July 21, 2024
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Locals Sponsor 10 Ethiopian Hi-Schoolers in Israel

Fort Lee—Diana Yacobi of Fort Lee, and her husband Ari, sponsor of 10 Ethiopian high school students in a support program run by NACOEJ (North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry), with offices in New York and in Israel. NACOEJ, founded and headed by Barbara Ribacove Gordon, was among the first groups to fight for the recognition of Ethiopian Jews as Jews and supporting their aliyah to Israel. The recently deceased Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, was an ally, in that he was perhaps the first rabbinic authority to proclaim that these people—who have been practicing Judaism since Biblical times and through centuries of discrimination and oppression—are indeed fully Jewish.

Mrs. Yacobi, travels to Israel several times a year to check on her high school students, and reports that they are eager to learn, especially English, math, science, and computers. They are motivated and happy kids, proud of their achievements and working toward challenging goals. She is very interested in children and their education, being a Jewish educator and formerly educational director of congregational Hebrew schools. She became aware of NACOEJ’s work by reading one of their brochures well over a decade ago. First, she purchased several of the crafts and arts they sold to raise funds. Then she started sponsoring students. Her group attends an AMIT school in Kiryat Malachi, south of Beersheva. Their tuition is taken care of by AMIT and the Israeli government, but out-of-pocket expenses like books, supplies, and trips are paid for from the stipend the students receive from their NACOEJ sponsor. The sponsor is asked to contribute $350 per student per year, and that amount has not changed in years. But there are many more students who could use help than the organization can afford. More sponsors are always welcome.

The educational assistance the students receive in primary school is highly praised by the Ministry of Education. They are taught how to study and helped with content with which their parents have had no experience. By the time the students reach high school, they need much less help. But, though families are close, support is diminished by the fall in status for the fathers, their uneven employment, and the fact that most mothers work doing housework. The high school students are expected to study hard, help care for their younger siblings, and earn a little money with after-school and summer jobs. Despite all those responsibilities, they do very well on their bagrut, the matriculation exam.

In the beginning, more than 35 years ago, NACOEJ set up a residential compound in Addis Ababa where these mostly rural people could gather to keep them safe and to transition to life in Eretz Yisrael. They worked hard to petition the Israeli government to allow and fund their aliyah, to recognize all who qualify, and to arrange for their successful absorption in Israel. The compound provided nutritious food and health care, education for all the children, education in modern Judaism and Hebrew to all, and work for many adults. The residence produced beautiful and unique hand-made tallitot and carrying sacks, challah and matzah covers, and pillow cases. This allowed the people to express their artistic abilities, live in dignity, and raise money to sustain the compound.

Tens of thousands made aliyah and Israel has declared the aliyah over.

Israel took over the operation of the compound and has now closed it. But there are still hundreds of Jews left behind due to procedural problems and unusual circumstances. Most have either parents, siblings, or children already living in Israel for years. NACOEJ, together with the Ethiopian community in Israel, is urging the government to hasten the reunification of these individuals with their families.

In the meantime, NACOEJ has been helping with the absorption of the olim. Coming from a rural culture centuries behind our own, they were amazed to see and be flown in airplanes for the first time ever. The journey to a new century, a new culture, and a new language has been challenging for many.

NACOEJ programs have been there to support students in primary school, high school, and college. Each student is sponsored by a generous donor. And each child is given assistance to promote their education. Whereas there are many problems to overcome in their early years, including poverty and lack of assistance in studies from elders, most students succeed but are left with financial problems at the higher levels of education.

The Ethiopian community has contributed many rabbis, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals to Israeli society. They participate in the military along with everyone else. And they proudly celebrate the crowning of one of their own as this year’s Miss Israel.

On one of her later trips, Mrs. Yacobi noticed that hardly any students had their own computers and those in school were outdated. So she funded a computer lab with all new equipment for the AMIT school her students attend. When she was told the school could also use an electronics lab, she sponsored that, too, and has now been invited to join the NACOEJ board of directors.

To sponsor a high school or college student, contact Karen Gens at Education_nacoej.org or at 212-233-5200, ext. 230. They also sell beautiful woven objects and jewelry made by Ethiopians, shown in the accompanying pictures. They can be reached by email at nacoej_nacoej.org. Their address is 255 West 36th Street, Suite 701, NY, NY 10018. You can learn more about their work at their website www.nacoej.org.

By Stephen Tencer

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