Ethiopians at Tawonga find colorblindness, kinship

In Israel, they felt like black boys in a white world. They say the alienation stung them doubly because Israelis routinely questioned the validity of their religion.

But this summer, at Camp Tawonga, Ethiopian-born Israelis Kobi Ambeu, 16, and Avi Fareda, 15, felt a colorblindness and spiritual kinship that renewed their faith.

The teens compared their lives in Israel and their American experience as campers on their final night here last weekend at a party in Corte Madera for them and other Israeli teens who attended the Jewish camp near Yosemite.

This year, 18 Israelis attended camp. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund paid for 14 campers, and Camp Tawonga raised the money for four Ethiopian-born Israeli campers, from other sources, said Ann Gonski, the camp’s associate director.

They were part of an Israeli leadership training program through the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which receives some funding through the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Gonski said an SPNI staffer visited the Tawonga staff last year: “We use backpacking for leadership development like they do, so we talked about how we could work together, and we decided to expand our delegation of teens from Israel to include four teens from that program.”

The goal of bringing the SPNI delegation was to teach Tawonga campers about the diversity that exists in Israel, said Gonski, a lesson that was not lost on the American Jewish youth.

“They learned that there are Ethiopian Jews, and that while we have cultural and lifestyle differences, deep down inside, we’re all the same.”

Which is not exactly how the Ethiopians said they are treated in Israel.

“In Israel, the rabbis do not believe you are Jewish,” Fareda said in halting English, his third language, after Hebrew and his native Ethiopian language.

“We cannot learn the Torah. They think we are stupid and disgusting, and they don’t like our color.

“Sometimes I was crying because people don’t want to be my friends because of my color.

Many of the Ethiopians are not getting jobs because of their color. When I was 8, 10 years old, it was very difficult time for me because nobody wants to play with me. I was very lonely until I found my Ethiopian friends. I never had a white friend. Now I do.”

The SPNI delegation met with the other Tawonga-bound Israelis in Israel for a group-building orientation before they arrived, said Gonski, “so the kids didn’t arrive here feeling like two separate groups.”

And at the barbeque, the teens reflected on the experience they had here.

“Tawonga changed me,” said Ambeu, a slender soccer player wearing unlaced red Pumas, a red baseball cap and a San Francisco sweatshirt. “Sometimes people don’t like me because I’m Jewish. Other people don’t want me because I’m black. At Tawonga, people don’t say, ‘He’s black or Jewish.’ It’s like family now. It’s like a dream, Tawonga.”

Ambeu’s family moved from rural Ethiopia to the urban center of Israel when he was 2. He learned much of his English from watching movies. Like most Ethiopian immigrants of their generation, his parents speak neither Hebrew nor English. So it is nearly impossible for teachers to communicate with them. Ambeu said in Israel his Ethiopian peers smoke and drink and have limited opportunities.

“Tawonga teach me other things, better things,” Ambeu said in his broken English.

“Now I come back [to Israel] and I don’t smoke; I don’t drink. I want other kids from the Ethiopian community to come to Tawonga because what they see in their neighborhoods is bad things. I think Tawonga can change lives.

“Tawonga teach me something about me, and I think if I don’t come here, I don’t know that — ever. I almost cry now.”

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