From Ethiopia to Intel

Asher Elias’ soft voice penetrates the stillness of the kibbutz as he lectures to a small group of Ethiopian students gathered around him on a rickety porch. Although the students are casually sprawled on the ground, they are giving him their rapt attention.

These young men and women are part of a program set-up by Elias to prepare them for careers in the Israeli high tech field, but Elias isn’t speaking to them about technology. Rather in casual jeans and a t-shirt, Elias is making clear to his students the direct correlation between hard work and future success.

For these students in their twenties, Tech-Careers, set up by Elias and an American business partner three years ago, is more than a technical school – it is a direct pathway into a middle class Israeli lifestyle that they never could have imagined when they immigrated to Israel through Operation Moses in 1984. Over twenty years after the unparalleled Israeli airlift to bring Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel, many Ethiopians still have not yet succeeded into assimilating into Israeli society, neither socially nor financially.

“There is still a huge gap with Ethiopians,” said Elias who admits that even though his parents are Ethiopian, he knew almost nothing about Ethiopian culture growing up. His parents were among the first Ethiopians to arrive in Israel, long before the community was recognized in Israel as being Jewish or was even identifiable as a community at all in the Jewish state. As a result, Elias, who was born in Israel, grew up with a completely Israeli identity and graduated from Jerusalem’s College of Management with a degree and business and computers.

After working for a time in high tech, Elias had his ‘big-bang’ moment during the blood scandal in 1996 in which it was discovered that the Israeli government had been discarding blood donations from Ethiopian Jews for fear that it was infected with AIDS. Many Ethiopians saw the actions as blatant racism, and Elias left his job to devote his time permanently to advocacy work in the Ethiopian community.

“It is only a four-hour flight (between Ethiopia and Israel), but there is a 2,000 year cultural difference,” Elias told ISRAEL21c.

The goal of the year-long intensive program offered by Tech-Careers is to help young Ethiopian Israelis integrate into professional Israel. During long days that start at 7:45 am and last well into the night with homework, the school operates like a computer training boot camp. Students first master basic computer skills and then proceed to learn advanced computer programming skills, preparing them for jobs in Israel’s elite high tech industry.

Located on Kibbutz Nachshon, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the school offers its students sparse amenities. Living 5 to 6 in rooms provided by the kibbutz, the students learn in a small two room building that houses an impressive array of computers.

The program is 100 percent subsidized and the students receive a monthly $200 stipend to buy basic necessities. The remoteness of the kibbutz makes it almost impossible for the students to do much else but study.

And that’s the way Elias wants it. In return for receiving fully subsidized training and living arrangements, students must agree to devote all of their time to learning their new profession. That means no outside jobs or leaving the kibbutz for any reason until the weekend. In addition, students take at least two exams a week and if they fail any exam more than twice, they are off the program. Passing is an 80.

“When you have low expectations, the results are accordingly,” Elias explained. “I set very high standards, because people will adjust to those standards.”

The layout and set-up of Tech-Careers was intentional. Before opening the school, Elias discovered that there were only four Ethiopian programmers in Israel, all of whom had received their education in Ethiopia, not in Israel. He further concluded that some of the major barriers that prevented student from succeeding in the field were their lack of access to computers and their lack of Israeli-born friends. The second deficiency meant that they didn’t have peers with whom they could discuss various topics in computer programming, an integral part to success in the field.

Therefore, Elias purposefully designed a communal atmosphere in which the students would have 24-hour access to the computers and that would be conducive to sharing ideas.

The first class of Tech-Careers graduated 11 students, all of whom are now enjoying successful careers in the high tech industry. Elias guarantees his students job placement upon graduation and the second class will soon have 16 more students to offer up to the job market.

Elias said that all of his former students have been welcomed into their new jobs and many are living lifestyles that they never could have imagined.

“My best student told me that when he came to Israel at age 5, he was in culture shock. Now that he has been here 20 years and started work in a corporation in Tel Aviv, he is again in shock. He never knew this kind of Israel.”

Nearing graduation, students in the second class are equally optimistic about their futures. For most, the opportunity to earn high-end salaries is a compelling goal.

26-year old Yosef Biadglin came to Israel with Operation Moses and worked in security before enrolling in Tech-Career. In the process of finding a job, Biadglin has gained valuable skills in his year under Elias’ guidance.

“Personally, I can now think in different directions. If something doesn’t work out, I have a way to deal with it.”

As the school enters its third-year, it is drawing attention of notable high tech companies in Israel, like the prestigious NDS. Not only are these companies willing to send guest lecturers, but Elias hopes that they will one day help fund the annual $170,000 price-tag which is currently paid for mostly by non-profit donations from the United States.

In addition, after seeing the success of Tech-Careers, donors approached Elias about opening up a second branch of Tech-Careers in northern Israel. Plans are underway to open this branch next year, which will take on the challenge of supplying the first semester’s education to the students, allowing the Kibbutz Nachson campus to focus on giving students the more advanced skills.

Rather than compete with the original campus, students will spend their first semester on the campus up north and their second semester on the Kibbutz allowing the school to move twice as many students through its program than before.

For now, Elias is happy that he can see the results of his efforts, however small they might be in comparison to the community at large.

“I’m not trying to change the world. I’m modest enough to know that the future of the entire community is not on my shoulders.”

But he is absolutely confident that he is making a difference.


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