The immigration and absorption of Ethiopian Jewry in Israel is a modern-day epic of the Jewish people. The community is overcoming the barriers and challenges of integration into Israeli society, due largely to the steadfast commitment of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s North American partners and the ongoing support of North American federations.
A few weeks before Pesach, leaders from the Israel Center Experience Group of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ traveled to Israel and took part in a festive evening marking 10 years of Operation Atzmaut in Rishon Letzion.
Led by Lori Klinghoffer, UJC president, and Max Kleinman, its top professional, the group reconnected with old friends and longtime partners. The ICE Group, Atzmaut graduates and participants, Rishon Letzion Mayor Dov Tzur, and senior staff from the municipality and JDC all gathered for the event. It solidified a decade-long partnership and commitment to advancing the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Rishon Letzion.
Today, Operation Atzmaut reaches 100 families in Rishon, complemented by the Israeli government’s “Homesh Plan,” which reaches an additional 70 at-risk Ethiopian-Israeli families. Thanks to the support of UJC MetroWest and the Paul S. Nadler Enrichment Endowment Fund, Atzmaut has advanced the lives of hundreds of Ethiopian-Israeli families, setting them on a path to long-term independence.
“What distinguishes Operation Atzmaut from other programs is its holistic approach, which puts the family at the center and works in three key areas — family empowerment, employment, and education,” said Danny Pins, JDC’s director of immigrant integration and deputy director of TEVET in Israel.
Menachem Sanbatu, director of Atzmaut in Rishon, explains the tailor-made approach. “We sit together with the family and develop a plan based on what they want to accomplish,” he said.
Pantia Kashoun, an Atzmaut graduate, shared her story. “Before I started in Operation Atzmaut, I used to think that the teachers at school were responsible for my children’s education,” she said. “What kind of mother was I? I didn’t realize that I, too, had a role. Now I understand that I play a central role and I ask questions and I demand the things that I am entitled to. I make sure that my children will succeed.”
Key to Atzmaut’s success is its team of dedicated professionals, comprised largely of veteran Ethiopian-Israelis whose goal is to respond to each family’s needs through one-on-one support and guidance. According to Ananit Sibohu, Atzmaut family coordinator in Rishon, “Before she started the program, Pantia did not know how to read and write. She has since completed 12 years of general education studies and works at a day care center for children. Her own children have improved enormously — both academically and socially — at school, and the family as a unit is much stronger today. This is real empowerment.”
Sibohu continued, “The success of the program is measured by looking at a family that started in one place and today has advanced and is in a completely different place. And you see the children; it’s a real joy.”
‘Give back to community’
Through counseling, Hebrew-language reinforcement, and job training and placement, Operation Atzmaut assists parents in securing stable jobs, advancing in the workplace, and increasing their feeling of economic independence. For the past 11 years, Eli Adhanen has been working at Man Auto Repair in Rishon. Thanks to Operation Atzmaut, Adhanen received the necessary skills to assert himself, take courses in his field, and advance. His shift manager said, “Eli deserves whatever he asks for. He is a contributing member of the team. When he finishes his studies, I hope he’ll replace me as manager.”
At the Atzmaut academic enrichment center, small groups of children study together, focusing on language enrichment and mathematics and reinforcing the material they learned in the classroom. The one-on-one attention is key to providing the children with the tools they need to succeed at school while strengthening their self-esteem. According to one of the children, “We review the things that we learn in school and the more we learn here, the smarter we’ll be.”
Chaya Bernfeld, deputy director general of the Rishon Letzion Municipality, commented on the program’s contribution to the city. “We’ve seen that families who complete Atzmaut become productive, contributing members of society and give back to the larger community through volunteerism,” she said.
The pilot program in Rishon has since been replicated in 13 municipalities throughout Israel.
Ethiopia’s Jews were carried on “the wings of eagles” to the Land of Israel and are trying hard to overcome the challenges in order to become contributing members of Israeli society. This program is part of a new chapter in their remarkable history.