Local agencies host visit by Ethiopian-Israeli activists

Kess Samai Elias is a soft-spoken man. His command of the English language is limited, but during a visit to the area last week, this did not hinder his expressions of gratitude for the MetroWest community.

Elias is a case manager for Operation Atzmaut, a program to help Ethiopian families in Rishon Letzion better integrate into Israeli society. Atzmaut is a joint project of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, the Joint Distribution Committee-Israel, the municipality of Rishon Letzion, and local Ethiopian leadership.

Elias was part of a seven-person Operation Atzmaut delegation from Rishon – a “sister city” to UJC MetroWest – that came to New Jersey recently to spread the word about their program and observe the workings of local Jewish agencies.

Delegation members spent last week visiting Jewish day and afternoon schools, agencies, and senior centers. Wherever they visited, they wanted their hosts to understand how the work supported by UJC MetroWest has helped so many in Israel.

“When I see what the American-Jewish community is doing to help [Ethiopian immigrants], I want to say ‘Thank you,'” Elias said. “The Ethiopian community wants to live like other Israelis. They want to have families; they want to live a regular life.”

With Marcelle Klahr, a senior international relations associate with the JDC serving as the visitor’s translator, Elias smiled as he called the group’s visit “excellent.”

“As I learn more about the NJ Jewish community, I think there is a common point with the community in Ethiopia. First of all, the Jews here all seem connected. People are in different streams of Judaism, but the common attitude is that…they all have religion as a common factor. In Israel, you have religious people and irreligious people; you don’t have that here,” he said.


“The other thing that’s really impressed me is how people are really working together to support the local community, but also to support communities that live abroad: in Israel and around the world. When do they have time to work for themselves if they’re involved in all this volunteer activity?” Elias wondered. “It makes me very happy to see this.”

He said the concept of a lay leadership is growing in Israel but is nowhere near what the visitors have seen during their trip to New Jersey.

There are about 110,000 Ethiopians currently in Israel, Klahr said, with more arriving at the rate of about 300 a month.

“The Ethiopian community, through its integration and aliya, has gone through a crisis,” Elias said. It was a situation he knew of first-hand. He came to Israel 18 years ago, knowing “not a word of Hebrew.” He his wife, Mazal – also from Ethiopia – have three daughters.

In April, Elias was ordained a kess, the Ethiopian equivalent of a rabbi, following in the path of his father, who was a well-known kess in Ethiopia before immigrating to Israel. When he passed away few years ago, the son began the arduous process, receiving his ordination shortly before embarking for the U.S. trip in a ceremony held in the Ethiopian synagogue in the Ramat Eliyahu section of Rishon. More than 300 people attended.

Delegates from a national UJC Young Leadership Division mission, including 15 participants from MetroWest, attended a portion of the ceremony during their visit to Rishon Letzion that day.

There were fewer than 50 kessim in Israel, Elias said, but 11 more were recently ordained. He believes their relative youth and the fact that they have grown up in the Jewish state allows them “greater ability to connect between Ethiopians and Israeli society.”

Elias’ local visit included tours of the offices of the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest in East Orange and the Oliver Street School in Newark (where Elias said the students were surprised to learn that there are black Jews). Members of the group also took part in the May 2 Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration held at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.

Over the course of the mission, Elias was impressed by the American-Jewish community’s philosophy of looking out for all its neighbors.

“For me a real revelation has been the way the community has pulled together… At JVS, for example, where you have non-Jewish immigrants…benefiting from the Jewish community.” It was an example of assistance to individuals outside the Jewish community he found “touching.”

Operation Atzmaut currently works with 82 families in three areas: finding employment, education, and household management. A lot of Ethiopians are struggling to break into the Israeli workforce, Klahr said. “They come from agricultural backgrounds. They don’t necessarily have educations, never mind academic or professional educations, and they don’t have a skill set. This lowers their self-confidence and motivation. They’re simply afraid.”

She compared Atzmaut’s work with that of JVS. “What the project does is to teach them Hebrew and other skills to get a job and keep that job. There’s a lot of commonality between what’re we’re doing and what JVS is doing.”

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