Ethiopian Israeli emissary building bridges at Stanford
As Hillel at Stanford’s Israel Fellow, Rebecca Avera brings energy and enthusiasm to her job, cultivating relationships with students as a goodwill ambassador from the Jewish state. She brings something else, too, that few of her fellow Israeli emissaries can match: the color of her skin.
Says the 29-year-old Haifa native, “My color, my roots, the fact that I’m African: This is something unique that Jewish students didn’t know and non-Jewish students hadn’t seen.”
The daughter of Jewish refugees from Ethiopia, Avera has been a striking presence on the Stanford campus since she arrived last August. She has built bridges not only with Jewish students, but with African, Asian American and African American students as well.
Last December, together with Hillel and the African Students Association, Avera organized a celebration of the Ethiopian Jewish holiday Sigd. The event packed the house, bringing together a rainbow coalition of students and faculty rarely seen in a Jewish setting on campus.
Dressed that night in a traditional white-and-gold Ethiopian dress called a kemis, Avera recounted her remarkable family history, a story of rescue and redemption that flies in the face of the “Zionism is racism” meme.
Recognizing that activists promoting boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel have linked their struggles with the Palestinian cause, Avera has made herself a living embodiment of the diversity, tolerance and opportunity in her homeland. That’s important on campuses like Stanford, where last year the student government passed a BDS measure.
Israel an apartheid state? Just look at her, she says.
One day on campus, she sat down with an African American student. “I gave my opinions about Israel,” she recalls. “I asked her, ‘When people say Israel is an apartheid state and you see me in front of you, can you tell me this is so when you see I’m Israeli?’ She was embarrassed in the beginning, but she understood what I’m talking about.”
Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, executive director of Hillel at Stanford, has been a longtime booster of the Israel Fellow program, which is a joint project of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel International. The program’s goal is to develop connections between students and Israel, promote a positive view of Israel and combat anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Currently there are 75 Israel fellows serving 120 colleges and universities.
Eisenberg says Israel Fellows often become the face of Israeli diversity on campus. One recent emissary came from Israel’s LGBT community; another was a high-tech expert who fit in with Stanford’s Silicon Valley culture. Now, Avera has been making a different kind of impact, according to the rabbi.
“We are tremendously excited about Rebecca’s ability to bring a new and different perspective to Stanford,” Eisenberg says, “particularly her ability to reach out to students of color, and share stories about Israel that others hadn’t.”
At Avera’s urging, a Chinese American student took part in a subsidized trip to Israel during winter break. Now the student considers himself pro-Israel and has asked Avera to organize a Shabbat dinner for the Asian American Students Association. Coming up, Avera has been invited to talk about Israel and her life experiences at Ujamma, Stanford’s dorm for black students.
As for Jewish students at Stanford, Avera thinks of herself as a ready resource, helping them brush up on their Hebrew and serving as a source of pride for the pro-Israel community.
“The best thing about having Rebecca on this campus is that she is just so Israeli,” says 18-year-old freshman Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin, a Foster City native and graduate of Palo Alto’s Kehillah Jewish High School. “She’s a true sabra, very sassy all the time, but unmistakably loving. Rebecca is an endless pool of energy. She pours her heart into everything and inspires us.”
In her Haifa elementary school, Rebecca Avera felt like an outsider. One of 10 siblings, she was the only Ethiopian kid in her grade, and she remembers feeling embarrassed by what she describes as the “village culture” of her parents.
“It was pretty tough,” she recalls. “I didn’t speak Amharic [the primary language in Ethiopia], and I was trying to integrate into Israeli society. So I was denying who I am.”
Her father had immigrated to Israel in 1979 after enduring years of anti-Semitism in his native Ethiopia, entering the country via Cyprus. In 1984 her mother walked hundreds of miles across the North African wilderness until she reached Sudan, where the Israel Defense Forces whisked her to Israel during Operation Moses.
They joined the tide of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants who have enriched Israeli society over the years. The couple faced some discrimination in their first years in the country, as did many of their peers, but younger generations of Ethiopian Israelis are integrating more successfully, as Avera attests.
That integration meant she took on the risks as well as the benefits of life in Israel. The risks never appeared more sharply than on one October day in 2005. Just down the street from Avera’s Haifa home, an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber blew up Maxim’s Restaurant, killing 21 civilians, including four children.
“I saw the explosion,” she recalls of that day. “I found my friend injured. I decided to protect my country and my friends.”
She was still in high school, but upon turning 18, like most Israeli Jewish youth, she joined the IDF. She spent her two years of military service working at checkpoints around the West Bank, then spent a year in Canada polishing her English. Later she attended IDC Herzliya, an international policy school, where she studied government and enrolled in a program devoted to aiding the Ethiopian community in Israel.
There she discovered she possessed a talent for public speaking. IDC began sending her on goodwill missions around the English-speaking world, including to the United States, Canada and South Africa.
“I spoke in front of students at campuses and in Jewish communities,” Avera says. “I spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., about Israel and my identity. That led me to what I’m doing today.”
Before she arrived at Stanford, Avera had heard stories about the anti-Israel atmosphere on Northern California college campuses. She knew that BDS measures had passed at University of California campuses at Davis, Santa Cruz and Berkeley, as well as at Stanford.
What’s more, anti-Israel activists have made headway with “intersectionality,” a concept quickly gaining currency, which avers that a form of oppression somewhere is linked to all acts of oppression elsewhere. Thus, African Americans facing inner-city police brutality are brothers-in-victimhood with Palestinians struggling against Israeli occupation. The argument persuaded Stanford’s NAACP student chapter to sign on to the student senate’s successful BDS measure last year.
This year, the atmosphere has been noticeably different. “I didn’t see anything,” Avera said. “No protesting, nothing. Well, they had only one [anti-Israel] protest, and it was quiet.”
Avera, along with some Jewish students at Stanford, felt determined to undercut negative messages with a more effective pro-Israel message.
“I was not here last year when we were at a low as a community,” said Kaplan-Lipkin, who is active in Hillel and Cardinal for Israel, Stanford’s pro-Israel student club. “We have made enormous strides. We have connections with different [ethnic] communities. They know the Jewish community cares about their issues, and we’re making friends on the individual level.”
One of Avera’s biggest projects this academic year was helping to recruit for the Campus Leaders Mission to Israel, a subsidized fact-finding trip sponsored by the David Project. The objective is to allow Jewish and non-Jewish students to see for themselves the reality of Israeli life.
This past December, two Jewish Stanford students joined Hispanic, LGBT, Asian American and African American students on the trip.
One of them was Nichelle Alston Hall, an 18-year-old African American freshman who joined the Stanford chapters of the Black Student Union and NAACP when she arrived last summer.
Growing up in Philadelphia’s black community, she says she knew little about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was unaware that Ethiopian Jews had immigrated to Israel by the thousands.
She learned fast.
“I came in as a clean slate,” Hall says of her Israel trip. “Because of that I absorbed a lot of information. When I was there, the history was very recognizable and beautiful, and made me feel part of something bigger.”
Hall especially enjoyed meeting young people in Tel Aviv, encounters she describes as “enlightening and beautiful.” Going in, her biggest fear was for her safety, as violence had always dominated media portrayals of the region.
Instead, she says, “I learned it was a lot more complicated than I anticipated. When people asked me [later], I told them that there are many layers to it.”
Avera is the first Ethiopian Jew whom Hall had ever met. “Rebecca’s great,” she says. “She speaks so calmly, but all her words are so powerful. She talks about her siblings and missing home. I’ll go to Hillel events, we’ll hug and chat.”
Avera says building bridges with students like Hall makes sense to her. Though Israeli and Jewish, she can relate to the black experience in America.
“I share the fact that I’m black and minority in my country,” Avera says, “and how it affects me as a black person to see this stuff going on over here. I have had conversations about minorities and how we struggle with discrimination. It can happen anywhere.”
Kaplan-Lipkin has watched Avera grow close to students of various backgrounds and is not surprised by her success.
“She’s a very down-to-earth, modest person,” he says. “As it turns out, she’s one of the most inspiring leaders I ever met. I don’t know if I ever heard anyone express a love of Israel quite like she does. She fights for equality in Israel but is very much a Zionist.”
Avera’s admirers agree she hit a high point with her December celebration of Sigd, a holiday unique to the Ethiopian Jewish community also known as Beta Israel.
Traced back hundreds of years and often falling around Hanukkah, Sigd represents the Beta Israel community’s acceptance of the Torah, and it always calls for a party. It is in fact now an official state holiday in Israel.
Avera introduced the holiday during Hillel’s Hanukkah celebration, which was attended by a diverse group of more than 200 people, including Black Student Union members, all noshing on Ethiopian foods, learning a few Ethiopian dance moves and taking in Avera’s account of her life.
“I shared my story,” Avera recalls. “I never hide the fact that even in Israel we have discrimination sometimes. At the same time I shared the successes of my people in Israel,” she said, citing several Ethiopian Knesset members and Yityish Aynaw, the first black Miss Israel, who was crowned in 2013.
Listening carefully was Margreth Mpossi, a 22-year-old Stanford graduate student studying biology and computer science. Originally from Tanzania, Mpossi is the daughter of a Christian father and a Muslim mother.
She has gotten to know Jews and Israelis over the five years she has been studying in the United States — she says she meets disproportionate numbers of Jews in the field of biology, for some reason — and considers herself philo-Semitic. “There are a lot of wise traditions in Judaism,” she says. “And Jews make good study partners.”
Mpossi is a member of and former officer with Stanford’s African Students Association, which she says supported BDS last year. As a result of her friendships with Jews and Israelis, Mpossi believes her peers simply don’t “get the nuances” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Someone like Rebecca Avera could make a difference, she says.
“Ethiopia is a country troubled with tribal conflicts,” Mpossi says of Avera’s ancestral homeland. “I’ve heard a lot about that, but not about the Ethiopian Jewish experience. [Avera] shared the story of her family at the Hanukkah event. It was a beautiful story. I’ve spent time with her when we’re together at Hillel. She helps make Hillel a very friendly space.”
She hastens to add that as much as the campus was roiled by the BDS fight last year, this year the climate is “more moderate” when it comes to Israel. “I honestly think [the Jewish community] didn’t have as much pressure as last year,” she adds. “I’m really grateful.”
Avera says when she returns home, she may consider a career in government, maybe even run for a seat in the Knesset. Meanwhile, she’s busy reaching out to as many students as possible, Jewish and non-Jewish, to share her positive message about Israel.
“They’re willing to talk to me,” Avera says of the other ethnic student groups. “Slowly, I’m trying to build these relationships and make them stronger.”