Another portion of our cultural immersion was an invitation to the Netanya Foundation Ethiopian Center. An extremely rich cultural experience, the people at the Netanya Center shared traditional tea and bread-breaking with our group (shown below), as well as a tour of the facilities and resources available to the community. The Netanya Center was an experience that the students found incredibly impactful as they also reflected on community differences here in Milwaukee.
Student Katie Shaw shares her experience and her personal reflections:
As part of our visit in Israel, we visited the Netanya Foundation Ethiopian Heritage Center, a community center located in Netanya that supports the local population of Ethiopian Jews, many of whom are first or second generation immigrants to Israel. Our guide throughout the Center was Avi, an Ethiopian Jew who traveled to Sudan to later migrate to Israel in 1984. Heidi, who works at the Ethiopian Heritage Center, helped translate from Hebrew to English for Avi.
As we drank ceremonial coffee and bread, Avi and Heidi told us how the Center has helped the local Ethiopian Jewish population assimilate and grow within Israeli culture while still maintaining their Ethiopian traditions. Avi informed us that many Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israeli during the past thirty years without any knowledge of modern culture, let alone Israeli culture, or the Hebrew language. Because of these initial barriers, much of the population had difficulties finding employment and keeping on track in school. As a result, the Ethiopian Jewish population continued to slide into poverty and levels of youth truancy increased.
With the support of non-profits, the community at-large, and the dedication of the Ethiopian Jewish population itself, the Center stepped in to provide education, after-school programs, leadership curriculum, and other activities to better the lives of the Ethiopian Jews of Netanya. We toured a new music and recording studio filled with instruments for youths to hone their musical talents, sports facilities, an arts and activities room, and even a counseling center where young Ethiopian Jews can come to express their feelings and receive guidance. Avi informed us that the Center has become an essential part of the local Ethiopian Jewish population by helping them advance within Israeli culture.
I took a moment to speak with Heidi privately to congratulate her on the success of the Center and ask her why she thought it was so successful. Heidi informed me that although the Center does a great deal to support the Ethiopian Jewish population, the community itself was the real secret behind the success. In particular, the will of the local Ethiopian Jews to improve their lives was and continues to be the driving force behind the population’s success.
Our tour of the Center and Heidi’s comment on the will of the people caused me to reflect on our numerous under-served areas and populations here in Milwaukee. If the will of the people is the secret driving force for successful community improvement, I could not help but wonder whether the Milwaukee community as a whole – from all reaches of the Milwaukee area – has that same will to empower its community. And, if not, how we can effectively teach Milwaukeeans to grow that will for change.
I left the Ethiopian Heritage Center with these questions about my own community left unanswered and arrived in Milwaukee with no more answers. More than anything, our visit to the Ethiopian Heritage Center and our trip Israel as a whole, has caused me to pause and consider parallel conflicts and disparities here at home. I am thankful for that takeaway – hopefully, with a bit of will power, I can use our trip as a guidepost to improve my personal efforts towards peace in my hometown.
Student Jennifer Sosa also reflects on the experience:
During our stay in Israel, we visited the Netanya Center for Ethiopian Jews. The Center had a number of activities and programs that the surrounding community members could partake in. Activities and programs varied and there was at least one resource available for every age group. Most programs and activities were implemented to keep the youth out of trouble. What was most interesting for me, however, was witnessing how this Center was built within an underprivileged neighborhood.
At first sight, I had no idea the neighborhood was poor and underprivileged; in fact, it was not until our guide informed us how the neighborhood stood economically that I became aware of the community’s lower-income status. Perhaps one of the reasons I was unable to notice this was due to the center’s appearance, how well it was kept, and the number of resources and amount of equipment it had within. What further caught my attention about this center was how it was rich with resources for its community members; nonetheless, many of its activities and programs were free to no cost at all. Throughout the presentation about the Center, I wondered how the Center was well kept. After speaking to our guide, Avi, I later found out that many of its members shared a mutual feeling – that the center belonged to the community. Because the Center was a resource and form of relief from many of their hardships, its members and the community felt obligated to take care of it.
I really liked how this organization actually gave a voice to its members and did its best to use the resources within to serve the community’s needs. That is to say, when the community suggested ideas as to how the Center could better serve the neighborhood, the organization actually listened. How? Together with the community, the Center created programs and activities to keep youth away from trouble, especially because they are most vulnerable and susceptible. One of the many things the community suggested was to have some type of music program and/or activity. The underprivileged community believed that music would be a powerful source for youth to be able to communicate to the world. This organization was created to serve an underprivileged community, and, in every way possible, it is doing its best to actually serve it. It is an aid for the refugees, a resource for those in need, and a place to keep a vulnerable culture strong and on its feet.