Wearing a white coat, name badge and stethoscope, Dr. Rachel Nega strides through the halls of Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital. To patients and visitors, she looks like any other doctor on duty — slightly preoccupied, with a deliberate air to her step. Yet her dark skin and almond eyes hint at her unique background.

Nega, 29, is the first Israeli-Ethiopian doctor to intern at Mount Sinai, an opportunity that came through the joint efforts of an Israeli nonprofit and an Israeli-American philanthropist. During the summer internship, she worked under the guidance of Dr. Martin Goldman, a leading cardiologist who heads the echocardiography lab at Mount Sinai.

“This experience will shape my future,” says Nega over coffee in the Mount Sinai lobby.

Nega, who is in her third year of medical school at Tel Aviv University, hopes to practice medicine in Israel’s “peripheries,” the parts of the country where specialized medical professionals are sparse. Her goal is to work with immigrants and those from impoverished backgrounds.

Though Nega didn’t enter the internship knowing what medical specialty she wanted to pursue, she now is seriously considering cardiology. “The potential for innovation is huge,” she said.

Nega’s story is just one of many demonstrating how the Israeli-Ethiopian community has overcome significant hurdles in the past few decades. A first-generation Israeli, Nega’s parents emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in November 1984 during Operation Moses, the mass migration of Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan.

“There have been some amazing successes,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, founder and executive director of North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, a nonprofit committed to helping in the absorption of Ethiopian Jews into Israeli society. “Thousands of Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel as teenagers are now in Israeli colleges and getting higher degrees,” she said.

But despite the progress, the Ethiopian community is still battling poverty, deep cultural divides and discrimination. According to recent study by the Myers-JDC Brookdale Institute for Applied Social Research, only 65 percent of Ethiopian Israelis were employed in 2010, compared to 74 among the general Jewish population. Fifty-percent of Ethiopians live below the poverty line, compared to 14 percent of the general population. The average monthly net income of Ethiopian-Israelis was far below the national average (NIS 1,994 — $545 — versus NIS 4,000 — $1100 — in 2005), and there is still a wide education gap between Ethiopians and other Israelis, with a 12 percent dropout rate among 17-year-olds in the Ethiopian-Israeli population compared to 7.5 percent among the general Israeli population.

“Many problems still exist,” said Gordon, mentioning the “overloaded, underfunded” school system, a paucity of well-paying jobs and a persevering discrimination.

“There’s racism,” for sure, she said, noting that the generation of Ethiopian Jews born in Israel resent the prejudice even more because they see themselves as Israelis.

“I consider myself first and foremost a Jew, then an Israeli, and then an Ethiopian,” says Nega, who referred to her Ethiopian heritage as a “forced identity.” Though she never felt different from her neighbors and friends growing up in the ethnically diverse city of Yavne, in Israel’s south, she says she has experienced racism in her life, but stresses that for her, such incidents were the exception, not the norm. Today she lives with her husband in Ashdod, which has a sizeable Ethiopian community.

“Israel is a very complex place, and the gaps between different communities are huge. There’s a lot of fear of those who are different,” she says. In her work as a doctor, she hopes to bridge some of those gaps.

Though prejudices towards Ethiopian Jews persist, Gordon noted that there’s a significant difference between a racist country, and a country that has some racists.

“Racism is a reality — here, in Israel, everywhere,” she said. “But Israel is not a racist county, and has done a tremendous amount to ensure the Ethiopian community is not isolated.” She mentioned housing regulations made by the Israeli government in the ’90s prohibiting Ethiopian immigrants from living in consecutive buildings. “Israel worked very hard not to create a ghetto,” she said, adding that those efforts proved futile because Ethiopian families like to live together.

The way out of isolation and poverty, Gordon finished, is education.

Nega, who served in the army for six years as an officer, is the first one in her family to graduate from college and pursue an advanced degree. After making aliyah, Nega’s father worked as an electrician and her mother as a janitor. Referring to her father as her “educational role model,” Nega vividly recalls her father staying up until the wee hours of the morning, preparing for the Psychometric Entrance Test, the Israeli equivalent to the SATs, with hopes of going to college in order to secure a higher-paying job.

“He never did well, but he never gave up,” she says, attributing his repeated failure to the language barrier.

The oldest of seven siblings, Nega hopes her younger siblings will follow in her footsteps and pursue higher levels of education.

Fentahun Assefa-Dawit, executive director of Tebeka, an Israeli organization that provides legal aid and assistance to Israel’s Ethiopian population, believes that empowerment is the true remedy to racism. Though the organization began in 2000 to help Ethiopian Jews gain access to legal services, it has expanded to include a leadership and empowerment arm that helps young Ethiopians “break the glass ceiling” by providing them with enrichment and mentoring programs. One such program matches up Ethiopian students with retired government intelligence workers who provide guidance and support.

“Unfortunately, racism won’t get better on its own,” said Assefa-Dawit, who is himself an Ethiopian Jew — he made aliyah in 1994. “We figured out that fighting discrimination through legal means might address one symptom of the problem, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem,” he said. “Empowerment from within — standing up for ourselves, is the only long-term solution.”

Joey Low, the philanthropist who arranged Nega’s internship, is the founder of Israel at Heart, a non-profit that aids Israeli youth. A firm believer that self-empowerment is the best way to break stereotypes, Low personally sponsored Nega’s internship at Mount Sinai, including round-trip flights for both Nega and her husband, all accommodations, and a stipend. For the past seven years, Low has sponsored Ethiopian students to come to America and serve in high-powered internships. His students have worked everywhere from Hilary Clinton’s office to Kenneth Cole’s advertising department.
This, however, was the first year he sponsored two medical students. One of them was Nega, who was referred to him through the ISEF Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing scholarships to gifted Israeli students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Medicine, Low feels, is the ultimate way to break down remaining barriers.

“When you’re a patient, you’re dependent on your doctor for help and attention,” said Low. “If someone is taken care of by an Ethiopian doctor, the equality between the two of them is apparent,” he said. “If the patient held any prejudices beforehand, he will have no choice but to reevaluate his thinking.”

hannah@jewishweek.org