Strengthening the weak link

Bet Tzipora Center. Photo: Bethsabée Süssmann
By Roland S. Süssmann
We step into a music class. A dozen Ethiopian children aged ten to twelve with a variety of percussion instruments give a short, five-minute concert. Conducted by a music teacher originally from Russia, they listened to a recording of the famous Radetzky March (Op. 228), and at a nod of the finger from their “conductor”, apply themselves to playing it with gusto. The faces are delighted, the eyes shine, a moment of contagious happiness for the outside observer. Where did we experience this wonderful moment? At the Bet Tzipora Center in Kiryat Malachi. But what is this place where Ethiopian children play music and have numerous educational activities? To understand what it is about a brief review of the facts is called for.
They are Jewish. They are Blacks. They live in Israel. They are cute, quiet, very dignified and smiling, but they are the weak link of Israeli society: Jews who came from Ethiopia, the so-called Falashas. The Israeli government brought them over in the 1990’s, thereby saving them from the violence and persecutions of which they were victims in Africa, and made huge efforts to integrate them into the Jewish State. Huge efforts yes… but insufficient ones. That is how many Ethiopian children go though school, or to be more precise, are dragged year after year from one class to another, often without being able to understand the fundamentals of what is being taught. This prevents them from developing and fully integrating into Israeli society. To fill this gap Marion and Elie Wiesel, as part of the “Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity” that they founded in 1987 straight after the award of the Nobel Prize for Peace, decided to help the Ethiopian community in general and the children in particular. They set up two centers called assistance for schooling – it might be more accurate to say assistance in life and integration – in two towns with large populations of Ethiopian Jews, Kiryat Malachi and Ashkelon. Since the latter was undergoing renovations and expansion, we went to Kiryat Malachi, where the center, as in Ashkelon, is called Bet Tzipora, in memory of Elie Wiesel’s sister, murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 8. These two centers presently have about 1,000 children per week, of whom 562 are in Kiryat Malachi.
Entering this slightly magical place, the visitor is struck by two things: the joyous, serene atmosphere, the discipline and happiness that reign there, and the smell of cleanliness. The cleanliness of the children, the place, the classrooms and the toilets is clearly part of the educational process offered by Bet Tzipora, and this reflects the quality of the management. Six days a week, about 370 children between the ages of six and fourteen take part in the activities available. The center opened its doors about 7 years ago, it was expanded in 2002 and since 2004 a series of programs have been introduced to help 192 adolescents aged 14 – 18 to prepare for adulthood. Today the first students have passed their exams with the best grades in town.
To better understand how Bet Tzipora operates and its spirit, we met with Mrs. Lea Shelach, Head of the Kiryat Malachi center.

You have been running Bet Tzipora in Kiryat Malachi since it opened. Can you tell us in a few words how life takes place in your institution, in fact, how it operates.

Before answering your question, I would like to say three things. I have had the privilege of working with Mrs. Marion Wiesel for many years, and I never always understood how she knew and grasped the importance of this assistance to schooling. We need to understand that by an Ethiopian child or young person coming here it lets them change their life and become a fully-fledged citizen. Unfortunately, as of today the Ministry of Education has still not understood how to handle these new immigrants from Ethiopia, for whom there are no special educational or integration programs. This unhappy situation gives added value to the Bet Tzipora centers. What’s more, we are facing a fact that is not exclusively Israeli: when a White meets a colored person there is always a tendency, wittingly or otherwise, to look down upon that person condescendingly, sometimes excessively so. We forget all too easily that whatever the color of the skin, the brains, feelings and sensitivities are the same in each and every one of us. Having said which, members of the Ethiopian community do not always possess the skills or means to express themselves and to get accepted. Here we provide them with the “tools” to learn to live in Israeli society. It must be understood that in a class of 40 students, of whom half are of Ethiopian origin, teachers cannot deal with each one individually. Monitoring and follow-up are effectively non-existent.
The center’s buses collect the children when they come out of school, and when they get here they are served a hot meal, because it is by no means certain that at home they get one every day, nor incidentally that they had necessarily had breakfast before going to school. They are then placed in small classes where they know someone is there to listen to them and answer just as often as necessary that sentence they hesitate to say aloud in school, “I haven’t understood – I don’t know”. Even when a child tells us he or she has not understood, we check that is indeed the case. Our motto is “study and enrichment”, and we do everything we can to ensure the children leave here with the feeling they have acquired a bit more knowledge.

How do the children know that Bet Tzipora exists?

Every year in August, we send out an invitation for an open day to find out about Bet Tzipora to every child of Ethiopian origin who attends the primary schools. The school year starts in September and we open our doors two weeks later, because we reckon a child cannot adjust to school frameworks in one go. As we have the lists of school age children, if some do not show up we contact the families. We usually bring them in.

How do the children feel about you?

Two years ago I went into a class that was going to finish and asked the children, “Why have you been coming here for six years rather than staying outside and enjoying yourselves?” They replied, “Because here we feel good and because you have helped us”. When I suggested opening a class for them so they could continue to study here for a further year they were delighted and they all came back the following year.

How does the children’s integration go?

That’s a difficult question. You must understand that the majority has not had normal schooling and they have huge gaps. We often get children who are in a class where lesson 28 of the curriculum is being taught, but they have not yet understood lesson number one. I also have to deal with new immigrants who just three years ago lived virtually in nature and according to the rhythm of nature: got up with sunrise, went to sleep at sunset etc. We had to tell them that there are timetables and that you cannot just get up or lie down when or where you want etc. A few years ago, a thirteen year old boy said to me, “Look, Lea, I don’t know how to hold a pencil properly, but in Ethiopia I had 52 cows and I never lost a single one”. How do you explain to this shepherd that our aim is to turn him into a university student? What’s more, in Ethiopia a boy of 13, 14 or 15 is considered a man, capable of getting married. Here we explain that he is just a young kid who must learn to read and write properly. So as not to cause offense we have to tread very carefully. For example, in the reading books I rub out where it says “First Primer” and so forth. We are handling a situation that overall is that is quite complicated, but in all we are posting satisfying results.

How do you select the teachers?

It took me four years to put together the great team I have today. I can say that the men and women who work here are a gem, the motor and source of success of our institution. The teachers get paid, but they have amazing devotion. In the evening, when they leave here, they spend hours preparing special teaching programs so that each child will be able to understand, and not be ashamed to ask and to ask again. What’s more, each teacher gives special, individual attention to each child. So, for example, a little boy had lots of problems. One of the teachers realized he had a problem with his vision. We took him to an ophthalmologist, who prescribed him glasses that we bought for him. As soon as he put them on he said to us, “Hey, there are squares on the ground!” He had never seen the tiles. Similarly, we have a fund to pay for shoes. We get vouchers from stores, where we take the children to choose the shoes they like and in which they are comfortable. For them, it’s a new experience. We also have a class for difficult children, where each youngster is taken in hand and given a program specially designed for him or her. The relations between the teachers and Bet Tzipora far exceed the strict framework of an institution. They take part in the life of the students and their families, they meet together after class in cafes to talk about the center, to exchange ideas and see how to improve the results.

You have spoken about your formula, “teaching and enrichment”. Can you tell us in a few words how this is applied in practice?

In fact, “teaching and knowledge” would be more appropriate. We do not want our young protégés to be just stuffed with theory, but rather that they should be able to discover the realities of life, and not just through the television. We realized for example that our students had never seen the sea, except on television. We arranged an outing with the parents. When they saw the sea and the waves, they could not believe their eyes and put themselves close together in a line to try to stop the sea coming in. We bought them plastic toys to play in the sand… they didn’t know what to do, since they had never played on a beach. Lastly, and I think this very well illustrates our approach, we asked them what they had thought of their day at the sea, and one of them told us, “I discovered a special, new sensation, waves under my feet…”

Do you think that “your” children are particularly talented?

I think that in fact they have major qualities and capabilities. When I see from where they have come and how they manage to fit into the school programs, and finally move into young adulthood very successfully, I have every reason to think they are specially gifted.

What relations do you have with the parents?

As you can imagine, a gap gradually forms between the children receiving our education and their parents. Firstly, as soon as we have a serious problem with a child, for example of behavior or integration, we call in the parents and try to find a solution together. Here too, you need to appreciate, that we are up against a problem of integration. Nurses working in pediatrics have told us that when Ethiopian mothers come to have their children checked, they do not talk to them. They are used to carrying them on their back, so a mother-child dialogue is effectively non-existent. This situation continues for their entire life. So we have to take this into account and teach the parents to talk with their children. But it is really very important that the children do not get the impression that we are replacing their parents. They have their place and we do everything to maintain and strengthen it. By the way, if we reach the conclusion that we have to expel a child from Bet Tzipora, we give him or her one last chance in which we involve the parents. We suggest they come to the center with the child, to stay with him during all the lessons, sitting next to him through all the lessons. I must say that this sort of last minute remedial teaching works well.
However, adults also have their own integration problems, and here we also help them. As I have said, we get the children here in the afternoons, when they come out of school. So in the mornings our premises are empty. Three times a week we organize Hebrew lessons for them, and courses on integrating into life here, where they learn for example how to read a bank statement, a phone bill or prepare a CV. Every Wednesday evening we have computer courses for the parents, so that they can be at the same level as their children. We have to understand that we are dealing with a society that has undergone a total transformation. In Ethiopia society was patriarchal, because it was the man who was the breadwinner. Here, social security money is paid to the mother for her children. So there is an inversion of roles, and the women gain in importance that they had never had. This type of situation is very hard to experience.

How do you believe you are perceived by the Ethiopian community?

That’s a difficult question. There is no doubt that our help is appreciated for what it is. Having said that, I have an Ethiopian friend who has a university degree in teaching. One day he said to me, “When I am at home I know who I am, but I also know that when I take down the trash I am just a Black”. In truth, we cannot know what they feel. We can imagine what is happening to the person, but in the final analysis it remains very limited. I personally consider that each of the children here could be my grandchild. I believe I can say they feel this love I have for them and I feel they reciprocate it.

What future plans do you have?

To grow and to take in more and more children, because at the moment we are having to refuse some due to lack of space. I have so many plans, there is so much work to be done and so many children to whom to give support. Because the children we help here today are the citizens of tomorrow, and we do everything so that they can make a major contribution to their families, to the people of Israel, to the country and the nation.

We could have stayed listening to Mrs. Lea Shelach for hours. She can recount surprising and moving anecdotes one after the other. It must be understood that the constant challenge that the extended education of Ethiopian youth raises is hard to meet, if only at the level of communication. This is a community undergoing a total transformation but that has remained very closed, very discrete, where no one is accustomed to display their emotions, to complain, even to express a wish. A small story illustrates just how far this tradition of discretion and silence is rooted in their mentality, especially when faced with a stranger. Two youngsters had been to Bet Tzipora in Kiryat Malachi for years, and who, thanks to the programs of preparation for adulthood had passed their exams very well, and were called up for the army. Before leaving, the institution’s head asked them what would give them pleasure. They replied, a watch. Neither had ever had a watch in their life, but they had never spoken about it…