This post was written by Juliette Bergwick, a participant on the Onward Israel Negev Service Corps summer program in Be’er Sheva. The group members are encountering social change initiatives in the Negev region and receiving training to be leaders when they return to their campuses in the fall. Juliette is volunteering at a local absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.
As a veteran of the Israeli army and a learned Jew, I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about the country I served: I attended Jewish day school, went to Jewish summer camp and traveled to Israel often. I first realized how complex Israeli society was when I was in the army about a year ago. I quickly learned that not all Israeli citizens were comfortable with the way they were being treated.
Growing up, I was surrounded by the heroes of Israel and its army, but I was never exposed to the other side. What I learned in the army was only a taste of the difficulties of Israeli society, and I wanted to learn more about this country I have grown to love.
Within the first few hours of the program I realized that I had A LOT to learn about the complexity of Israeli society, especially in the Negev. Through this program, I finally had the opportunity to see first hand the struggle that many Israeli citizens undergo.
When I turned right onto Kalisher street for the first time and entered the absorption center, the language, culture, and the people were all foreign. Kalisher is the first stop for Jewish Ethiopian immigrants; they spend between 2 and 5 years learning basic skills such as: learning hebrew, how taxes work, shopping at a supermarket, what to pack their kids for lunch, and simply learning how to live in modern society. When the they are financially stable and are ready to venture out on their own, they are released from the absorption center.
When I enter the absorption center in the morning, I see beautiful old women dressed in white drying out grains and seeds in the field in front of the building; women are carrying babies wrapped with white sheets on their back; kids as young as three years old are playing with an old soccer ball in the street with no adults nearby.
In the mornings I work – or play- with the pre-school kids. During snack times the children discuss how they crave injera (a traditional Ethiopian pancake/ bread with different kinds of Ethiopian foods on top) but instead they are given pita with chocolate spread, which is what most Israeli children eat for breakfast. They became very jealous when one of the girls brought home-made Injera for lunch one day. They children are proud of their Ethiopian culture and they try to reconcile it with their new Israeli culture.
My first day of volunteering at the absorption center, I requested a list of names of the children I was with because I found their names very difficult to pronounce: Itanesh, Anchu, and Mascaram still constantly correct me. When I told them my name is Juliette, they thought it was weird and we finally agreed that they should call me “Jul” because it is easier for them to pronounce. Five weeks later, both sides still struggle with each others’ names. Our cultures are each very foreign to each other, yet through our love for Israel and our stories about the different Jewish traditions, I connected with them quickly. As the days continue the trust and bond between us continues to grow .
Mascaram is a five year old girl, with big brown eyes, and a smile that would make you melt. When she falls in the playground I ask her if she is “Beseder” (okay). She smiles as if it’s the first time anyone has asked her. Most of these children’s parents are not around during the day – they are either working all day or taking care of other children and so these kids must fend for themselves.
They entertain themselves with sticks and pieces of wood they find by the playground. I often try to explain to them why throwing sticks at each other isn’t safe, but then they explain to me that this is how they play, and they enjoy it . When I lead a Zumba class for the teenagers, I feel the pure joy of the girls who put on their stretchiest pants and skirts and dance however they like. I look at the boys and it seems as though a big weight has been lifted off their shoulders when they danced. After I teach them a zumba dance, they teach me, or attempt to teach me, how they move their shoulders to the tune, and become puzzled at my inability to move my shoulders and dance like they do. Although I teach the kids different skills and games, I realize that I am learning more then I could ever have imagined from them. At the end of the activities they often give me a hug and thank me. The genuine smiles on their faces remind me that I do have the power to better someone’s day and make a difference, but I grapple with the idea that my volunteering may not have a difference in the long run.
Last Sunday, we took a field trip to the Beer Sheva children’s museum. As I was walking and holding Mascaram’s hand , I noted the stares and confused glances of the other children around the museum. One child stopped me and asked "is this an Ethiopians only camp?” One of the Ethiopian teachers leaned over and whispered in my ear, ” this is racism״. I held Mascarams hand tighter and noticed more and more stares from the other kids and parents nearby.
I fear for the future of the kids once they leave the absorption center. I hope they get the future they deserve in the Jewish state they were brought to. Despite the racism they feel, Trungo, the Ethiopian kindergarten teacher, tells me there is no place like Israel and that despite the hard journey, Israel has given her opportunity and it is the home to ALL Jewish people. I think about this statement as I continue to discover the growing tensions between the different sects of Judaism and the different Jewish communities.
Recently, many children have left the absorption center because their parents are ready to live on their own; they move to neighborhoods that are poor and prominently Ethiopian. I worry for them and fear that they won’t get the education they deserve; I fear that they won’t be treated fairly by other kids and I fear for their future. I question how truly they are being absorbed into Israeli society.
As I continue my work at Kalisher, I am faced with cultural challenges. Tomorrow, will be my last day of volunteering, and I am unsure of how I will separate from the children. After five weeks we have created a special bond. I too once was an Oleh Chadash (new immigrant) to Israel, but I did not undergo the hardships these children do. I see the knowledge and potential Mascaram possesses and I hope that she is given the opportunity and education she deserves. I have become dedicated to helping these children have a better future but I also know it will be hard for me to leave them. Although my culture and tradition differs from the Ethiopians’ we are all part of the Jewish people and therefore Israel- the Jewish State – is our home.
Juliette ( aka “Jul”)