This week's blog post is written by Juliet, a Yahel fellow living in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.
There I am, in a cab driving home from Tel Aviv: “Why are you living in Rishon? Oh, you are in Ramat Eliyahu? You poor thing...”. These interactions have become painfully common as we begin to explore Israel. People simply cannot fathom why I, a young person spending time in Israel, would want to live anywhere other than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They look at me with pity, confusion, and superiority, as if they know some big secret that I was left out of. It brings me satisfaction to inform them that I chose to live here and absolutely love this neighborhood. My unprecedented appreciation for this community is confusing for them: why would a white, privileged American woman be genuinely happy in a neighborhood like Ramat Eliyahu?
Sunset at the Ramat Eliyahu Community Center
This trend is not unique to Israel: in every city, there is an undesirable neighborhood that the general public looks down on. Growing up outside of New York City, and going to college near Detroit, there were always parts of the city that I was afraid to go to: they were seemingly filled with drugs, violence, and gangs. As I sit here writing this, looking around Ramat Eliyahu—the “bad” part of Rishon Letzion”—I pontificate on why I had these beliefs. While yes, certain areas of cities do tend to struggle more than others, these dynamics are not representative of the people who live there. Many of the people here are refugees from Ethiopia, who have been through hell and back in order to live in Israel. Ethiopian Jewry have prominently established themselves in Israel. I have the opportunity to live in this vibrant and welcoming community, and truly understand what Ethiopian Jewish culture is.
Traditional Ethiopian Food
We sat face-to-face (while social distancing, of course) with a group of senior Ethiopian Israelis. When I looked at their faces, I felt so small and humble. I was overwhelmed engaging with their varying journeys to get to Israel. How different is this community center that we are sitting in compared to what they thought their lives would be? What did they leave behind in order to come to Israel? And perhaps the most upsetting thought: do they think it was worth it? Yes, Israel is the homeland of all Jews, but as I am learning, the Ethiopian Jewish community was not treated the same as other communities. Ethiopian Jews lived in autonomous towns in the northern mountains of Ethiopia for thousands of years. There, they developed their own unique culture, strictly living by the Torah. For example, animal sacrifices were a norm in religious events. Ethiopians were faced with a huge culture shock upon arriving in Israel: they left behind everything they knew and had to quickly become accustomed to this radically different culture. Ramat Eliyahu contains the only library in Israel with books in Amharic, the mother tongue of Ethiopia; even that is quite sparse. With each passing generation, Ethiopian Jews assimilate more and more into Israeli culture. Yet, Ethiopian Jews still face extreme systemic discrimination in Israel. They are barred from opportunities in education, overpoliced in their own communities, and racially profiled as the other. As I looked at the seniors, I questioned whether they were happy with their lives here; if modern Israel was what they had prayed for.
Elderly Ethiopian Israelis enjoying traditional Ethiopian music and dance
Throughout the coming year, our surroundings will shape us and we have the potential to impact our surroundings. While I do stick out as a foreigner, I have felt welcomed into this community. Now, when I travel around Israel I am compelled to speak up for the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood. The community in Ramat Eliyahu, specifically the Ethiopian community, is full of stories, music, food, and culture. There is so much to be learned from the residents of Ramat Eliyahu if only they were given an opportunity to share. However, the Ethiopian Jewish community deserves more than just admiration and appreciation of culture: there are formidable systemic issues that need to be addressed. Communities need to come together to help this neighborhood overcome the endemic inequity. As allies, supporters, and Yahel Social Change Follows, we strive to be a part of this movement.