It turns out that some things really are universal.
When a delegation of four young Ethiopian-Israelis from Rehovot recently visited Westchester Hebrew High School in Mamaroneck, any initial awkwardness or formality soon dissolved when the groups began talking about dating and socializing, where to find the best falafel in Israel, malls, television shows, and, of course, Facebook.
“I like ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends’, ‘Oprah’ — same as you,” said 21-year-old Yehudit Tsagaya, who recently completed her service in Israeli Army intelligence.
Which was, of course, the point of the Ethiopian Israelis’ mission to New York: to show that, despite undeniable differences, there was much to connect their lives with those of their American counterparts.
As Shlomit Tesema, a 19-year-old in her first year of law school in Israel said, “I thought that they’re really interested, and really want to do something to help. They’re looking to see if I’m different as an Ethiopian or Israeli.”
These Ethiopian Israelis represented success stories for a 10-year-old UJA-Federation of New York initiative in Israel, “Birth to Bagrut,” which offers academic and other support to Ethiopian Jews who are trying to succeed in Israeli society. While about 60 percent of Israelis pass their high school matriculation exams (which are exit exams similar to the Regents in New York), only 40 percent of Ethiopian Jews do. Those who participate in the Birth to Bagrut program have a 62 percent success rate.
“Birth to Bagrut has given UJA-Federation an opportunity to participate directly in one of the most wonderful and challenging stories in modern Israel, the aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry and the process of working with them to become full partners in Israeli life,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York. “The delegates’ visit to the United States was important because it provided people with an opportunity to learn first hand about the successes and challenges that face young Ethiopian Jews in Israel today.”
The Westchester students, who attend the county’s Modern Orthodox high school, were sympathetic to stories about the hardships some of the Ethiopian Israelis encountered, from prejudice in the early days of their schooling to the difficulties of dealing with school issues when some of their parents didn’t really speak Hebrew or understand Israeli culture and society.
And they were clearly impressed by their guests, who had also met with students at Heschel High School in Manhattan, Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island in Glen Cove, and Hempstead High School in Hempstead, which is a public school.
The group at Westchester Hebrew High School was particularly interested in hearing about 18-year-old David Kivrat’s forthcoming service in the Israeli Army. “It’s the biggest privilege to serve my country,” said Kivrat. “It’s the most patriotic thing I can do.”
For Westchester Hebrew High School senior Daniel Madwed, from nearby Fairfield, Conn., the visit showed him that the guests “seemed like us. When you go to Israel, it’s one community. It’s really great to connect.”
That perception was reinforced by the Ethiopian Israelis.
“My favorite part about Israel is that when the Russians come to Israel, when the Yemenis come to Israel, when the Moroccans come to Israel — everyone who comes to Israel, we’re all one,” said Tesema.