April 10, 2007 / 22 Nissan 5767
Each year the Passover holiday ushers in the new spring season, bringing with it the promise of renewal, hope and possibility. It is no wonder that Jewish tradition refers to the holiday as a second New Year.
Elisheva Solomon, 26, an Ethiopian immigrant and third year law student at Haifa University embodies this spirit of the holiday. For the second year in a row, Elisheva has spearheaded a community volunteer initiative, organizing a group of students and teenagers to paint homes for low income families. For these families, victims of the modern-day form of slavery that comes with living at or below Israel’s poverty line, the gift of a freshly painted home is really the gift of new beginnings and second chances.
Over the course of four days, Elisheva, along with about 20 fellow students and a handful of teenagers, painted more than 50 homes in Haifa. The Student Organization at Haifa University covered the cost of the painting materials. “They hug us and they are so happy; they know that somebody cares about them,” says Elisheva about the grateful families. When one elderly couple in their nineties thanked her, Elisheva responded in kind, expressing her appreciation for “the opportunity they gave me to do a mitzvah.”
Elisheva is the kind of young, social activist who fills others with a sense of optimism about the future. She would like to open her own law firm and as one of the few Ethiopian women studying law, hers is a true immigration success story. She is driven to achieve, to give back and to play a role in strengthening Israeli society as a result of the crucial assistance she received at various points in her life from the Jewish Agency.
Born in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa, Elisheva was nine years old when she made aliyah in 1991 with her mother and two of her brothers. Upon their arrival, they stayed at the Jewish Agency’s absorption center in the northern city of Acre, living there for more than two years before moving the Netanya. “The first day in the absorption center, the people who came to help me were soldier-teachers. They tried to make things easier for me …I decided to do what they do, to give back.” Indeed, Elisheva went on to complete her own army service in the same area. Currently, her education is being funded in part by a Jewish Agency supported Student Authority Scholarship.
As we celebrate the holiday that commemorates the Jewish exile from slavery in Egypt, Elisheva remembers her grandfather whose own journey to freedom from Ethiopia was cut short. He died from illness in the Sudan en route to the Jewish homeland. “There was only a small amount of food to go around but he always gave his food to the young,” says Elisheva. “He preferred to give to other people. People talk about him as a very altruistic man. He always talked about Zion and Jerusalem and gave hope to the other people around him.”
Fulfilling the dream of her late grandfather and carrying on his legacy, Elisheva is deeply committed to the Ethiopian community, particularly its young people. “We are the faces of the future. I want to show people that our community is strong,” she says. “Many Ethiopian immigrants feel that they don’t belong. I want to show them you do belong, this is our country. You have to work hard, to show that you are the best. Many give up too quickly. This is my mission – to bring the motivation I have to other people.”
Elisheva’s commitment to Ethiopian youngsters is one of the driving forces behind the house-painting project. The teenagers who work with Elisheva are mostly Ethiopian and come from some of Haifa’s rougher neighborhoods; many of them have dropped out of high school and are on the verge of slipping into a life of drugs and despair. Last year, only boys participated in the project and this year Elisheva is proud to have recruited young women as well. For these adolescents, Elisheva and her friends serve as positive role models.
“I want to make a connection between these youngsters and the students,” says Elisheva. “For me, as a student, it is important to go to that kind of neighborhood and show them – I am a student, I also came from a low economic situation where there was drugs and alcohol – but with hope and belief there are other choices."
The project ended up being a gift not only for those families who had their houses painted, but for the givers as well. “When you volunteer you feel that you’ve gotten more than money. You are satisfied,” Elisheva reflects. “I make time to volunteer. We have to share what we have and it is so special for me to help other people.”