Israel at Heart Teaches Students About Unity

Israel at Heart members pose in the QC Hillel for a group photo. Hebrew words flowed out of the mouths of several Ethiopian visitors. Ethiopian, black visitors came into the Hillel on Feb. 28 to remind Queens College students that yes, there is a Jewish black community. In America, one seldom sees an Ethiopian Jew, who often are mistaken for someone else. “In Israel, I am treated more as an Israeli than as an Ethiopian,” said Nevo Vandimo, who migrated to Israel with his family in 1987. “In the States, If you’re a black man, you’re just a black man.”

Ethiopian law students Aviva Cohen and Nevo Vandimo, along with lawyer Abaynesh Tessema, spoke with Queens College students as part of an Israel-to-U.S. tour in celebration of Black History Month. Nearly 100 students attended the event, and the audience consisted of mostly Jewish students and some black students. Einav Dahari, 27, a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Hillel organized the event through Israel at Heart. The lawyers and future lawyers’ mission was not political, but the team attempted to show the right way to interpret the debacle and devastation in the Middle East that one often hears about in the media.

Ethiopian black Jews began migrating over 20 years ago to Israel after the nation elected to accept them under its international campaign to attract Jews from around the world. Many Ethiopians migrated from villages before settling in modern cities throughout Israel. Most assimilated successfully, and their population there is over 105,000. Vandimo, 28, told students that for several months, he lived in Harlem and experienced first-hand the discrimination that African-Americans face. Founder of Israel at Heart Joey Low added, “Here, you have Israel that everyone accuses of being racist and they are fighting to bring black people. They [Ethiopia] can say we are the first people to leave our own country not for slavery but for a different purpose.”

A panel discussion led to a question and answer session, where students and faculty asked about being a lawyer in Israel and what it is like for the Ethiopian law students to study there. Students were most interested in learning about their Ethiopian culture and heritage and how Israeli culture is different. Hillel Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow Keren Leiby asked Vandimo if the Ethiopian community sticks together and if its members have any sect-particular customs. Leiby referred to several Jewish sects that don’t let members from other Jewish sects inside their own. Vandimo answered that Ethiopians in Israel are integrated. They are more like a nation rather than separate entities that merely coexist. Because the Ethiopians were unable to provide many details about Ethiopian culture, it became clear that Israeli culture has become their own.

According to the program Web site, Israel at Heart is a “not-for-profit organization, whose single concern is the well-being of Israel. We wish to do everything we can to promote a better understanding of Israel and its people.” Cohen’s goal was to ensure that students see Israel as more than just a place where suicide bombers tear apart the country. Israel at Heart specifically travels to college campuses because the media often targets the minds of college students. Cohen said, “This [the touring] is a great experience because we can represent Israel in a different face.” Cohen also said that concern exists for other members of the community in Israel, but not nearly as much here in America. “I feel in this place [America] they are individuals and they don’t have the common experience [of serving in the army],” she said. The army service experience is what “bring[s] us closer together as a community,” Cohen added as she smiled for a group photo with representatives of Israel at Heart present at the event. The team showed just how tight-knit the group is: with their arms wrapped around one another, they smiled one big smile.

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