Fifty pre-10th graders from Montreal took part in a tikkun olam project this past week at the Nurit Ethiopian Absorption Center in Beer Sheva.
As part of their five-week Israel experience tour, called Dorot, the students from Hertzaliya and Bialik schools in Montreal traversed Israel's diverse regions, volunteered in Israeli communities and developed relationships with 11 Israeli peers.
Dorot offered most of these Canadians their first direct experience with Israel, and as such, Gesher Chai directors, the driving force behind the Israeli side of the Jewish Agency Partnership 2000 exchange, found introducing them to both Israel's successes and ongoing dilemmas imperative.
One problem in Israel that persists is the integration of the 56,000 Ethiopian immigrants, many of whom live in absorption centers, temporary housing aiding in integration, located throughout Israel.
The Nurit Absorption Center in Beer Sheva houses 500 Ethiopian immigrants, according to Moshe Bahat, 46, Nurit administrator.
"We teach them the ways of the modern world," Bahat described part of the 1 1/2 year-long integration process, "how to buy a house, how to open a bank account and how to interact with others."
"Ethiopians have a different mentality," he continued. In Ethiopia, he described, the man as king, and in Israel they must recognize the issue of gender equality. An Ethiopian, himself, and former immigrant, Bahat aims to create a bridge between Ethiopian and Israeli culture, to create a future where Ethiopian offspring become Ethiopian-Israelis.
During the summer's long days, both Israeli-Ethiopian teachers and guides provide fun, educational programming for Nurit's 300, ages of 0-15. This is a critical step in the children's integration into the greater Israeli society: studying Hebrew and modern, Israeli-Jewish culture.
On this particular day, the 50 Canadians and 11 Israeli peers volunteered in the Nurit community with children of ages 3-15. Their activities varied according to age: the youngest group, 3 year olds, played games, danced to ethnic Ethiopian music and made chocolate balls for snack, 5-6 year olds depicted the Canadian seasons, 6-8 year olds swung from the jungle gym and zipped down brightly colored slides and 13-15 year olds rough-housed on the soccer field.
The Israelis, Beer-Sheva natives, joined the Montreal tour for four days, and experienced a part of their country not affecting their daily lives.
They became aware of Dorot from word-of-mouth at school this past year while in 9th grade. Gesher Chai chooses its Israeli participants early in the school year, so that they can begin a year-long pen-pal and live video correspondence with the students in Montreal. By the time they meet in person, the youth benefit from having established relationships already.
"We stimulate relationships by absorbing Israeli volunteers" who are interested in the Diaspora's Jewish communities, Sarah Yechskel said, the Gesher Chai coordinator.
"I wanted to become more acquainted with Jews from around the world," Shir Crispel, an Israeli, said. "I wanted to see how Jews behave in Canada and how they celebrate Jewish festivals."
As these final days drew to a close, Jordan Stotland, 15, described the group: "We're all one big family."
"It's very funny," Miri Moskovich said. "The Israelis practice speaking English and the Canadians practice speaking Hebrew. We both have accents," the 16-year-old Israeli explained. Despite complications, the group managed to communicate.
The ongoing success of Gesher Chai's programs, Yechskel said, relies on three levels of communication. The first level constitutes a final discussion of the participants' impressions. Next, when the Canadians return to Montreal, they suggest improvements for future generations of the program to Gesher Chai. Finally, the Israelis describe how they enjoyed their experience and how to tighten the program once in Israel.
Despite Gesher Chai's support network, some participants found themselves reluctant to come to Israel before the summer.
"When I heard about Israel, I thought about bombs and violence," Jessica Reinglass said. Once we came, though, "we don't even think about it. There's so much protection. We're so safe," she continued.
The program's security allowed participants to better focus on its activities. Besides volunteering in Beer Sheva, the Montreal group spent a week on Kibbutz Sde Boker simulating army training, toured the Negev lookout called Mitzpeh Revivim and took a bike tour in the Lahav Forest.
Best of all, though, these 50 Canadians saw the real Israel: its people, its land and its society. They toured through the living history and can now better understand Israel's complex political and social realities, its extreme uniqueness and the imperativeness for its ongoing existence.
Israel, a state built on immigration, has had to combat difficulties in integrating Sephardic Jews into an Ashkenazi society since the 1950s. In two waves, came Israel's current Ethiopian population, according to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 8,000 immigrants in the mid-1980s with Operation Moses and another 14,000 Ethiopians in 1991 with Operation Solomon.