Ethiopian community center in Netanya

A place to gather

In The Jerusalem Post Magazine 05/30/2013 13:52   By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Several hundred people attended the opening of an Ethiopian community center in Netanya last week.

Ethiopian community center in Netanya
Photo by: Seth J. Frantzman

Several hundred people attended the opening of an Ethiopian community center in Netanya last week. The city’s Mayor Miriam Fierberg-Ikar welcomed the crowd in a speech that was translated into Amharic.

“There are a lot of communities in Netanya and they all asked for a place like this, but the only one that received such a beautiful place is the Ethiopian one. The Ethiopian community has brought the city much pride,” she said. The large center is the first of its kind in the country.

The initiative to open a community facility for Ethiopian Jews was brought about by a partnership between the municipality; its philanthropic arm, the Netanya Foundation; and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) and its president, Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein. Eckstein has taken a keen interest in the Ethiopian Jewish community, travelling to Ethiopia and learning Amharic.

He also is a fan of Ethiopian food and traditional dance.

Shlomi Waroner, head of the Netanya Foundation, noted that the overall budget for the new building was NIS 4.5 million, of which the bulk of funding came from the IFCJ. In addition, the municipality has set aside a budget to pay salaries at the center. This will cover a manager who is Ethiopian, Elias Mehari, as well as information center staff and activity coordinators. Representatives of city offices will also be located there, with the center serving as a sort of onestop shop for career counseling, other resources and cultural activities related to the community.

The mayor noted that at first she supported integration of the Ethiopian community and opposed the idea of a special place for them in the city. “Initially I refused this idea, but I realized how important it is to celebrate your own holidays so I supported it… The city couldn’t built it by itself, so I turned to my close friend Rabbi Eckstein.”

Netanya is home to Israel’s largest concentration of Ethiopian Jews, approximately 13,000 residents of the large coastal city. The new center includes an indoor hall for performances, a room for career counseling and a second floor that includes a computer room and other facilities. It is conveniently located in a residential neighborhood.

Aviva Negatu, a resident of Netanya, thinks the place will benefit the community.

“I live here in this neighborhood, it will be a place for people to gather, for events. There was nothing before. Now we have our own place for a change.”

Yehuda Kohn, who manages a youth-focused NGO, thinks the center has great potential. “They changed a lot of lives today. It will help make the family stronger and really give the tools for that. It will make a big difference for this neighborhood, as a very unique place for the Ethiopian community.”

AS WITH many Ethiopian cultural events in Israel, the audience was made up of elderly people, some of whom do not speak Hebrew well. To communicate that the event was designed for everyone, the speeches were translated into Amharic. However, the highlight for many of those attendance was when the Ethiopian ambassador ascended the stage.

Helawe Yosef Mengistu spoke in Amharic with a volunteer trying to translate into Hebrew. “I am happy to see the old and young people who come here. This is a great place for Ethiopians to develop their culture and hopes,” he said.

Halfway through the speech the translator appeared to struggle with the words and gave up translating. The non-Ethiopians in the audience could only guess at the meaning of rest of the speech. But what he said represented a strong outreach to the local community.

“Ethiopian Jews kept their identity in Ethiopia and were appreciated by the government. We recognize you as our residents. You kept your identity and didn’t forget your heritage in Israel. Don’t forget your heritage.

Ethiopia is your country, the only country that was not colonized. It is a country of Christians, Muslims and Jews.” He also made a plea for the community to pass on their language to their offspring.

The crowd gave him strong ovations on each point, which is interesting since many of the elderly people had fled Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s during famine and civil war. The last part of the ambassador’s speech was the most surprising. “The government will allocate land in Gondar and Tigray [province] for museums [about Ethiopian Jewish history] to be built, and I propose to my ministry that centers should be built at Axum and Gondar universities to study Ethiopian Jews.”

The opening of the center, with its sleek modern design, pretty facade and spacious surroundings, represents a contribution to the urban fabric of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Netanya. Many of the areas with high concentrations of Ethiopian Jews have substandard infrastructure and a dilapidated appearance of urban decay and municipal abandonment, which is only too evident from a stroll around parts of Netanya, Kiryat Yam, Hadera, Kiryat Gat and Beersheba, where immigrants were concentrated upon aliya.

As Fierberg noted, “They [Ethiopian Jews] could have come with personal problems, but they asked for a place to get together.”

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