…Slightly more than a thousand Ethiopian Jews have settled in North America since the beginning of the 1990s, and about 500 live in New York City. The Israeli Consulate, which used to ignore the trend, nowadays prefers to keep in touch with the Israelis living in the city.
The new New Yorkers themselves hate when one defines it as a "phenomenon". They are fed up with questions about the racism in Israel and America, and they reject any question that smells of arrogance and an effort to distinguish them from any other young Israelis who head to seek themselves "in the big world."
Bizu Rikki Mulu, one of the Ethiopian-Israeli-American community veterans, founded an organization aimed at facilitating absorption of the newcomers. She called it Chassida Shmella ("Shmella" means stork in Amharic, she took it from the song people in her village would sing while seeing the migrating birds: "Stork, stork, how is our Holy Land?"). She thinks that the stream of the newcomers will increase now that Obama is president.
"You have here in N.Y.C. maybe one hundred thousand Yemenite Jews, maybe half a million Russian Jews, and now we have the Ethiopian Jews," she says. "It's a normal thing. It is better to keep them attached to the community, instead of saying: 'We've spent so much money to bring them to Israel, they should go back there. If someone succeeds, it's a success for all of us.'"
Mulu, native of a small village in Gondar, came to Israel in 1978 with a group of 150 Jews as part of Operation Begin. She arrived in New York for the first time in 1991, and although she managed to get a green card, she warns that for most young Ethiopians, the absorption is not so simple.
"It looks easy from Israel, but then they come here and work illegally in all kinds of odd jobs, and no one really cares about them," she says. "A few fared better, some have their own businesses, and one woman works at the local hospital because her profession facilitates the immigration process. And there are plenty of guys who didn't really succeed, but they don't want to go back home with empty hands. I think it's quite healthy to be able to say: 'I failed and I'm going to try to make it at home.' Not everyone is like Obama. In many places in America still, the blacks are here and the whites are there. Only in the 60s, segregation was abolished formally. The young Ethiopians coming here don't think about these things."
Chassida Shmella organizes cultural and educational events, but most of the newcomers ask for material assistance. "They ask directly: 'What can you do for me?' At first, they are less interested in preserving their religious and cultural identity. But most of them come from religious families, and here there are no parents to prepare the Shabbat meal. They are trying to find their place. At first, people at synagogue might stare at them, but eventually they get used to it, and the rabbi is excited. Only upon coming here I discovered how much the American Jews did for the Ethiopian Jews. But there are also a lot of prejudices and stereotypes. Many still want to see us as the guys dressed in white coming off the plane, because that's how they remember this Aliyah."
"The Ethiopian Jews sobered later," declares one fresh arrival. "In Israel, dog eats dog. Here you have plenty of problems as well, but I personally prefer to be stabbed in the back by a gentile, and not my own brother Jew. Here the Ethiopians tend to succeed more, because people don't look at your origin and family name, they look at what you have to offer them. With God's help, we'll get back to Israel empowered, economically and mentally, to Jerusalem and not to the state-sponsored trailers."