The Descendants of (Operations) Moses, Joshua and Solomon
Dickinsonians work to improve lives within Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish population
by Tony Moore
January 25, 2013
Jessica Baverman '09 (left) and Benson Ansell '10 spend a day in the community garden in Gedera.
Odds are, you don't know about the Israeli Defense Forces
covertly airlifting 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel in
1984-85 in what was called Operation Moses. Operation Joshua
brought 500 more later that year, and Operation Solomon airlifted
nearly 15,000 more people out during a 34-hour period in 1991.
Ross Weissman '08 can tell you all about it, though. A religion
major while at Dickinson, Weissman now lives in Gedera, Israel, and works
with the Yahel Social Change Program, dedicated to improving the
lives of the city's Ethiopian Jewish population, which totals 120,000 nationwide.
"Our program generally touches on things that are related to Jewish
identity abroad or in Israel," Weissman begins, explaining that Yahel runs a long-term program in Gedera and short-term
programs across the country. Working on the
recruitment side, Weissman focuses on how Yahel can get people from
abroad, North America and beyond, to engage in this work in Israel.
He is also reaching back to Dickinson, and two alumni—Jessica
Baverman '09 and Benson Ansell '10—are already on board with the
With a master's in social work and nonprofit management,
Baverman, a dual history and women's & gender studies major at Dickinson, says she "wanted to do a
program abroad that combined my passions for migration and social
justice. Yahel had both of those, and I think my work here is
definitely making a difference."
On the ground, in the garden and around the
"We work a lot with youth, a lot with the next generation," says
Weissman. Alongside Friends by Nature, an Israeli nonprofit focused
on community empowerment and education in Israel's Ethiopian communities, Yahel partners with a local youth center, creating a
safe and structured space for young people to engage socially. "We
base a lot of our work on identified community need and try to
structure different programs based on what is identified."
For instance, the Garlic Project.
"Most of the Ethiopian men who come to Israel were
agriculturalists, and when they arrived there was often a huge
cultural clash," Weissman explains. "So we engage at-risk older men
in the community to provide them an opportunity to work the land,
grow garlic together, do something that they're good at."
Another prong of Yahel's work involves garinim
("kernels" or "nuclei")—people who live and work inside struggling
Ethiopian neighborhoods, influencing them from the inside. "We have
a cohort of eight people living in Gedera, in the Shapira neighborhood: community
gardens, youth centers, schools, tutoring—it's all focused on that
one neighborhood," Weissman says, noting that Baverman is one of
the eight. "It's about building from the ground up."
In the Shapira neighborhood, Baverman focuses on tutoring
Ethiopian students in English, which she does both in their
homes and in an elementary school. She also recently has undertaken
the task of teaching English to adults, something she both finds
rewarding in terms of making connections and considers a significant step for
her pupils. "English is really important in Israel, as it opens up a
number of professional opportunities," she says. "It has taken a
few months for me to feel less awkward and be more 'Israeli,' but I
feel that I have begun to make strong relationships."
Ansell, an environmental-studies major at Dickinson, also cites tutoring as one of the more impactful aspects of his time spent in Shapira, especially in terms of his relationship with Daniel, a 14-year-old Ethiopian boy.
"This is a very
special and meaningful placement for me," he begins. "When we first started
meeting, Daniel's English knowledge was very minimal, and my Hebrew was almost nonexistent, so many people wondered how our relationship was going to work." What he found instead of difficulty was a "perfect situation," one in which they began their
relationship on equal ground. "I find this perfect because we are
both simultaneously the teachers and the students; we are both
empowering ourselves by both learning and sharing knowledge."
Weissman studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, in an immersive Judaic-studies program, from January to July 2010, but notes that the path to Gedera began to
materialize even earlier, while at Dickinson: He worked with Hillel, EarthNow and Umoja, an education-centered youth-development group, which, he says, "was very much about unity and celebrating
campus diversity." He was also involved with Spectrum for a semester.
He laughs, as though seeing the connection between his
past and his present clearly for the first time. "In many ways, I
guess what I do now ties together many of those interests—with
Jewish life, agricultural life, diversity, multiculturalism …
"People often ask, 'What do you do with a religion major?' " he
continues. "And I say, 'I studied religions, but I also was a
liberal-arts student. I engaged in many big questions, in many
different forms, whether it be through writing, in research or in
critical and engaging discourse.' My job would be a tough one to
have if I had a narrow focus coming into it."