Ethiopian Jewish Israeli describes advocacy for minorities

Elisheva Darar, whose career exemplifies a major success story among the 120,000-member Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, is co-director of the Katamonim Community Center in Jerusalem, where she is involved in outreach to and advocacy for immigrants, minorities and other underrepresented populations. Darar, 34, who immigrated to Israel with her parents and six siblings, was in St. Louis last week to discuss her work at the invitation of the World Affairs Council of St. Louis and its International Visitor Leadership Program’s “Gold Stars Tour.”

She explained in an interview over lunch at Simon Kohn’s Deli in Creve Coeur that she came to Israel in 1983 before Operation Moses and Operation Joshua, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Her parents still live in Kiryat Gat, where the family first settled in Israel, but her siblings live in various Israeli cities and towns.

Darar received her elementary and high school education in Kiryat Gat and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology at Bar-Ilan University, where she is working towards a master’s degree in international affairs. She said she was drawn into Orthodox Judaism during her early and later education and appreciates the “Jewish values that are highly respected in that community.”

Darar said that being an Orthodox Jewish woman presents a few challenges in her work and travels. “As a religious girl I did face certain challenges even in Israel, working for different non-governmental organizations,” she said. “Most of my colleagues have been male, and only a few other females, but I found the strength within me to work out any challenges.

“Within the Ethiopian community, people do shake hands and do not kiss. So I had to make a change. Sometimes people do not realize that religious Jewish young women do not shake hands with men, but people do understand when it is explained to them. Also, being in a part of the population that people do not always understand has made me more sensitive to the needs of other minority communities in Israel.”

Darar indicated that even in Ethiopia her parents observed a traditional Jewish life style, “even though those traditions are different from those in Israel.”

“I was raised as a religious Jew from the beginnings of my education,” she said. “I also attended a religious high school, and I really liked the ceremonies and traditions. I really liked the idea of Judaism, the effects its perceptions have had on humanity and the universe. I decided to choose this approach because I identify this way. Also, since I am not Ashkenazi or Sephardi, I can choose from different traditional Jewish ways as to how to observe Jewish practices. I seek the best in all of the different traditions.”

Darar said that she has also deepened her affection for Orthodox Jewish practices in her visits to various American Jewish communities. “I have a family that I am very close to in Teaneck, New Jersey, and feel very welcome there for Shabbat dinner and really like the way they embrace Jewish religious traditions. Also, I like the way they teach and educate their kids about Jewish values.”

Asked to comment on the volatile situation in the Middle East in view of the “Arab Spring,” the unity government formed between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and whether this makes her pessimistic about the prospects for a resumed effort at peace talks, Darar said, “As an optimist, I do hope that one day we will achieve peace, but I am not too familiar with all the details to give you a deep answer. I hope that my work in reaching out to and working with people of different backgrounds contributes to a more peaceful atmosphere in the Middle East and also among the people I meet here in the United States for the International Visitor Leadership Program.”

Darar feels that being a part of the Ethiopian minority in Israel has made her more sensitive to the needs of under-served segments of the population. “In the Ethopian community, it is often the children of immigrant parents who must help their parents and grandparents adjust to life in Israel,” she said. “This is true of other immigrant populations both in Israel and in other countries, including the U.S.

“About 50 percent of Ethiopian Jews in Israel are less than 18 years of age. There are of course some challenges, but there are also great opportunities and more and more of us are getting higher education and positions of responsibility in NGOs, government and society in general.”

She added that while outreach to the Palestinians is not a major part of her efforts, “I have recently visited the Palestinian Authority and made some good personal contacts. If we are ever going to achieve peace, it must be more than just the leaders of countries coming to agreements. It is important to make these people-to-people contacts to build up trust in place of mistrust and hope for peace to replace much of the pessimism. We must make the effort to understand how the ‘other’ lives, what their traditions and outlooks are in order to reach consensus on a personal level. That we hope can contribute to prospects for peace.”

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