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Ethiopian Immigrants Struggle to Adapt to Israeli Ways

April 25, 1986

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel more than a year ago in the Operation Moses airlift are running into obstacles as they try to adapt to Israeli life.

The intimate village communities they knew in Ethiopia have been replaced by high-rise apartment living.

Integration problems have led to 12 suicides in the past year, immigration officials say.

The Ethiopians resent having to undergo a ritual immersion to reaffirm their Jewishness when they marry.

Many are guilt-ridden about relatives they left behind or who died during the long and dangerous trek to Sudan, where the Operation Moses airlift picked them up in the winter of 1984-85.

″There isn’t a family which did not lose someone on the way or leave someone behind,″ said Steve Kaplan, a specialist on Ethiopian Jewry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Sarah Pullicano of the Mevasseret Zion immigrants’ center outside Jerusalem says adjustment problems can be traced primarily to customs in Ethiopia and customs here.

″Ethiopia is a patriarchal society, but once they are here, the old structure breaks down,″ she said.

About 5,000 young Ethiopians came to Israel before Operation Moses. Some have have become leaders over religious elders who are newcomers and still trying to adjust to Israel’s faster way of life.

Raphael Hadana once led the religious council of priests in Ethiopia’s Gondar region and was the chief link for the community’s 20,000 Jews with the Ethiopian government. Today, the 63-year-old priest is rarely consulted. He spends his time learning Hebrew and is puzzled by what he considers the militancy of the young.

The new leadership is represented by Ethiopians like Moshe Rahamim, a 32- year-old aircraft technician. He helped organize a sit-down strike and a Supreme Court appeal against the chief rabbis’ demands for ritual immersion.

The rabbis claim the immersion is not a conversion ceremony, but a symbol of purification after centuries of Ethiopian marriage and divorce procedures which have not conformed to predominant Jewish custom.

But Rahamim said other immigrant communities, such as Russian Jews whose parents’ marriages were not always performed according to Jewish law, are not required to undergo such rituals.

″They think we are savages from a primitive country,″ said 31-year-old Daniel Adga. ″In Ethiopia we were called falashas″ - strangers in the Ethiopian language of Amharic - ″because we were Jews. Now we again feel we are being treated as strangers.″

But some Ethiopian express fear the confrontation will make integration more difficult.

″We will reach an understanding, but not through court cases and strikes,″ said Yosef Hadana, Raphael Hadana’s 38-year-old son and the first ordained rabbi among the Ethiopians.

The religious confrontation together with exposure to Israel’s largely secular way of life is prompting some Ethiopian Jews to abandon religion. About 5 percent have switched their children from religious to secular schools.

Yeshayahu Chaneh, a 34-year-old social worker who arrived 12 years ago, is trying to organize the first Ethiopian agricultural settlement.

″We want to live like we did in our old villages, with our own customs, our own ways,″ said Chaneh. ″There it was completely different. Everyone lived under his own fig tree.″

Chaneh said 40 families have signed up to live in the settlement and he expects more as the novelty of urban life wears off.

The first Operation Moses immigrants recently began leaving the absorption centers and are living in towns like Lod, 12 miles southeast of Tel Aviv. In some neighborhoods there, the smell of home-baked spicy Ethiopian bread has become nearly as familiar as that of the traditional Middle Eastern pita bread.

Ayelet Blum, an Israeli teacher at an immigrant center, told of her joy when a 4-year-old boy, withdrawn until then, one day announced he was no longer wanted to be called Ayali, his Ethiopian name, and insisted on the Israeli name Eli.

To the activist Rahamim, young Eli’s decision was one sign that the Ethiopians would eventually stick it out.

″This is our country,″ he said.

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