As we approach the Passover holiday, when helping others is customary, it’s instructive to see how a few volunteers are having a considerable impact on Netanya’s Ethiopian Israeli community…
The Forgotten People Fund (FPF), a strictly volunteer organization in Netanya, Israel, was founded in 1998 by two couples, Anne and David Silverman and Aida and Rabbi Yosef z”l Miller. Administered by about a dozen people, FPF has been instrumental in providing the financial means for many Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to progress culturally and economically. Providing computers to needy but deserving university and occupational school students is one of FPF’s many programs. The following four students were recently provided with new computers.
Wubet, age 29, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia when he was twelve years old, accompanied by his five older brothers, three younger sisters, and his aged parents. He graduated from high school at age 19 with a full matriculation (degree), spent the required three years in the Israel Defense Force, where he worked in a warehouse, and is now employed by one of Israel’s major cellular phone providers. His desire is to be a cellular and computer technician. In order to accomplish this, Wubet needs to graduate from a two year computer college program. His new laptop computer is a necessity to reach his goal and is much appreciated.
Rivka is thrilled to receive her new computer, especially since her previous computer crashed and she was not financially able to replace it. Rivka was born in Israel in 1991 and is the third in a family of six daughters. Her father immigrated to Israel through Sudan in 1984 (one of the only available routes at that time), but her pregnant mother was not able to make the perilous journey and only arrived in 1990. During that period, Rivka’s mother had to move several times and was often unable to communicate with her husband in Israel. Rivka served her full requirement of two years in the IDF as a para-professional social worker. After her service she worked with autistic children. Rivka is in the third year of a three and a half year program in occupational therapy and is currently doing her practical training at Laniado Hospital in Netanya. Her goal is to focus on the rehabilitation of people suffering from strokes and other neurological conditions.
Lior is really excited to receive his new computer. Lior is the younger of two sons and has three sisters. His two oldest sisters were born in Ethiopia. His father is a janitor and his mother is a homemaker. Lior served in the IDF for his required three years as a driver. His parents immigrated to Israel in1984, having made the treacherous trek through Sudan during which many died. Lior is currently studying computer programming at Ruppin Academic Center near Netanya.
Esti, 25, is ecstatic about her new laptop. She immigrated to Israel at age four and has six sisters and one brother, the oldest sibling. Her mother is disabled and her father is a janitor at a supermarket. Esti served in the IDF for her required two years in communications. She is now a first year student at Ruppin Academic Center, studying economics and business administration. She has requested a much needed scholarship from FPF and is on the waiting list.
Even though all of these students are very motivated and capable, they had no means to purchase a computer, a requirement for their education. They and their families are part of the approximately 130,000 Ethiopians Jews who live in Israel, of whom 18,000 live in Netanya.
These Jews from Ethiopia, whose history in Africa is thought to predate the destruction of the Second Temple (there are numerous theories concerning their origin), were essentially destitute when first contacted by the outside world. In Ethiopia, which is a very poor and rural country, they lived in more than 500 small mountainous villages and were called “Falashas,” meaning Emigrants (that is, outsiders). They called themselves Beta Israel, or House of Israel. In fact, until the 19th century, they believed that they were the last living Jews!
The hope of Beta Israel to come to Israel was based on the prophecy of Isaiah, who predicted the eventual return of the Ten Lost Tribes, including from Kush, the site of modern Ethiopia. Beta Israel always dreamed of a return to Jerusalem. They suffered great hardships at the hands of Christian kings who oppressed them and forced many to convert to Christianity or lose their land. Before immigrating to Israel, most were tenant farmers who, both culturally and day-to-day, were still living the simple life of over 2000 years ago.
In 1973, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef (Israel has both a Chief Sephardic and Chief Ashkenazi rabbi), certified that Beta Israel were Jewish, paving their way for immigration to Israel. Due to the refusal by the Ethiopian government to permit open migration of the Jews, the covert Israeli plan, “Operation Moses,” began in 1984. The Ethiopian Jews had to surreptitiously walk by night through Sudan, hiding from the locals who would rob and even kill those found during the day. While about 8000 were successful, nearly 4000 Beta Israel were lost on the trek due to hunger, illness and murder. Eventually, they were able to make contact with Israeli intelligence (Mossad) and they were flown to Israel in huge cargo planes.
In 1991, “Operation Solomon” brought 14,325 more Beta Israel to Israel, an event considered one of the high points in Israel history. Due to the overthrow of the previous Ethiopian dictatorship, the Israeli government was then able to arrange with the new leadership the open transport of Jews from Addis Ababa. It should be noted that Beta Israel were the first African blacks to ever be brought into a Western country as full citizens. (Today, there are still thousands of Beta Israel stuck in uncomfortable circumstances in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, impatiently awaiting their Israeli government-promised immigration to Israel.)
It is difficult to even imagine the culture shock these Ethiopian immigrants encountered upon their arrival in modern Israel, after having lived in a relatively primitive agrarian society. Fortunately, they possess the Jewish ethics of thirsting for education and inspiring their children to become valued contributors to Israeli society. Wubet and Esti illustrate this beautifully – from a rural African village to higher education and a modern profession!
However, the difficulty of the older generation to learn to speak modern Hebrew and to acquire urban skills is problematic. Attaining basic necessities became a hardship. Earning a living wage was nearly impossible for the parents, especially the fathers, who lost the respect of their children and suffered from low self-esteem. To help remedy the consequences of such drastic change, a small and dedicated non-profit, like the Forgotten Peoples Fund (FPF), with professional one-on-one capabilities, can be instrumental in helping members of the Ethiopian community.
FPF is a hands-on charity for Ethiopian Israeli residents of the city of Netanya. Since it is completely volunteer, 99% of its donations are used to fund multiple programs. Providing computers to students is a very important program of FPF. In fact, FPF gave out 15 fully-equipped computers in 2015, which was increased to 25 in 2016. During the first quarter of 2017, FPF is fast matching last year’s total!
Laptops are just part of the story. FPF awards many scholarships for practical education leading to jobs or job enhancement, providing for 24 students last year. Financial aid is required to allow hundreds of youngsters to attend Netanya municipal summer camps because the city provides no funding of its own. Last year, 217 children, who otherwise would have been left on the street (or even locked into their apartments for safekeeping), enjoyed summer camp and outings due to FPF’s efforts.
Another focus of FPF is its emergency fund, the Rapid Response Team, which upon request by the Netanya municipal social workers, provides basic living needs for clients such as food vouchers, appliance repairs and purchase, needed furniture, and essential household maintenance.
From its modest beginning nearly 20 years ago, the FPF has progressed from a tiny, reactive organization, whose primary function was to provide food vouchers, to a small but proactive force which actively promotes the success of Netanya’s Ethiopian Jewish residents. To learn more about FPF, see www.fpf.org.il.
Thanks to FPF volunteer Dan Goldschmidt for his input.