July 2012 / Av 5772
On a recent day in Afula, the largest city in Israel’s Galilee region, a group of Ethiopian Israeli parents sat with their children and played a game of Monopoly. But there was a twist: Dispersed through the “chance” and “community chest” were special cards instructing the players to take positive actions, such as saying something nice about their families.
For many Ethiopian Israelis, life has been a constant struggle for the two decades they’ve been in Israel. Without education or the basic skills needed to live financially independent lives in one of the world’s most competitive economies, they have had trouble finding steady work. In fact, unemployment in the Ethiopian community is more than double the rest of Israeli society.
Ethiopian Israelis have also faced discrimination similar to that experienced by the waves of poorly-educated non-western immigrants arriving in Israel in the 1950s. Three generations later, these groups have completely integrated into Israeli society, but for the Ethiopian immigrants the road ahead seems long indeed.
There is a general sense within the Ethiopian community of having been led to water without getting to drink. And the frustration has boiled over. Some teenagers have expressed their sense of alienation by embracing the North American “rapper” culture which at times promotes sexism, drugs and violence. Others have decided to emotionally distance themselves from the shame they feel in seeing their parents struggle to function at even the most basic levels. Many parents, feeling helpless and depressed, have been unable to offer the emotional warmth their children crave. Most tragically, this community has also seen a sharp increase in domestic violence and alchoholism.
“Success in a new place, like Israel, requires self-esteem,” said Barry Spielman, communications director for The Jewish Agency in North America. “The Ethiopian families came with a tremendous amount of pride in their heritage and a true love for family. They were motivated by a desire to provide a safe and promising future for their children, but the challenges they faced were so overwhelming that the strong spirit and optimism that brought them to Israel became a casuality. And the children took note.”
Change requires rebuilding the family unit, which has for thousands of years been the Ethiopian Jews’ principal source of strength. The Jewish Agency - with the support of Jewish communities around the world - is helping the Ethiopian Israeli community regain its dignity, family by family.
Family Futures is based on The Jewish Agency’s successful Youth Futures model. Through Youth Futures, mentors - or trustees - have created personalized programs that have help hundreds of at risk children in 32 of Israel’s most economically-challenged communities find opportunities to excel. The programs include enrichment activities and guidance designed to help parents access necessary social services. The mentor who helps children and their families progress over a three-year period is usually a young adult who grew up in the same community and has earned the respect of local teachers, agency administrators and business owners.
Like Youth Futures, Family Futures pairs trustees with a clientele of families, but there is more of an intensive focus on parenting skills, budget management, building community support networks and improving relations between parents and their children. Parents participate in group workshops, weekly home meetings with their trustees, and activities such as group holiday celebrations. The goal is to create waves of change with the hope of breaking the cycle of hopeless feelings that many first-generation and second-generation Ethiopian Israelis have experienced.
Currently there are more than 420 participating families in 15 cities throughout Israel’s periphery, including Idit - a single parent, living in Afula with four daughters, three of whom also were involved with Youth Futures. One daughter is now happily attending a religious school while another was selected for a local scholastic honor society and serves on her student council.
“My family trustee visits, on average, once a week,” Idit says. “She speaks to me, encourages me, and pushes me to do great things. Family Futures paired me with an NGO that taught me how to manage my finances properly, and put me on the correct path.”
Idit added: “Family Futures has helped me improve my relationships with my daughters, to set boundaries and to enjoy quality time with them. They have truly influenced the way I interact with my daughters as well as the home environment. I stopped smoking and now I make shopping lists.These are just two things that I couldn’t have done in the past.”