The first time I came to Israel was in 1982.  Why?  After I divorced, I had gone back to college at a ripe old age to get a Master’s degree in Social Work.  I hadn’t discovered by that time that I really was meant to be a teacher.

As it does to many Jews, Israel had always called to me faintly.  But I wasn’t ready to commit to living there until I could see it for myself.  A visitor from Israel had once told me that anyone can be a volunteer on a kibbutz.  At that time, I was a young mother with no plan to ever see Israel, except perhaps as a tourist.  But something inside me felt excited about volunteering on a kibbutz.

Finally, the summer school break of 1982 at the age of 39 was my chance to sign up to be a volunteer on a kibbutz for two months.  That would give me the opportunity to see Israel for myself, as well as experience the purest form of communism — a kibbutz.

It was indeed a great introduction to Israel, and gave me what I needed to make the leap to becoming an immigrant in 1983, entering a program for American trained social workers who needed to learn the social work system in Israel, as well as studying Hebrew 5 hours a day.

My coming to Israel only slightly preceded the historical secret night airlifts of Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Sudan.  In a matter of hours, these Ethiopian Jews were whisked from an isolated all-black third world existence into a very different world connected to them only by being Jewish.

There were many differences between Israel of that time, and America.  However, in 1983, something was missing for me in the Jewish homeland — black people.  I was used to black people in my world, especially after I lived in integrated New Orleans for three years.

As a new immigrant, the government not only housed us, taught us Hebrew, but also brought us to meaningful events to teach us Israeli history.  One of these events was in the magical city of Jerusalem in 1984.

Picture this if you can — a large stage with a stone column rising on each side from the stage into the sky.  In between was the incredibly dramatic all-natural Judean desert.  And then a large group of Ethiopian immigrants arrived to take their seats.  They had particularly beautiful faces, their blackness accentuated by the all white cloth wrapped around their bodies.  I decided in that moment, “I want to work with them.”

By chance, I started to go to a center to learn Hebrew that was shared with newly arrived Ethiopian teenagers.  Most had braved the dangers of walking out of Ethiopia into Sudan without their families.  In our mutually baby Hebrew at that point, I got to know some of the teens studying there.

How to get a paying job working with them?  A little miracle helped.  I was sitting in an office of Youth Aliyah, the Israeli governmental department in charge of the Ethiopian children, when the person I was telling I wanted to work with Ethiopians received a call from the director of a boarding school in a northern city called Maalot pleading for help with newly arrived 42 new Ethiopian teenaged boys.  And that’s how I got my first job in Israel as the housemother to newly arrived Ethiopian teens.

Not only did I enter a job with a low level of Hebrew, but I had to immediately adjust to an orthodox religious boarding school that nothing in my Jewish upbringing had prepared me for.  And I was there to mother extremely stressed teenaged boys who had been catapulted into a modern world, a Jewish culture that was only partly familiar to them, and a white world.

Complications of all sorts were everyday experiences.  Not all boarding schools reacted the same.  But the native Israeli boys in our boarding school resented the new students and all the free clothes, books, etc. and perhaps most of all, the attention the Ethiopian students received.

Although all were teen boys, the two cultures clashed in how they fought.  Instead of fists, the pattern became that the Israeli kids would goad an Ethiopian kid into throwing rocks, which was his natural form of defense in Ethiopia.  Throwing rocks crossed the line for Israeli kids and the boarding school staff who considered rock throwing unfair fighting.

My personal biggest thrill being with the Ethiopians was that they had come from a totally black world that had never been dominated by a white country.  (Italy had tried and failed.)  As Ethiopian Jews, they had been hated by the Ethiopian Christians, but their skin color was a source of pride in a predominantly gentle all-black world.

They had told me at the boarding school that they felt closer kin to white Jews than to non-Jewish Ethiopians.  I feared for their future outside Africa.  And then there was the day that one of my cutest kids said in Hebrew, “I want to be white.”

That was in 1984.  I accepted Israel citizenship after 3 years in Israel, left Israel in 1989 for a variety of reasons, and then returned briefly for a visit on my 50th birthday.  Fast forward to January 1, 2018, when I returned once again at the age of 74 to Israel for 3 months.

I returned to update my knowledge of the many changes in Israel, and to volunteer with Ethiopians in the city of Netanya along the Mediterranean Sea coast.  I knew from a friend sending me regular Jerusalem post newspaper clippings about the Ethiopians that their life in Israel had been more than difficult.  I wanted to see them for myself after more than 30 years later, and do something meaningful during my stay.  By then I knew that the most helpful thing I could do would be to tutor English to Ethiopian kids.

 

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