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“Continuing on the path of our ancestors”: A new mechina for Ethiopian Israelis

The Ethiopian Israeli community’s last protest, the second generation’s identity crisis, and the reality on the ground spurred four educators with military backgrounds to take action and create a mechina for Ethiopian Israelis. What will the new mechina do for its students? What content will it teach? Won’t a separate mechina make the divisions in Israeli society worse? Here are all the answers

Tuesday, 13 April 2021 22:51

At the beginning of September, 30 new high school graduates will pack huge backpacks, say goodbye to their parents, and enter the gates of Mechinat Derech Avot with high expectations for a memorable and meaningful year. All are second-generation Ethiopian Israelis, and they will be the mechina’s first class.

Derech Avot, a branch of Mechinat Bnei David, stands out among the mechinot. Behind it are big ideas, a grassroots need, lots of faith, and a sincere aspiration to make a difference and change Israeli society.

Two identities

Before the first student enters the mechina, though, let’s go back to where the idea was born. “The death of Solomon Teka in 2019 and the protest that followed gave expression to a major crisis inside the community, and between the community and the state. During that protest, unlike others, everyone went out and protested: army officers, doctors, educators, physicians. They all went out to express their pain and suffering,” recalls Rabbi Lior Nagasa, head of the new mechina. “We discerned that there was something unusual going on here. We didn’t exactly have answers, but we decided that we wanted to come together and get an understanding of the crisis.”

Rabbi Lior is the rabbi of a congregation in Rechovot, a teacher at Mechinat Shuvu Achim, and a major in the IDF reserves. When he says “we,” he’s referring to his friends: Rabbi Avi Alefa, a mechina director, elementary school teacher, and officer in the Paratrooper reserves; Rabbi Yishai Kabeda, a mechina and high school teacher, Chadera community activist, and combat veteran of the Kfir Brigade; and Rabbi David Balai, who teaches at mechina and elsewhere. They began meeting every month to discuss matters relating to Ethiopian Jewry’s values, identity, and heritage.

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Open house at the mechina

“We figured out that we were going through an identity crisis,” explains Rabbi Lior. “On one hand, the second generation, whose parents immigrated from Ethiopia, doesn’t feel connected to the heritage and identity of the Jews of Ethiopia. On the other hand, they feel that Israeli culture doesn’t accept them and that it shunts them aside. They’re torn between two identities.”

One of the numbers that surprised them, says Rabbi Lior, was that 84 percent of Ethiopian Israelis join combat units in the IDF—while 45 percent drop out during their service. “We realized that the identity crisis was affecting their ability to deal with the difficulties and challenges that the army poses for every teenager,” he says. It also became clear to them that no educational institution in Israel was teaching the rich Zionist heritage of Ethiopian Jewry.

After two years of meetings and discussions about what they could contribute, the four educators arrived at the idea of a mechina. “We decided that we wanted to found a mechina that would strengthen its students’ sense of Ethiopian Jewish identity and heritage, as well as general Jewish and Israeli identity—and of course, physical and mental preparation for meaningful army service,” says Rabbi Lior.

“We didn’t want to found a mechina just for the sake of founding a mechina,” clarifies Rabbi Yishai. “We didn’t throw a dart and then draw the target around it. We understood that a mechina was the right vehicle for implementing the big idea. It’s new, it’s challenging, and we’re getting assistance from a lot of good people with knowledge, especially at Mechinat Bnei David in Eli, who have accompanied us the whole way.”

“Our message is that we’re not disconnecting from our heritage and traditions, for which our ancestors laid down their lives for 2,500 years”

“Continuing on the path of our ancestors”

Thus a new mechina took shape. The four friends contacted Mechinat Bnei David, whose values they share. They received a lot of support, and set off to establish the institution. “The place will have a religious flavor,” says Rabbi Yishai, “although we’re speaking to the entire population group. At the mechina, we’ll teach general content about the Land of Israel and Jewish history and have weeklong units such as survival week or Jerusalem week, and of course we’ll connect all the content to the unique identity and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry—our added value as a mechina.”

“For instance,” continues Rabbi Yishai, “Prisoners of Zion will come to the mechina to tell their story. These are people the students generally encounter in day-to-day life, in their neighborhoods. Sometimes they’re even their parents. But the kids don’t know the stories from their past.”

Derech Avot, the phrase chosen as the mechina’s name, means “the ancestors’ path.” Its logo—a saluting officer whose feet are connected by roots to the earth—is no less meaningful. “Our message,” says Rabbi Lior, “is that we’re not disconnecting from our heritage and traditions, for which our ancestors laid down their lives for 2,500 years. It’s by drawing on the Zionist heritage of dedication, Jewish identity, values, and coming to the Land of Israel that we can connect with the people of Israel. We’re continuing on our ancestors’ path—our ancestors from Ethiopia, but also Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

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Unity, not uniformity

It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the idea of a mechina that’s just for Ethiopian Israelis. If the idea is to build connections and a deeper sense of belonging to Israel and Israeli society, then why be separate? Why found a mechina just for them? “Saying that is everyone’s initial instinct,” acknowledges Rabbi Lior, “and we deal with that question all the time, but the answer is very simple. You’re familiar with Ben-Gurion’s melting pot and what came of it. It’s impossible to come together as one by erasing the things that are unique.”

“In a certain sense,” continues Rabbi Lior, “they took the Jews of Ethiopia and always told us what was good for us. They said, ‘come integrate,’ but they neglected to note that we have a rich, Zionist heritage and a lot to contribute to the country and Israeli society. At the end of the day, this created a situation where the second generation doesn’t feel that it belongs either to its past or to the Jewish people, and the last protest, which was just the trigger, expressed the extent of the pain and fissures.”

“Our goal, first and foremost, is for alumni to connect with who and what they are and serve in meaningful capacities in the IDF, with an emphasis on command roles and the officer corps. Going forward, they’ll fill every position there is in order to further the interests of the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel”

The staff of the new mechina seeks to reach out to second-generation Ethiopian Israelis from a place of strength and say: Your unique identity gives you so much to contribute. “It’s not just our need as a community. It’s also a need of the people of Israel as a whole. Preserving the uniqueness of every community and every diaspora will contribute to the richness of the people of Israel,” explains Rabbi Lior. “Someone who needs to represent that uniqueness needs to know what he is, who he is, and this mechina is an outstanding platform for that.”

“We’re in favor of unity,” says Rabbi Avi, “not uniformity. Our goal, first and foremost, is for alumni to connect with who and what they are and serve in meaningful capacities in the IDF, with an emphasis on command roles and the officer corps. Going forward, they’ll fill every position there is in order to further the interests of the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel.”

“Whether you’re an engineer or a construction worker,” says Rabbi Avi, “do it out of a sense of being connected to your people, your land, your heritage. In order for a person to give more of himself, he has to feel that this land belongs to him, that the heritage they’re talking about is his. With that sense of belonging, we really can strengthen society.”

“It’s important to say that we’re not coming at this in terms of separation and insulation, in a superficial way,” says Rabbi Lior. “We believe in the nation and the Land of Israel, along with the uniqueness that every person in our nation possesses. Therefore, as long as our uniqueness doesn’t find expression in the Israeli public arena, the people of Israel will be lacking something.”

Good luck to the staff and the first class of Mechinat Derech Avot!

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