This blog post is written by Sydney, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.
The first time I went to Ethiopia, I was seven years old. It was 2007, and my mother, father, brother and I gathered our belongings, leaving the United States as a unit and returning with a new family member. We adopted my first sister, Sehaye, at the age of three. Two years later, when I was nine, my mother, father and I returned to Ethiopia to adopt my second sister, Beza, who was also nine; we were “the twins”.
Knowing how important it is to maintain the cultural heritage of adoptees, my mom made a concerted effort to weave Ethiopian traditions into our family upbringing. We joined a large Ethiopian community in New Jersey that we would celebrate holidays with such as Enkutatash, the Ethiopian new year, Gena, the Ethiopian Christmas, Sigd, an Ethiopian Jewish holiday that celebrates accepting the Torah and yearning for Israel, Fasika, the Ethiopian Easter, and more. We quickly became family friends with the owner of the local Ethiopian restaurant, Mesob, and were regular patrons. We participated in dance parties, hosted a girls dance troupe – “the Mesgana Girls” – in our home, and took them to schools all around New York and New Jersey to put on performances. In addition, we attended buna (coffee) ceremonies, and spent time with Sehaye’s biological family that moved to the states. Inside our home, traditional Ethiopian art is the main design.
Each member of my large family has returned to Ethiopia several times since my siblings' adoptions. Most recently, Sehaye and I returned in 2019 for an internship teaching English at Common River NGO and to see her mother and siblings for some much needed closure.
It’s safe to say Ethiopian culture is a central part of my identity and my upbringing. I feel similarly about my Jewish identity as I do about Ethiopian culture; it is the foundation of my being, because it reminds me of my childhood, my family, my community and my home. While Judaism and Ethiopian culture are fundamental to who I am, those two elements of my identity rarely united. My siblings were converted into Judaism soon after they came to America, but there was no strong outlet for Jewish Ethiopian life. At our synagogue, my siblings were almost always the only people of color. Even though we were accepted with open, loving arms, our family always stood out in Jewish spaces.
With the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, I am living in Ramat Eliyahu, a low income neighborhood in Rishon LeZion. This neighborhood stands at 2 out of 10 on the socioeconomic scale, which is considerably low compared to the whole of Rishon LeZion which stands at 7-8. Residents of Ethiopian heritage make up about 40% of the population in this neighborhood, and they are almost all Jewish. Although gentrification and segregation will inevitably push community members out and change the cultural makeup of this neighborhood, the spirit of Ethiopian Jewry will live on no matter where they go. A majority of the children I volunteer and interact with unknowingly make my dreams of bridging the gap between my cultural upbringings a reality.
Never in my life have I walked down the street and seen little Ethiopian boys with tzitzit and a kippah sitting atop beautiful kinky curls. I always catch myself smiling and breathing in the wafting aroma of injera being served on Shabbat. Strolling families in traditional white Ethiopian dresses on the streets of Israel bring me indescribable joy. As the weeks and months pass by living here, my amazement at the thriving Jewish Ethiopian community never ceases to warm my heart. I didn’t expect to feel such a visceral reaction to the sight of people I identify with.
Whether it is in my volunteer placements, the park, shops, or on the streets, it’s common to hear both Hebrew and Amharic, the predominant language in Ethiopia, being spoken. My ears perk up a little when I hear “denanesh” (‘how are you’ in Amharic) and “hakol tov” (‘all good’ in Hebrew) in the same interaction. I feel a new, different sense of home in a foreign land, a feeling that is hard to articulate. Every opportunity I get, I remind my sisters that they HAVE to come here and experience this feeling for themselves, a feeling that I could never relate to in the same way. I can only imagine what it would be like, to live a life that is too Jewish for Ethiopian spaces, and too Ethiopian for Jewish spaces, to finally find a place where these two identities are not at odds, but rather perfectly in conversation with each other.
With Covid restrictions that are constantly changing, it is going to be a challenge to get my family here to know this community in the way I’ve had the privilege to. I wish there was some way to enclose the essence of Ramat Eliyahu in a bottle and take it back home with me to share with everyone. Though I may not be able to fully express the character of this community, Ramat Eliyahu has shaped me in such a way that I will never deviate from. Through Ethiopia, the New Jersey Ethiopian community, and now Ramat Eliyahu, I have been shown the strength and tenacity of this rich culture. I can only hope some of that chutzpah will rub off on me.