Ethiopian Jews in Israel find success almost as distant as homeland

Talk about a surprise.

When thousands of his countrymen started pouring into Israel in the 1980s, Redai Tesema, an Ethiopian Jew, said few of them realized that Jews could be white, too.

In their homeland, they “thought they were the only Jews in the world,” said Tesema, through an interpreter, of his astonishment when he first arrived in Israel some two decades ago as a 14-year-old immigrant.

The remark drew a ripple of laughter from the decidedly Caucasian staffers gathered last week in the second-floor library of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

It also gave a small hint at the immense cultural shift that Tesema encountered and that persists for many of the roughly 100,000 Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel.

“Just imagine how difficult it is to integrate into a society you’ve never known before,” explained Tesema’s interpreter and colleague Merav Galili, a native Israeli who heads a work-based literacy program for Ethiopian adults. Tesema had no schooling and spoke no Hebrew when he arrived in 1983 with his parents and five siblings.

The 34-year-old Tesema is now a college-educated social worker who heads a program in Lod called Parents and Children Together, or PACT, for Ethiopian youngsters and their parents.

He and Galili were in the Bay Area last week to describe the plight of the immigrant community to local federation officials in hopes of securing future funding for Galili’s Joint Distribution Committee project.

Now preparing to earn a master’s degree, Tesema is a slender man with short-cropped hair and a shy smile. He speaks fluent Hebrew.

According to Galili, Tesema’s “family is a unique family” in an immigrant community still struggling to adjust to a foreign world.

Galili said 70 percent of the Ethiopian Jews were illiterate in their own native languages, and estimated their unemployment rate at a staggering 60 percent. Many who do hold jobs, she added, are relegated to menial work because of a lack of education.

Coming from rural villages lacking much resemblance to the Western world, “They have to learn to read and write in a new language when they’re already illiterate in their mother language,” she explained.

Tesema credited supportive parents and the fearful image of a future cleaning streets with his decision to study hard and succeed. “He says like every Jewish mama, his mother would nudge,” Galili explained. When Tesema called his mother to let her know he was in San Francisco, the response was, “Did you eat?”

Speaking of his family, Tesema, now married and the father of an 11-month-old son, said, “I think I’m lucky. I have really wonderful parents.” He grew up in a small village “like in the Bible.”

Driven by a religious desire to go to Jerusalem, a city where “we thought God would talk to us,” Tesema’s father, a farmer, secreted his family out of Ethiopia 23 years ago because it was illegal to leave.

The family traveled for six weeks on foot until they arrived in neighboring Sudan, said Tesema, who remembers the heat and swollen feet from the journey. His family lived in Sudan for almost three years as hidden Jews. “I remember my father said, ‘keep secret. Never, ever tell anyone you’re Jewish.'”

In 1983, his family was among 100 people airlifted to Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport by Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. He said the airlift was separate from the massive Operation Moses and Operation Solomon airlifts that brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 and 1991, respectively.

On their first full day in Israel, “The first question my family asked was, ‘Where is Jerusalem?'” The family was settled on an ulpan, where Tesema at first attended a school just for immigrant children. “It was difficult, a challenge,” he said.

After graduating from the youth village school, Tesema served in the Israel Defense Forces before studying social work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Asked if he is optimistic for the future of fellow immigrants, Tesema hesitates. “I wish I told you yes. But I think no. In general, it will take a long, long time until we say we’re successful.”