Ethiopian teens reveal sagas of black Jews in Israel

As Sahalo related the dramatic details, the students reacted with interest. But what intrigued them most was something else entirely. They were surprised to discover that Sahalo was a black Jew.

"Many students from Hayward and [San Francisco's] Galileo high said they couldn't believe I am Jewish — they thought all Jews were white," Sahalo said.

Sahalo and three other Ethiopian Jews from Israel visited America as part of the Anti-Defamation League's Children of the Dream project. Initiated in 1992, the program exposes American students to Israeli students who are both black and Jewish.

At Berkeley Hillel, where the Ethiopian Israelis also spoke, a number of African-American students reportedly argued with ADL representatives, charging that the Children of the Dream project reveals only the positive aspects of life in Israel, ignoring discrimination and other problems.

Yossi Hets-Ohana, an Israeli who is assistant director at Berkeley Hillel, said Ethiopian Jews continue to experience prejudice. "We're far from being the perfect society." The "full story" needs to be told.

During an earlier interview, the four visitors spoke about some of the problems of racism in Israel. But they also discussed their love for the Jewish state as well as their school life and their ambitions. All four youths are 17 and 11th-graders at Orthodox religious schools.

Orah Kassai, wearing African rings that glimmered, lives in the city of Beersheva. Israeli born, she compared traditions between Ethiopian and Israeli Jews.

In Ethiopian custom, "the wife and children wash the legs and feet of the father when he comes home from work," she said. "At meals, the father eats first, and with his permission, everyone else eats as well."

Shoshi Levy, a soft-spoken youngster dressed in Italian designer jeans, was born in the remote village of Woglo in southern Ethiopia.

Levy noted the differences between American and Israeli high schools. "Schools here have no religion, far different from our case."

Rami Yitzchak, whom others described as the group's most spiritual member, wore a red, black and green wristband patterned with peace signs. During 1991's Operation Solomon — a mass rescue that airlifted more than 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel in a 30-hour period — Yitzchak's mother died in childbirth.

Yitzchak spoke of his African heritage with pride. "Being black in Israel means keeping the traditions of Ethiopian Jewry alive, while behaving respectful and proper," he said. "My father's respected wherever he goes because he's a good man — this is what it means to be an Ethiopian Jew."

During the tour, the teens also fed sea lions at Pier 39 and dined at Planet Hollywood.

They observed Sukkot, Shabbat and Simchat Torah services at Magain David Sephardim Congregation in San Francisco.

In addition, Levy attended services at San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom.

When asked if there was any anti-black racism in Israel, Levy, who was sipping soda at the time, coughed up her drink. The room reverberated with laughter.

"The majority of people in Israel are nice, but at first they called us Negroes, then got used to us," Levy said. "My sister now has a white husband."

Even Sahalo, the joker of the group, turned serious when the subject of racism was broached. "When we arrived in Israel, the whites didn't like us at first. This is human nature," Sahalo said, his eyes wide with intensity. "Once they understood we are Jews, they accepted us."

Yitzchak recalled an incident when an Israeli soldier addressed an Ethiopian Jew with racial slurs.

"It was just one incident — one soldier — but the media turned it into a big problem," Yitzchak said.

"The media and TV split [whites and blacks] up," Sahalo said. "If anything negative happens, it gets too much attention."

Despite such incidents, all four teens said they wish to join the army out of loyalty for Israel.

Levy said, "We deserve to live in Israel because our grandfathers prayed we would return to Jerusalem a long time ago."

Discussing hardships in Ethiopia, Yitzchak and Sahalo said the Christians from their village hated them and even kidnapped Jewish babies so they'd be raised Christian.

Levy said her family risked their lives just trying to keep kosher. "We had to look like them — we had to hide our tradition," Levy said.

But those experiences are now in their past. Describing the sad times as over, the four teens soon switched from a pensive mood into their more lighthearted mood, talking about such topics as their favorite music — reggae.

Before returning to Israel Monday, Yitzchak, who wants to become a physician, spoke about what he learned from his trip in America.

"By staying in school, working and studying really hard," he said, "you can get whatever you want."