JCF targets high unemployment rate of Ethiopian Jews

The transition from a traditional agrarian culture to a modern industrial society can take thousands of years — or a four-hour plane trip from Ethiopia to Israel.

"These immigrants get off the plane, and within several hours they have to make the huge leap between an agrarian society in which virtually everyone is employed in basic farming near the home, to a modern economy," said Gila Noam, director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Israeli office.

"We do not want them to be on the lowest rungs of the Israeli socioeconomic ladder," continued Noam, in town earlier this month on her semi-annual visit to the Bay Area. "They're Jews, detached by hundreds of years from the mainstream community, and we're committed to help them make it."

This year, Northern California's JCF is funding four Ethiopian aid programs to the tune of $142,500.

Since 1984, thousands of Ethiopian Jews, including a staggering 15,000 in one day via 1991's "Operation Solomon," have made Israel their new home. More than 75,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel.

Yet, after 16 years and varying levels of governmental and philanthropic aid, the progress of Ethiopian integration into Israeli society poses a "Is the glass half empty or half full?" type of proposition, said Noam.

On the positive side, numerous Ethiopians have distinguished themselves in the military, and 1,500 Ethiopians attend the nation's universities. And while up to 80 percent of new immigrants are functionally illiterate in their native Amharic, according to Noam, the younger generation is quickly catching up to its peers: Ethiopian preschool attendance is almost up to the national average for all Israelis.

Also, thanks in part to governmental aid programs, many Ethiopian immigrants have been able to buy their own homes.

On the downside, said Noam, "I can't deny that color is not a factor" in Ethiopians' often difficult efforts to acculturate. "It's very visible, whereas former Soviet immigrants sort of blend into society."

Unemployment is higher in the Ethiopian communities than among mainstream Israelis, and many who do work hold jobs as laborers. Compounding the problem, a full 60 percent of Ethiopian families have at least five children, making it tough for Ethiopian women to hold down jobs. The employment rate for Ethiopian women is only 10 to 20 percent.

Given the low employment rate of women, older immigrants and in the community at large, it's not surprising that financial concerns force a disproportionate number of Ethiopian teenagers to drop out of high school and seek work.

Many charitable foundations have funded programs benefiting Ethiopian children, Noam noted, but the San Francisco JCF is on the vanguard of aiding Ethiopian adults.

"A lot of communities are doing things for children. And it's very important to make sure they succeed and stay in school, but if the parents are unemployed then it's not going to happen," said the Bronx-born Noam, an Israeli resident for the past 32 years. "This is not the wilderness generation, we cannot say this generation is lost. If we do that, we'll lose the kids as well."

The largest chunk of money from the JCF is going toward a teacher-training program.

"There are some teachers who were either trained in Ethiopia or Israel, and they have a really tough time finding jobs," she said. "This is very essential not only so they can make a living, but it's important for children to see Ethiopian teachers. We're training them a little bit in Hebrew enrichment, but also in added technical skills so they'll become more in demand in the school systems."

The JCF has also awarded grants to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy group, and a pair of job skills programs.

Noam said time will tell whether these programs are working.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.