Born in Ethiopia, S.F. student is now an Israeli citizen and a Jew

Bezawit Abebe is studying for a PhD in international law at Golden Gate University, San Francisco.

Bezawit Abebe was about to get on a plane to Israel when she talked to J.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “I don’t remember myself being so excited to go anywhere.”

Abebe didn’t grow up in Israel. But the 32-year-old, who is completing a Ph.D. in law at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, has had an unusual life path: Born in Ethiopia, she’s now an Israeli citizen and a Jew, even though neither of those facts were true just a few years ago.

“Every story is so different,” she said.

Growing up in the small southern Ethiopian town of Yabello, Abebe had no connection with the local Jewish community. Instead, what took her to Israel was love — namely, a Moroccan Jewish man whom she had met in college. She moved to Israel and studied there, where she met other women from around the world who were also there for similar romantic reasons.

A smiling man in sunglasses crouches down with a little girl
A young Bezawit Abebe

“It’s so funny. It happens,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know it was so common.”

Abebe received a master’s degree in law from Tel Aviv University and another master’s in government and diplomacy from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college. She converted to Judaism in 2014 (a multiyear process) and is now an Israeli citizen, with a deep love and connection to the country — it’s where she wants to live and work when she’s done with her Ph.D., and it’s the place she’s been missing since August, when she came to San Francisco.

“I just understood how much I’m attached to Israel and Israeli culture,” she said.

Abebe’s international trajectory is in large part due to her parents’ example in teaching her to go after her goals, as distant as they might seem at the time. “Especially my mom,” Abebe said. “Because she had me when she was young and it was obvious for everyone that she would stay at home.”

Instead, Abebe’s mother, who had her at 16, went on to college and then graduate school, giving her daughter — along with Abebe’s father, a teacher and human rights activist — both a strong moral compass and a role model. Abebe is taking that and running with it: for her Ph.D., she is focusing on international law, citizenship law and immigration, and researching internally displaced persons, a big problem in Ethiopia.

She joked that her parents back in Ethiopia are sick of the higher education.

“They’re like, ‘Enough!’” she said. “‘Start working!’”

When she does return to Israel for good, she’d like to have a career in academia, continuing to focus on law and research. There aren’t many Ethiopians in the professorial ranks, she said. She’d like to be a role model and continue her earlier work in advocacy for the Ethiopian community in Israel.

In the meantime, Abdebe is helping out at Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based nonprofit that works to promote knowledge of Jewish racial, ethnic and cultural diversity (the organization is also providing her with a scholarship).

“Really, I can’t say enough good things about her,” said CEO Diane Tobin, who added that Abebe is both motivated, conscientious, and “very, very smart.”

At Be’chol Lashon, Abebe is running the organization’s speakers’ bureau, which sends people, usually Jews of color, into the community to talk about Jewish diversity. Abebe thinks that’s important. “Jewish people, especially in America, don’t know how diverse Jews are,” she said. “In Israel it’s more obvious.”

And she is happy to share her own story. It’s a story that may not be typical, but is one that touches many aspects of what it means to be a Jew in the modern global world.

“Even if we’re all in some kind of group, we’re all different,” she said. “And that’s just fine.”

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