre to their community’s rich culture and boost their self-esteem in the process.

“This centre is an historic event in Ethiopian life in Israel; it’s the first one of its kind,” Mr Gedamo said. “Our centre is a way of bringing Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians together and to say, ‘Look, you don’t even know who I am. Find out who I am and then decide if you like me or not.’ Once they know who we are they will understand us better and will have to re-evaluate their prejudices”ᆭ to undergo a cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching).”

The need for the Centre is beyond dispute: Israeli society has been rocked by recent media reports revealing how Ethiopians were excluded from an apartment block by residents who described them as cockroaches and Ethiopian bus passengers subjected to a torrent of abuse by the driver. Coming as they do after years of Ethiopians suffering higher levels of unemployment and a tragically high incidence of family breakdown and even suicide, these reports have been shocking enough to prompt protest marches and, reportedly, a strongly-worded letter by UJA-Federation of New York President and CEO John Ruskay and two colleagues to Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver.

Education is seen as the key to a long term solution. Beejhy Barhany, who founded New York’s BINA Cultural Foundation, dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Ethiopian Jewry, told Ha’aretz: “What’s happening in Israel is simply a lack of awareness of the community: they look at them as people who have nothing to offer. The solution is exposure to the language and culture of Ethiopia.”

And Yael Rosen wrote in The Jerusalem Post: “Education… is the key to bridging cultural gaps in our society. In this way, someone who began as an ‘other’ becomes ‘another’ – a fellow member of a wonderfully diverse community.”

Ethiopian Jews waited for so long to come to Israel and suffered so much to reach it that it had been a painful shock to encounter prejudice from other Jews, said Mr Gedamo.

“Once they know us they will see that every Jewish family had the same experience as us: they all suffered discrimination in the gentile world, they all yearned for Zion, and they all came here through difficulties and hardship. The only difference between us is the colour of our skin. I’m very optimistic that when they see this and understand it then things will improve,” he said. “We can’t wait to exploit the centre’s full potential to help Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians to live together harmoniously. Hopefully, one day, there will be more centres like this around the country breaking down barriers; the prejudice is so ingrained that only a grass roots approach can improve it.”?

The Heritage Centre is the latest in a series of initiatives which World ORT has undertaken in support of Ethiopian Jewry stretching back to 1958 when the organisation sent two representatives to Ethiopia on a fact finding mission that included a meeting with Emperor Heile Selassie. This mission led eventually to ORT’s ground breaking educational work among the Beta Yisrael community in the Gondar province of Ethiopia.

World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer said: “World ORT has enjoyed an unbroken relationship with the Ethiopian Jewish community since that first fact-finding mission. The Lipson Ethiopian Heritage Centre is a reaffirmation of our commitment to the community. We look forward to it taking a leading role in our work to help Ethiopians acquire the skills and knowledge that will enable them to fully participate in all aspects of life in Israel.”?

In the 1970s World ORT established 19 schools for the Jewish community in Ethiopia, employing hundreds of teachers and educating thousands of students. Synagogues were built in 10 Jewish villages, and training programs were developed to help the religious community leaders and to train Hebrew teachers. Two health centres were opened, in Ambober and Tedda, and medical teams travelled to villages to service the needs of the more remote Jewish communities. World ORT also helped farmers to purchase seeds, tools, and livestock in order to help them to become self-sufficient.

Following Operations Moses, Joshua and Solomon, World ORT provided education and training opportunities for many of the new immigrants, including a joint programme with the Ethiopian National Project bringing advanced science and technology education to young people in Be’er Sheva; and work in the youth villages of Kadoorie and Kfar Chassidim to help youngsters at risk to improve their chances of integrating into Israeli society.