Students at TSU visit with Ethiopian Israeli medical student, Orli Wube, center photo. Pictured in the pink is Khenedi Wright, pictured in the rear center is Jordan Riche
Immigration, racism, and diversity. These issues and values are currently capturing headlines in the national news cycle. They are also issues being discussed in Israel as the country comes to terms with what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to be Israeli. A recent visit to Nashville from Orli Wube, a participant in Israel’s Ethiopian National Project, funded by the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, revealed a growing awareness of the challenges faced by Jews of color in Israel. “I felt different from a young age,” says Orli, “And the fact that I’m different helps me better understand others in Israel and Palestinians who also have different backgrounds. I can look at the other side.”
Orli’s parents emigrated after each received special permission from the Ethiopian government to study in Israel, something not typically done. In fact, most Jews in the villages of Ethiopia do not finish high school. “My parents dreamed about being able to be fully Jewish,” she says. After finishing their studies, they settled in Israel to work and raise their family. Acculturating to life in the country can be difficult, so they sought help from the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), an organization that provides support for children and families that is funded in part by a grant from The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. According to Grace Rodnitzki, Director of International Relations at ENP, “The best way to break down barriers is to enable the Ethiopian community to realize its potential. Through a focus on education, intensive support, and a drive for excellence, young people can dream big and go far.” The ENP also works with parents to help them better understand the Israeli culture, language, and social systems. Orli says the program helped fill in the gaps between both cultures. After high school, she was able to join the Israeli Army as an officer, a position not typically offered to Ethiopian immigrants. It was during her time in the Army that she recognized her dream of becoming a doctor, and she is currently in medical school.
The road has not been an easy one for Orli, who says there are tensions even within the immigrant community in Israel. “The Ethiopian Israeli community is also not homogenous. People come from different regions. There are gaps between the generations who grew up in Israel and their immigrant parents.” During her time in Nashville, Orli visited with students at Tennessee State University, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) located in Nashvillee. Students there echoed the notion that minority communities are also layered and not homogenous. Jordan Riche, a freshman majoring in Political Science, says it was enlightening to learn about racial divisions within the Jewish community. “I didn’t even know it was a thing,” she says, “I was surprised to learn that even though she is Jewish, she still faces racism and discrimination at times because she is a minority.” Jordan, who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama and attended predominantly white schools, says she experienced resistance toward her efforts to become a leader at her school. “I had the opportunity to run for and become school President. But there were a lot of micro-aggressions, because of my skin color, around what I might accomplish.” Khenedi Wright, also a freshman political science major, is from Birmingham, Alabama. Raised by a single mother in a predominantly Black community, she was also surprised to learn about the diversity that exists among Jews. “It was eye opening to me. Everyone here is Christian and the fact that she is Jewish was surprising.” Khenedi says her experience around skin color centers around her lighter skin. “Because I have lighter skin and blonde hair, I get treated differently. People assume I’m not one hundred percent Black, and I am. Both my parents are dark skinned,” she says. She echoed Orli’s observations about internal racism in the Black community.
Orli’s time in Nashville included a visit with 5th graders at The Temple’s religious school. And while there was less emphasis on racism and skin color, teacher Danielle Bernstein says for many of her students it was their first experience meeting a Jew of color. “Most of the Jews my students know here are Ashkenazi. It was important for them to learn that just because someone doesn’t look traditionally Jewish, doesn’t mean they aren’t,” she says. Fifth grader Rena Zagnoev was surprised to learn the Ethiopian Israeli community even exists. According to her mother, Erin, “Rena loved meeting someone from Israel, and was interested to learn Israelis don’t all look alike.” Danielle Bernstein says there was discussion around the different opportunities available to white Israelis, versus those, like Orli, who are not white. Danielle says human nature often leads people to label, “the other,” even within Israel and the Jewish world. But her student, Ruth Boehler, was surprised to hear about Jews of color being treated differently. “We’re all Jews, we’re all human,” she says, “What matters most is what is inside of us.” Ruth was impressed to learn about the ENP ‘s assistance and focus on education, “We have so many more opportunities. It’s sad when people can’t make their dreams come true. Humans should be able to fulfil their potential.”
Although there was much discussion around racism and division, there was also exploration into Orli’s heritage. Because her family is from a small, isolated village in the mountains of Ethiopia, it is important to know their lineage. Orli can trace her family’s heritage back many generations, something surprising to both Jordan Riche and Khenedi Wright. Khenedi says, “My favorite thing was learning that people in Ethiopia can know so much about their lineage. Black people in America only know what our parents tell us, which often doesn’t go very far back. It makes me want to get more in touch with my African heritage.”
Visits like Orli’s create connections and build bridges between cultures, even when the underlying faith background is the same. ENP’s Grace Rodnitzki says, “If someone is actually racist, it’s hard to change their mind. The real challenge is changing prejudicial behavior. And that can be done through creating relationships.” She says through the opportunities created because of the ENP’s support, Ethiopian Israelis are reaching deeper into Israeli society, business, and academia. For example, the Jewish Federation in Nashville helps by providing funding for an after-school mentoring program for Ethiopian teens in our Israel Partnership Hadera-Eiron Region. In addition to enriching the lives of those who ENP supports, Rodnitzki says the benefits can reach clear to Nashville. “Our work here can be so important for North American Jewry. By sending people like Orli to share their experiences, it helps create positive relationships with Israelis and Israel and the immigrant communities in Middle Tennessee.” Adam Bronstone, Director of Planning and Israel Partnerships for The Federation, agrees. “Our goal was to do exactly this, show our Jewish community and the broader general community that the Jewish world is full of diversity and richness. If we can build connections to groups such as TSU and Fisk through our relationship with ENP, then the story gets told, which is a total win-win.”