by Robin B. Zeiger
Albeit a small, narrow piece of the entire Jewish state, Emek Hefer boasts of a wide and rich academic heritage. Ruppin Academic Center stands at the helm as the only College in the region. One such amazing program is the Leadership & Inter-cultural Mediation Program for Students of Ethiopian Descent. Only 4 years old, it is the first of its kind in Israel and the world.
Operation Moses (1984-85) and Operation Solomon (1991) brought approximately 22, 000 Jewish Ethiopians from Sudan to Israel. These immigrants had lived in remote villages with relatively primitive resources prior to their arrival in Israel. Thus, the cultural and educational gaps between these immigrants and the typical Israeli were and have been huge at times. Today, there are over 40,000 Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel. Ruppin's vision has created a place for grass roots change integrated with high-level academics.
With a wide smile and a firm hand-shake Takele Mekonnen, Coordinator of Ruppin's Leadership and Intercultural Mediation Program for Students of Ethiopian Descent warmly welcomes me to his world. He is a man of vision and passion, with a long and interesting history. He is a perfect partner for Ruppin's innovative program for Ethiopian students.
This program is the brainchild of Ruppin's who declared the field of immigration and social integration, as one of its leading banners. In 2005 Ruppin had established The Institute for Immigration and Social Integration (IISI), an initiative unprecedented in its field in Israel academic arena. In the words o f Revital Poleg, Director of External Resources and Resource Development, "Since its founding, the Institute has had a broad social and academic impact on the field of immigration studies and has greatly influenced the entire Ruppin academic institution. The institute offers MA degrees in Immigration and Social Integration and is very involved in research on a national and international level." Thus, welcoming Israeli-Ethiopians into the academic environment was another natural step in Ruppin's vision.
Now in its fourth year, the Ethiopian program accepts 20-25 students on an annual basis. These students, all of Ethiopian descent, are chosen to receive a full 4-year scholarship. The aim is to prepare a select group of academics who are uniquely trained to strengthen Israeli society and bridge the gaps between Ethiopian immigration and mainstream Israeli society.
The typical profile is of a student who was born in Ethiopia and immigrated here as a child. Thus, they have matriculated through the Israeli school system and served in the Israeli Defense Force or National Service. The students then enter the program with important formative experiences as both Ethiopians and Israelis.
The first year serves as the framework for the entire program. The students learn together in a series of seven classes that focus on Israeli and Ethiopian Jewish history, as well as the workings of Israeli society. In other words, each of the students is expected to forge a strong set of roots before branching out.
In the first year, they also complete three separate practicum in Israeli schools, state agencies, and community centers. Here they are trained how to serve as the interface between Ethiopian clients or students and teachers, government officials, youth leaders, etc. During the remaining three years, the students join regular classes at Ruppin and continue to volunteer in the society. They can earn a degree in business administration, and hopefully as of next year - also in nursing. However, throughout their learning, they also complete a subspecialty in inter-cultural mediation.
How are the students? In visiting their class, it is easy to see they are dedicated, motivated, and professional. They combine the best of their Jewish, Ethiopian, and Israeli backgrounds to become the leaders of tomorrow, building bridges, and making their mark on the world.
Takele's Personal Journey Home
It is easy to coax Takele into speaking about Ruppin's intercultural program. He is clearly dedicated, professional, and well-suited for his job. Yet, when pushed a bit further, he shares his rich personal journey from the tribes of Ethiopia to Israel and to Ruppin. His journey began 28 years ago. At the age of 16, with his family's blessings and prayers, he left home to find a better life. Takele and 21 of his peers secretly traveled many kilometers through forest and swamps to a refugee camp in Sudan. Clandestinely he assisted the Mossad in bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Like many Ethiopian Jews, Takele's commitment to Israel and Zionism were ingrained in his blood from his youth. However, Takele's heritage is unique and inspiring. With pride, he tells me the legacy of his now famous uncle, Yona Bogale. At the age of 13, Yona was asked to leave Ethiopia and travel to Europe to help prove to the world that there were black Jews.
Yona's father (Takele's grandfather) agreed to this difficult request and handed over the care of his young son to a relative stranger. Yona did his job well and helped the Westernized Jewish world to
reconnect to their lost Falashian brothers and sisters. As an adult, Yona returned to his home country to help establish a series of Jewish schools. Today, Yona Bogale bears the legacy of one of the most famous of Ethiopian Jewish leaders. In fact a movie has been made about his life entitled, I had a Dream: The Story of Yona Bogale, Leader of Ethiopian Jewry (produced and directed by Teztee Germany and Micha Shagrir).
In one manner or another, Takele seemed destined to follow in his Uncle's footsteps. Takele's assistance in helping immigration to Israel was exposed in Sudan. His photo was circulated in Sudan as a wanted man. Almost immediately he was airlifted to Israel by Mossad.
As a teenager, relatively alone in a strange land, it would have been easy to party, become lost or get into trouble. Instead Takele's resolve and work ethic served him well. He realized he was finally home in the Jewish land. Takele, studied, worked, and joined the Israeli Defense Force, serving in the Air Force. He earned a Master's degree in Political Science and Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University. Initially he took a job in high-tech and volunteered his time at the Ethiopian Association, and NGO dedicated to helping Ethiopian Jews. Takele began to take note of all the Ethiopian students who dropped out of school and couldn't make it. He wanted to better understand the problem and make a difference. Eventually Takele became the CEO of the Ethiopian Association.
With patience and insight, Takele explains the dynamics. Ethiopian culture is very different. Parents send their children off to school with food and clothes. At that point, they abdicate their responsibility to teachers and the school. A parent is not meant or expected to be involved in the educational system. This is in stark contrast to the Israeli culture in which schools expect input and support from parents. Thus, there is the potential for much culture shock and conflict.
Eventually Takele found his way to Ruppin. Here he is able to help train and empower the leaders of tomorrow. Ruppin shares Takele's vision and welcomed him to the team of IISI.
Does Takele have another life? The answer is a resounding yes. He is married to a woman who is a bio-technologist. He has two beautiful children. He keeps in touch with the original friends who walked with him to Sudan. With a big smile, Takele talks about how he is finally home.
Ruppin puts 110% into their program. Takele also puts 110% into his work. He began his journey many years ago. He has joined Ruppin along the way. The story inspires us all.