Knesset member builds bridges on NJ visit
In a whirlwind trip visiting synagogues, schools, and meeting with legislators and members of the Jewish and African-American communities, an Ethiopian-born member of the Israeli Knesset returned to Israel confident of continued American support for his country and impressed with the organization of the American-Jewish community.
“It is a role model for any Jewish community,” said Dr. Avraham Neguise on the last day of a May 10-15 trip spanning Israel’s memorial and independence days.
Neguise is chair of the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Relations.
Highlights included speaking to students at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and, at a session in Edison, students from Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore, Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva, Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County.
Neguise also met with leaders at a meeting of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains and with NJ members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington. Public appearances were held at YIEB, Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, and at the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park.
The trip was arranged by Rabbi Jay Weinstein of Young Israel of East Brunswick with a grant from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
In an interview with NJJN, Neguise said one of the things he was most impressed with was the family-oriented way American synagogues celebrate Shabbat, with shared activities and meals.
“We don’t have that in Israel,” said Neguise, who had spent the previous Shabbat at YIEB and East Brunswick Jewish Center. “In Israel we go to synagogue to pray and go home, but here it is celebrated like one big family. We should duplicate this in Israel.”
The interview took place at the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison before a meeting with members of the Metuchen-Edison branch of the NAACP, and Rabbi David Vaisberg and several members of Temple Emanu-El, also in Edison.
In the NAACP conclave, which NJJN attended, Neguise recalled his aliya journey from Ethiopia, where he was a shepherd, to Israel, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and a doctorate. He also related the history of the Beta Israel, the name preferred by the Jews of Ethiopia; the widely used term “Falasha” — meaning stranger — was considered an insult in Ethiopia.
Neguise additionally outlined the humanitarian initiatives and projects aiding African farmers and business people launched by Israelis.
NAACP branch president Reginald Johnson told NJJN his group attended Neguise’s presentation in an effort “to break down walls and build bridges.” Sometimes, he noted, “we have a disconnect between local events and the international scene.” He said he will bring the information he learned from Neguise “back to our community, allowing it to be more informed and make rational decisions toward our goal of working with each other.” During the meeting, Johnson told Neguise that the NAACP was founded by Jews to fight racial discrimination against blacks.
Neguise said that when the Ethiopian monarchy refused to allow the country’s Jews to leave, many walked hundreds of miles through treacherous conditions — many died along the way — to Sudan, where they were airlifted under cover of night to Israel, which now is home to 140,000 Ethiopians, 50,000 of them born there. Plans have been approved by the Israeli government to bring over the 9,000 Jews remaining in Ethiopia.
Because of the “huge gaps” between Ethiopia’s traditional society and modern Israel, immigrants typically spent two to three years in absorption centers learning Hebrew and other skills, after which they were given a special mortgage allowance to buy housing.
Unfortunately, Neguise said, many Ethiopians have chosen to live together in enclaves, making the student bodies at local schools 60-70 percent Ethiopian. Neguise said extra efforts are being made to integrate the Ethiopians into Israeli society.
Neguise founded and served as director-general of South Wing to Zion, representing Ethiopian immigrants, and is cofounder of the Ethiopian National Project, a partnership between the Israeli government, Diaspora Jewry, and the Ethiopian community that promotes successful integration of Ethiopians through education, risk-prevention, and empowerment programs.
Neguise acknowledged that, while racism may exist among the Israelis, there is no governmental or institutionalized racism in the country. He said the government’s efforts have been effective in helping Ethiopians became successful members of Israeli society.
“We have doctors, lawyers, officers in the army, in the police — all aspects of Israel society,” said Neguise. “Not a lot, but we are moving forward.”
There is integration on a personal level as well; Neguise’s own son-in-law is Ashkenazi, and his two granddaughters are of mixed Argentinian, Ethiopian, Russian, and Polish descent.
In his meetings with politicians across the political spectrum, Neguise told NJJN he was gratified to be assured there was “sympathy and support for Israel” and felt certain the American-Israeli relationship is “unshakeable” and will continue to “get stronger and stronger,” whoever is elected president in November.
Moreover, he said, he feels confident that “American Jews love the State of Israel in their hearts.”
“I saw this on Yom Hazikaron when the community came together to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the State of Israel,” he said. “I saw how they celebrate this love on Yom Ha’atzmaut.”
Neguise said he found the ability of American Jews to unite across denominational lines on many issues, including Israel, admirable.
“I met students from the four schools who were Conservative and Orthodox and the united forum of rabbis was a delegation of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox who came together around the table,” he said. “They follow their own way to pray in the synagogues, but outside here in America they are one big community. It is a really good role model which others in Israel should follow.”