As the World Grapples With Racism, Israel Seeks to Empower Ethiopian Youth

By SHARON GELBACH

The growing protests against racism in the United States have aroused strong feelings worldwide, and Israel is no exception. Ethiopian Israelis have long complained of prejudice and being treated as second-class citizens.

Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s national hospital, enjoys a reputation for medical innovation, but many are unaware that it is also at the forefront of helping to integrate members of various minority groups in Israel.

In the past several years, Sheba has integrated hundreds of new Ethiopian olim (immigrants) into the hospital workforce, going as far to provide them with free classes to help them navigate Israeli bureaucracy and improve their language skills.

Most recently, Prof. Eldad Katorza, senior physician at Sheba, decided to give youth from the Ethiopian community a head start by folding them into a pilot program within “Project Arrow,” which he directs.

“Project Arrow” (chetz in Hebrew, the initials of chokrim tze’irim, meaning “young researchers”) is an apprenticeship program for medical students designed to pave their way into the world of medical research.

Established in 2006, the initiative matches select medical students with experienced researchers to serve as mentors. During once- or twice-weekly meetings, the student-mentor team works through every stage of medical research, from formulating the initial question, to collecting and analyzing data, to presenting the results at medical conferences.

This year, for the first time, each research duo included a third tier: high school students from the Ethiopian community.

Katorza believes in the importance of encouraging students to pursue research, noting that in medical school, they do not receive sufficient exposure to research thinking or methodology.

“I believe that research makes a doctor more knowledgeable, more curious, more creative,” he said. “A doctor who engages in research is a much better doctor.”

Employing this premise, Katorza now plans to open several slots for nursing school students in the coming year’s program.

“Nursing is also a field that stands to benefit greatly from adding researching to its ranks; it will raise the bar of nursing in Israel,” he said.

Even in the early stages of planning the pilot program for the Ethiopian high school students, it quickly became evident to Katorza just how crucial, timely, and challenging his initiative was.

“I asked my son, then in 11th grade, to look around his own school in Givatayim for students from the Ethiopian community who might be suitable for the program,” said Katorza. “As it turned out, there wasn’t a single Ethiopian student in his school, nor in any of the good schools in the area.”

The reason can be traced to the socioeconomic realities in Israel today. By and large, members of the Ethiopian community tend to dwell in poorer neighborhoods where community services and schools are on a lower level.

These conditions put Ethiopian teens at a disadvantage from the outset, and due to economic necessity, youth are pushed to join the workforce at an early age, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

“Almost four decades have passed since the first wave of Ethiopian aliyah,” observed Katorza, “yet judging from their rate of participation in academia, their level of affluence and other markers of social mobility, it appears that the government has failed to take the necessary steps to help them bridge the gaps and facilitate their successful absorption into mainstream Israeli society.”

Anxious to change that trend, Katorza decided to include outstanding students from the Ethiopian community in “Project Arrow.”

But it wasn’t simple to locate high school students from the Ethiopian sector who met the criteria for participation in the program: High marks in the sciences, high motivation and interest, and living near enough to the Sheba campus to attend weekly meetings.

Ultimately, Katorza was aided by an organization called Fidel (“alphabet” in Amharic), which promotes the education and social integration of Ethiopian-Israeli youth.

The Fidel staff welcomed the opportunity to incorporate Ethiopian students into the program, and provided 10 candidates, from which the top five were chosen.

Katorza said the pilot was a resounding success and will be repeated in the coming year.

“We found that once they are freed from the limitations of their environment, the students manifested amazing capabilities,” he said. “We endeavored to help build their self-confidence, empower them, and teach them that they can do anything they put their mind to.”

Throughout the year, in addition to their full participation in research, the Ethiopian high-schoolers were also exposed to clinical activity at the hospital.

“At the beginning of the year, the students didn’t have any specific plans for the future,” Katorza said. “Now, they are now seriously considering a medical career.”

One of those is Yair Jalmar, 17, from Beer Yaakov, who participated in a research project with pediatric cardiologist Dr. Shai Tejman.

“This project helped me develop my interest in medicine and learn more about the advanced technologies and devices as well as the various departments in the medical field,” Jalmar said.

Former participants in the Arrow Project have gone on to publish their findings in prestigious medical journals, and several have joined the team at Sheba.


Sharon Gelback
Sharon Gelbach

Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto and moved to Israel in 1982. She is a writer, editor and translator and lives with her husband and family in Jerusalem.

My Jewish Experience: Creating Allies in the Fight Against Anti-Black Racism

By AKILAH ALLEN-SILVERSTEIN

When people see my last name, “Silverstein,” there is no mistaking it: My Jewishness is obvious. But the question is, more often than not, “So, I guess you’re married to a Jew?” I am light-skinned and wear a Star of David, so the assumption that I could not be mixed race is odd. My favorite is when I’m asked, “How did that happen?” While I generally hold my tongue, I often want to respond, “how did your parents conceive you?” to point out how ridiculous that question is.

My parents with me and my sister, Kitchener, 1992; Sybil, Akilah, Barry, Asha

While I realize there isn’t an overwhelming number of people who look like me within the tight-knit Jewish community, we exist and we’re not going away.

The questions started even before I was born. “I don’t know if we can be seen in a restaurant together, and what would you do with the children?” My grandfather had – let’s call them “questions and concerns” – when my father, an Ashkenazi Jew, introduced my Black mother, who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, to his family.

My parent’s wedding, Guildwood, 1987, Sybil Allen & Barry Silverstein

I can comprehend his disappointment at her not being Jewish, but I can’t help but wonder that if she were white, would the concern of being “seen” have come up?

I was raised in the Caribbean in a predominantly Black society, and the only remnants of a Jewish community are a synagogue and cemetery from the 1700s on the sister island of Nevis. I visited Canada at least once a year and would spend lots of time with my father’s extended family. I have many wonderful memories of Passover seders, Chanukah celebrations and trips out to London, Ont. to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins.

Me, my sister and my cousins, Kitchener, 1995; Asha Allen-Silverstein, Drew Silverstein, Kate Silverstein, Akilah Allen-Silverstein

I have a wonderful relationship with my father and his family. Even my grandfather came around. After he passed away, I was overwhelmed helping to clean up his apartment, decorated with numerous photos of me, my sister, and her son, his first great-grandson, his absolute favourite.

Me and my grandfather, Toronto, 2014; William Silverstein, Akilah Allen-Silverstein
Me, my baby sister and my grandmother, Kitchener, 1992; Roma Zwickle, Asha, Akilah

When I returned to Canada and completed my undergraduate degree, I wanted to learn more and become more involved in the Jewish community. A Jewish coworker told me about Birthright Israel, and I was accepted on a trip in the spring of 2017.

I was nervous at first, assuming I would be the only Black participant. The voice in my head kept telling me I wasn’t Jewish enough. I had never gone to Hebrew school or had a bat mitzvah.

These fears were mostly unfounded. I wound up having a wonderful experience, and even celebrated my bat mitzvah on Masada. Meeting an Ethiopian Jewish woman and seeing many other ethnicities represented in Israel opened my eyes to the diversity of the Jewish people. And while I was the only Black participant on my bus, at least 15 others were from mixed marriages. I subsequently led a Birthright trip two years later.

Almog Tamim, Barak Berkowitz, Akilah Allen-Silverstein, Max Marmer (BirthRight, Israel, 2018)

My decision to lead a trip stemmed from my gratitude at being given such a wonderful gift, one that allowed me to develop a Jewish identity and be proud of my heritage in a way I did not understand before. I wanted to ensure no one feels like an outsider, and to remind them that being Jewish does not mean the same thing for everyone. I recently joined the Birthright Israel Foundation of Canada’s youth leadership counsel.

This is my story, but I’ve haven’t always felt as accepted as I let on. Many people in the community still don’t see me as Jewish, and when they do, it’s only because I’ve had to explain my existence.

Instances of blatant racism towards Black people are still far too prevalent. I was recently getting to know a new friend. She’s Jewish and has lived in Thornhill for 15 years after emigrating from Israel with her husband and son. She adapted quickly to the community and had many friends and relationships. But when she and her husband divorced, and a few years after she began dating a Black man, she was shocked by the hurtful and racist comments and responses she received from many Jewish friends who she had previously thought were open-minded, kind and accepting.

Late last year, I attended a diversity and inclusion workshop where a Jewish lawyer spent considerable time venting her frustration and shock towards the openly and unapologetic vocal racism her parents frequently expressed towards BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour).

Why is this behaviour so troubling? As a community, we have suffered immense trauma, oppression, and discrimination in the form of antisemitism. What group understands better how propaganda, harmful stereotypes, and systematic forms of discrimination and dehumanization can lead to unimaginable horrors?

We have, in many ways, become an insular society that prides itself on protecting and preserving our cultural heritage and religious traditions. This is beautiful, and many aspects of such a tight-knit community fill the stories my father tells me of his upbringing in London’s Jewish community.

However, Ashkenazi Jews in North America have benefitted immensely from their “white-passing” privilege, ensuring that they have been able to bypass certain systemic forms of racism which have disenfranchised BIPOC. As a Black Jewish woman, I cannot help but feel hurt and frustrated at the overwhelming silence from the Jewish community on most issues of race and the overt perpetuation and participation of racist behaviours towards Black people in particular.

Our Jewish teaching of tikkun olam is a concept defined by acts of kindness to repair the world. It’s a fantastic calling and crucial responsibility to which I want my Jewish community to take the lead, and to call out and be true allies against any form of racism against BIPOC. 

While I have, for the most part, been made to feel welcome in many Jewish spaces, I often wonder if I were single and happened to be dating an Ashkenazi Jewish man, would his family accept me in time, as my grandfather had? Would my Blackness be an issue? Would someone in the family still be concerned about being seen with me in public?

I would be remiss not to mention that over the last few weeks, I have been inspired by the numerous posts, personal notes and a true commitment to listening, understanding and being part of the proactive change that I have seen from some of my Jewish peers.

I’m hopeful that meaningful change may come about as true allies are developed with friends who can support, fight for, and work to undo the systemic racism and oppression still facing BIPOC. As someone who proudly identifies as a Black Jewish woman, I am asking you to take a hard look in the mirror and decide which side of history you want to be on moving forward.

My dream is to see both of my communities united in the fight for equality, liberation and the right of self-determination for all.


Akilah Allen-Silverstein

Akilah Allen-Silverstein lives in Toronto. She is a Certified Financial Planner, passionate about community engagement, gardening, cooking, exploring the outdoors, and travelling.