Yavne, Israel — In the religious junior high school of this development town of 25,000 an hour south of Tel Aviv, an educational miracle is taking place with Ethiopian Jewish children. Long neglected by Israel’s education establishment, and against seemingly insurmountable odds, Ethiopian teens are soaring up the learning curve.
The school’s director, Josef Chamiel, proved that after taking a visitor on a tour of the school, a string of one-story buildings on a dirt-covered campus. Removing from the corner of his desk a print-out of test scores, Chamiel, a middle-aged man wearing a sweater and kipa, scanned the numbers and then looked up with a smile.
“One student, Shira, who is a typical example, got a 40 in Hebrew and a 30 in math last September, and in February she got a 75 in Hebrew and an 80 in math,” said Chamiel with obvious pride. “A more extreme example is Efrat, who got a 20 in Hebrew and math last September and now got a 70 in Hebrew and a 60 in math.”
The progress being made here is far from typical of other Ethiopian children, who arrived from their homeland with their parents in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon, the 30-hour airlift that brought to Israel 14,192 Ethiopians. Some called it a miracle.
Fully 75 percent of the adults arrived illiterate — even in their native Amharic — which has made their children’s adjustment here and in cities across the country all the more difficult.
The statistics tell the story of a second-class citizenship in the making:
n Only 14 percent of the Ethiopian high school graduates who have taken college entrance exams passed — the lowest in the country — compared with 42 percent of the rest of the population.
n Only 10 percent of Ethiopians send their children to preschool programs, compared with 90 percent of other Israelis, because they cannot afford the $1,000 tuition. “So instead of a head start, the Ethiopians get a late start,” said William Recant, the director of special projects for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
n In high school, 75 percent of Ethiopian students are channeled into nonacademic vocational tracks, almost ensuring a life of low-paying, dead-end jobs.
These statistics have caught the attention of Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States, who previously had concentrated on family reunification and then finding jobs for the new arrivals. Their concern led to the creation a year ago of the Coalition for the Advancement of Ethiopian Education, which is comprised of 44 Jewish organizations in Israel and the U.S.
The coalition, which includes the Jewish federation network, plans to use its clout to convince the Israeli government to pump $12 million into programs for Ethiopian children, ranging from early childhood to youth-at-risk, in 10 cities in which 60 percent of the country’s 65,000 Ethiopians live. The program would be expanded to other cities in future years.
“We want to initiate programs to prove that the educational needs of the children can be met and their achievements increased,” said Robert Lichtman, executive director for Overseas Services at UJA-Federation of New York.
It is estimated that 60 percent of the Ethiopians in Israel are under 18.
Recant of the JDC said the government of Israel last month committed itself to spending $1 million for the coalition’s projects and that the coalition partners are spending more than $1 million in the 10 cities as well.
“The government has been receptive, even though we’d like it to respond faster,” he added, noting that some of the delay was due to the recent death of Education Minister Zevulun Hammer.
Lichtman said UJA-Federation of New York is spending $2.1 million to help Ethiopians in Israel this year — an amount that has increased steadily since 1991 — and that it has pledged another $700,000 if the government of Israel will match it. Recant said he believed it would.
New Teaching Methods
The program the JDC is running in Yavne, a community in which about 600 or 700 students are Ethiopian and the rest of North African and Asian descent, is being funded in part by UJA-Federation of New York. It uses a teaching approach adapted from one designed for working with underachievers and has been introduced in Yavne’s junior high schools.
Of Josef Chamiel’s 220 students, 100 are Ethiopians. When they arrived, the Ethiopians had separate classes. Joint classes — “mainstreaming,” in the parlance of educators — began two years ago. To give them special attention, Chamiel divided the seventh grade into three classes of 25 instead of two classes of more than 30.
“The sort of problems we encountered with Ethiopians was with reading comprehension, basic penmanship and spelling, and even oral communication in Hebrew,” said Chamiel, speaking through a translator. “But the teachers could hear from their oral responses that they knew what was going on; there was no intelligence problem. … In order to help teachers cope with the challenges, the school turned to the Joint.”
The Joint, as the JDC is known, offered a workshop for 22 hours each Sunday in which two instructors taught 20 of the school’s 30 teachers, concentrating on the seventh-grade teachers, according to one of the instructors, Leora Blower.
“There is no question the workshops helped them understand the students and their problems better,” she said. “Among the topics we dealt with were how to motivate the students, the class environment and how to organize the class and the teaching plan.”
By working with the teachers rather than the students, the JDC would not have to return every three years to train a new group of students, noted Anat Peso, the JDC’s director of the Department of Ethiopian Education.
“The teachers’ understanding of the student population and their parents changed the way they taught — they were relating to the real needs of the students,” said Chamiel. “We had to motivate the children and strengthen their faith and confidence to achieve.”
One way of doing that was convincing teachers and fellow students that the way they practiced Judaism was just as credible as their own. So the JDC arranged for an Ethiopian rabbi to come to Yavne and explain Ethiopian Jewish customs.
“It was important for the olim [immigrants] to see that one of their own adopted the religious practices the school was preaching,” said Chamiel. “And non-immigrant kids could see that Ethiopians were able to achieve. He was an important role model.”
Also invited was an Israeli-born Orthodox rabbi who had married an Ethiopian woman.
“He spoke to the teachers about the roots of the Ethiopian customs and why the students behaved like they did,” said Blower. “He told them why they didn’t put on a yarmulke and he told them the sources that validated the way they do things. He explained that they didn’t drink wine because they didn’t have kosher wine in Ethiopia.
“He showed them that not everybody is the same and that just because they had different customs, it did not mean they were not Jewish.”
Another stumbling block for educators was the fact that most Ethiopian parents are illiterate, and therefore unable to help motivate their children in their studies. Berzaf, a 34-year-old mother of nine in Beersheva, is just such a case. During a visit to her three-bedroom, second-floor home, Peso of the JDC explained that Berzaf arrived in 1981 and soon thereafter married an Ethiopian who had arrived two years earlier. Her oldest child is 16, her youngest 7 months. Her husband, Berhano, 40, works for the public works department.
“In Israel there is a different concept of what it means to bring up a child,” said Peso. “In Ethiopia, it means to just provide food. Here it also involves providing education.”
Berzaf, who sat in her living room holding her youngest on her lap, said through a translator that she remains home during the day to raise her children. Because Berzaf is unable to help them with their homework, the JDC arranged for Amira, 18, to come in and help them. She and nine other teenage girls were trained by the JDC to do such work as part of their national service in lieu of military duty.
The executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, Barbara Ribacove Gordon, said the JDC approach seems to be effective but that it is too early to say if it would work everywhere. She said that for the past five years her organization has taken a different approach — working after school directly with Ethiopian children in grades one through eight.
“We have concentrated on Hebrew — spoken, written and read — basic arithmetic and various cognitive skills,” she said in an interview in Jerusalem.
Her group is now working with 600 youngsters in the cities of Ramle, Lod and Beer Yaacov. The extra help is provided nine to 14 hours a week, depending on need and availability of teachers. It costs the organization $1,300 per student each year.
“The results have been so spectacular that these programs have become models and we have a waiting list from other cities [for the help],” said Gordon, noting that there are 12,000 Ethiopian children in the first through eighth grades.
But Gordon said she is concerned what will happen to this and other remedial programs now that the government of Israel has announced plans to expand the school day for all students to 41 hours a week instead of 30.
Clearly frustrated, Gordon said that students who do not do well in elementary school in Israel “are tracked for vocational training. For Ethiopians, that means low-paying vocational trades and very little academic education.”
Because high school in Israel is not free, Gordon said her organization, which relies on private donations, is paying tuition for 325 Ethiopians this year.
‘Paradise’ In Kiryat Gat
About a half-hour drive from Yavne, the JDC’s efforts are also doing wonders at an elementary school in Kiryat Gat, another development town. During a visit to the Masua Elementary School — which was enclosed by a locked chain-link fence protected by an armed guard — one group of students was line dancing in the gym while others worked on art projects or played in the schoolyard.
Kiryat Gat is located inland, east of the coastal city of Ashkelon. There are 7,000 students — 3,000 of them Ethiopian — in Kiryat Gat schools, all but two of which are religious.
“In each school we have tutors one day a week and also a consultant,” said Yona Amouyal, the JDC’s director of educational programming for elementary schools. “Students at the schools here were low achievers even before Ethiopians came five years ago.”
Sitting around a conference table, the school principal, Josef Shalom, said 65 of the school’s 450 students are Ethiopian. He said the government provided Ethiopian children with two extra hours of instructional time and that the JDC used it to work with the 25 percent of Ethiopians who had trouble with reading comprehension. The JDC also trained teachers in its tutorial method.
It took three to six months for the remedial classes to work, said Shalom. In the second year, a substantial number of Ethiopian students had problems in math and the same remediation effort was used.
“Ninety percent of those in remedial classes went back to their regular class and stayed there,” said Amouyal.
Shalom said that until the JDC was invited in, Ethiopians who attended school from 1984 to 1991 “did what they could — they coped, they got by, but it was hard for them to manage.” But now, he said, “a lot of Ethiopian kids who graduate here get accepted into good boarding schools for junior high. … Their grades, performance and behavior are like paradise. There is no comparison” since the JDC arrived.
“And they are leaders of the class in sports,” he added as he rose to take a visitor through the school.
Walking into a class in which students in costume were putting on a play for their classmates, JDC instructor Batya Sharaby observed that the “opportunity to perform in front of other kids improves self-image.”
Although these programs appeared to work for those they reached, Gordon said she is worried about the Ethiopian high school students who have not had the advantage of this extra help. She said a growing number of them are dropping out. The number is now said to be 1,500 out of an estimated 5,000 high school students.
“There are also the hidden dropouts, those who are registered but who don’t go to class,” she said. “This is an emerging catastrophe that this community does not deserve and which will affect their future in Israel.”