Oftentimes the relationship between Zionist Jews and Israel is complicated. As Jews have lived around the world in the Diaspora for almost 2,000 years, there are complex identities that are brought to Israel and shape the culture, even as many Israelis themselves struggle to find the balance between who and what they are. Students and community members at Minnesota Hillel had a perfect opportunity to gain a look into the complexity of this world on Friday, March 24, as Rebecca Avera was hosted for Shabbat.
Rebecca is an Ethiopian-Israeli, currently the Israel Fellow at Las Vegas Hillel after having the same role at Stanford last year. She came to Minnesota Hillel to share her and her family’s story, with the joy and frustration of someone who loves Israel and yet who has experienced consistent racism from the country that brought her family out of the anti-Semitism of Ethiopia.
Rebecca’s story starts before her birth in Haifa in 1986, when her mother joined the exodus of Jews leaving Ethiopia on foot to travel to the desert with the dream of returning to Zion. Those who left ended up in refugee camps in Sudan, with many having died on the way. As Jews in America heard about the Ethiopian Jews, they pressured Israel to bring those in the Sudanese refugee camps to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984. For Ethiopian Jews, this was the first time they ever saw a plane, and on the flight to Israel many women gave birth, fires were built to cook, and many children died as well. The transition to Israel was extraordinarily difficult, with no instruction on what a refrigerator was, for example. Not knowing the language, and going from a strong agricultural culture to the world of Israel, was jarring for the community which had been transplanted.
As she grew up, Rebecca wanted to only be Israeli. She didn’t speak Amharic, avoided Ethiopian music and food, and was not proud of her Ethiopian identity even as she was the only black Jew in her class. After hearing her mother’s story and going to the Army and meeting other Ethiopian Israelis, her attitude changed. She learned Amharic and accepted her identity, and the complexity of being an Israeli Jew, an Ethiopian Jew, and a woman. A minority within a minority within a minority. She served at checkpoints to ensure the safety of her family and her country, even though it was a country that did not always treat her as it should.
Her generation grew, and they began fighting back against the racism of Israeli society, leading protests against the police violence inflicted on Ethiopian-Israelis and the discrimination faced in everyday life. And even as she led protests against the problems in Israeli culture, she went to study Government Diplomacy and Strategy in IDC Herzliya and was on a student delegation to South Africa to advocate for her country during Israel Apartheid Week. Afterward, she came to the United States to volunteer at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and become an Israel Fellow through the Jewish Agency.
As we now celebrate Passover and many are finding the lines between being Jews, Americans, (for some of us) culturally Russian, gender and sexual identity; this is an important lesson on all fronts. Rebecca’s story demonstrates that while Exodus is important, the work does not stop there; that Israel has done much but still has progress to be made, and that identity is crucial as a matter of self as well as of the country. Though complicated, such is the Jewish people. Chag Sameach.