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Ethiopian Newcomers to Israel Cope with Culture Shock

June 2, 1991

MEBBU’IM, Israel (AP) _ Torn bags of donated clothing are heaped at this immigrant absorption center in the Negev Desert, where 600 Ethiopian Jews are getting their first taste of Israel.

Young men and children dressed in the hand-me-downs loiter around the bags. Bolder ones tug at stray shoes or shirts before Israeli immigration workers good-naturedly shoo them away.

″You have to understand this was a surprise,″ said Zalman Perlmutter of the Jewish Agency, which brings immigrants to Israel.

Perlmutter worked in Addis Ababa with the 15,000 Ethiopian Jews who were dramatically airlifted to Israel a week ago in Operation Solomon.

He flew to Israel with a planeload of them and was put in charge of this absorption center near Beersheba.

Although the Ethiopian exodus had been expected for nearly three months, no furniture or other goods could be ordered until the immigrants actually arrived, Perlmutter said.

Amid national rejoicing that greeted the airlift, some mild recriminations are being heard about 2,000 Jews who missed the airlift and thousands more who were excluded because they or their ancestors had converted to Christianity.

The Law of Return, which entitles every Jew to settle in Israel, does not apply to converts. The Israeli government says it is seeking a way to bring the converted Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Newcomers from poor, rural Ethiopia face the culture shock of a modern industrial country. For Israeli authorities, there is the formidable task of housing, educating and finding jobs for them.

Resettlement workers let the 120 families choose their own clothing at first, Perlmutter said, but soon realized many Ethiopians didn’t know how to wear the garments.

Now, the 11 counselors at Mebbu’im visit each family daily to teach the rudiments of household hygiene, modern appliances and Western clothing.

The entire Simoun family crowded around the sink as Muloalem Simoun, in a white robe with a baby strapped to her back, rinsed a glass.

″Everything is difficult because everything is new,″ she said in Amharic, which was translated by an Ethiopian volunteer.

Earlier, a counselor taught one of Mrs. Simoun’s daughters how to do laundry the new way. The girl had climbed into the tub to wash the clothes, as she would have entered the river in Ethiopia.

″We veterans have to explain things to them,″ said Yakov Nagosa, 20, who came with a previous airlift in 1984. ″It’s different from when we first came here. Now the family can explain.″

″It doesn’t bother them that people tell them how to do things,″ said Nagosa, who was given leave from the army when he found his brother had arrived at Mebbu’im. ″It’s good, because there are things they never used, like different types of soap for clothing and dishes.″

Construction continues at a mobile-home site here, which was planned originally for Russian immigrants. Children, some barefoot, play among the mounds of dirt in front of their homes and call out friendly Hebrew greetings to visitors.

″We thought we’d be in a bigger village,″ said Angel Alemai, 13. ″Here there is no asphalt. It’s a little bit strange.″

He grew accustomed to asphalt while camped outside the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, waiting for the airlift.

Electricity was hooked up Thursday and Perlmutter hopes gas for cooking will be connected in a few days.

His staff is interviewing the Ethiopians so they can be issued identity cards, and also will conduct health screenings.

Perlmutter said he hoped most would be processed and begin Hebrew classes within 10 days.

He foresees problems when families divided by the 1984 migration are reunited. Fathers will find sons who have grown up and joined the army, and wives who have taken on tasks usually reserved for the male head of the family.

Immigrants who came before worry about the prospects of newly arrived family members.

″They need to learn a trade,″ Nagosa said. ″I don’t know what will happen in the future, but they need a trade.″

For now, the Ethiopians enjoy the warm embrace of a nation that sees in them a vindication of its existence as a haven for Jews everywhere.

Israelis are inundating collection points with clothing, toys and household appliances.

One of Perlmutter’s biggest problems, he said, is turning away the many Israelis who arrive at Mebbu’im, volunteering to help.

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