Gang wars, Ethiopians and British Jewry

Events held with both the UK and Ethiopian Jewish community community (Source: UJIA)
Events held with both the UK and Ethiopian Jewish community community (Source: UJIA)

There is chilling news from Britain’s inner cities. The recent revelation of a 22% rise in knife crime has focused attention on disaffected youth who are joining gangs and wreaking havoc in their neighbourhoods. Poverty and drug addiction, the breakdown of families and street violence are all signs of a situation spinning out of control. There are fascinating parallels with Israel’s Ethiopian underclass and Anglo Jewry’s response.

Ethiopian Jews were known as skilled workers who held upstanding positions in their communities, but their airlift to Israel created an enormous cultural chasm. An Ethiopian once explained this to me, with the following narrative, “On the airlift to Israel”, he said, “I didn’t have time to worry about the airplane, I was too terrified by the staircase leading up to it. I had never seen stairs before and I had no idea how to climb them”.

Ethiopian children quickly adapt to life in modern Israel. In this, they frequently outpace their parents who struggle to learn the language, understand the culture and find employment. This generation gap further aggravates tensions. Teenagers are shocked by the powerlessness of their parents, discipline breaks down and the young people begin to despise their Ethiopian Jewish heritage; identifying with African-American culture instead. An underclass of drugs and crime awaits them. This has the potential to become a Zionist nightmare.

Fortunately, our community is not willing to see any sector crumble. A UJIA programme enables families to support the Ethiopian community by twinning their children’s bar and batmitzvahs with those of Ethiopian immigrants.

Event held with both the UK and Ethiopian Jewish community community (Source: UJIA)

The young people attend parallel clubs in Haifa’s Kiriat Bialik and across the UK. The British and Ethiopian children become internet pen pals delving deeper into their own heritage and learning about the other’s. For the Ethiopians, the educational programme is a lifeline which provides structure, fun and a fabulous celebration of their Ethiopian Jewish culture.

Last week, the UK delegation travelled to Israel and the two groups were united. Jewish children separated by thousands of years of history and culture talked, danced, played and prayed together. As the Ethiopians showcased their homes and culture to their British counterparts, they develop a new self-respect which enabled them to bridge the gap with their families whom they now saw in a new light. “The hearts of the parents are restored to the hearts of the children and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6). The highlight of the trip was the joint Bar and Bat mitzvah ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yeshurun Synagogue. I had the privilege of officiating at the service and it felt like I was participating in the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth.

Events held with both the UK and Ethiopian Jewish community community (Source: UJIA)

Once upon a time, Zionism meant draining swamps and cleaning kibbutz cowsheds. Those days are over, so it’s not surprising that some of our youth imagine that Israel no longer needs their support; there are no more challenges and no role left for them.

Yet, Israel’s Ethiopian community needs to escape the terrible trajectory of grinding poverty, gang life and crime. British Jewry’s partnership and friendship is empowering them with skills and self-confidence to do this and to play their role in Israeli society. There is still much more to do, and these programmes offer British Jews a chance to engage with thrill of Zionism by becoming partners in building a just and caring Jewish society. It’s British Zionism at its best.

  • Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi. Anyone wishing to learn more about the UJIA’s Ethiopian Bar/batmitzvah project can contact


About the Author
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel. Prior to making aliya, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain's fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon served as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and has worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is studying for a doctorate at Bar Ilan University. Gideon writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @GideonDSylveste
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