Giving Back to Israel

Volunteering With Ethiopian Israeli Communities

By Nicole Sobel

Playing with Children in Rishon LeZion. Photos by Nicole Sobel.
Playing with Children in Rishon LeZion. Photos by Nicole Sobel.

It’s been a little over a month since I left the US for an experience that has forever changed my life. I can still hear the Ethiopian Israeli children laughing and playing with me outside. I can still smell the fresh, warm falafel on the streets of Jerusalem and I remember the sounds of the Hebrew language all around me and the historic limestone streets under my feet.

I haven’t forgotten the faces of the children and families who looked me in the eye with the deepest gratitude I have ever witnessed and thanked me for what myself and my group had done for their community.

This was a once in a lifetime journey. A unique and surreal opportunity to live and work in two Ethiopian Israeli communities with twenty fellow University of Massachusetts students. We set out to change the lives of these Ethiopian Communities forever, and in turn, they ended up touching our hearts and impacting our lives forever.

We were about to set out on a 10-day service program to work with Ethiopian Israeli Communities in Gedera and Rishon Le’Tzion, made possible through JDC (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and UMASS Hillel.

Our expectations initially had been that we would go there, do as much physical labor to benefit these communities and better their surroundings as possible, and make a few personal connections while giving back to these communities. Our expectations were nothing compared to what we gained from the ten days we spent there.

Volunteer Work: Daily Schedule

Ethiopian Jews began to migrate from Ethiopia to Israel in the late 70s, with the largest waves of Aliyah taking place in 1984 with Operation Moses, and in 1991 with Operation Solomon. While the Ethiopian-Israeli community as a whole has moved beyond the preliminary stages of assimilating into Israeli life, many still face arduous challenges for a successful life and integration into their new society.

Painting in Gedera
Painting in Gedera.

While we were there doing community service, we stayed in a beautiful, religious kibbutz in southern Israel, called Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. The kibbutz was founded in 1946 and is about 10 miles from Kiryat Gat.

It is largely dependent upon agriculture, farming, production of lemons and artichokes and the rearing of cows and turkeys for their revenue and income. The kibbutz also acts as a motel and hosts guests at a very reasonable price, similar to the cost of a hostel.

We spent our first days working in a community called Gedera, about 17 miles south east of Tel-Aviv. Our goal and mission for the time we were there, was to renovate and repair the Gar’in Community and Youth Center. Over the past 15 years, Ethiopian Jews have steadily moved to Gedera, attempting to assimilate to the best of their ability.

They now make up 16% of the population (3,200 people). Their economic condition is improving, as the younger generation has adapted to Israeli culture and the language, whereas the older immigrants, have not done so as easily.

Gedera is built on seven hills and is famous for its pastoral view of the countryside. While we were there, we worked in the youth center with the Gari’n Members (community members, directors and leaders) located in the middle section of the town.

Playing with Kids in Rishon
Playing with Kids in Rishon

Every morning our group worked with Gar’in members on physical volunteer projects throughout the community. We built gardens, we re-painted the youth center, cleaned up any trash around the outside to make it look as presentable as possible, painted their clubhouse, and painted the windows and the outside in order to make it look like the type of place we’d be happy to call our own if we had been living in Gedera.

A Perfect Fit

We ate all of our meals in Gedera during the day, and reflected on our work afterwards. It was obvious to everyone that our hearts were being touched by this community, and we all felt that our work was not only worthwhile, but necessary for us as Jews to do for this community, and as human beings. For us, a service trip to Israel was a perfect fit.

In the afternoons we volunteered in community clubs, worked in leadership development, after-school enrichment and mentorship and army preparation with local youth. For many of us, interacting personally with the Ethiopian Israeli children and their families was the best part, and cannot be described in words.

Painting a Clubhouse in Gedera
Painting a Clubhouse in Gedera

You could feel the gratitude when you looked in their eyes, and you could see the happiness and joy the children felt from our presence. We could hear it in their laughs while we played with them, and we could sense it in their smiles when they would latch on and hug us, and ask us questions like, “Why did you choose to help us?” or when a little girl came up to me and said, “We are so happy inside that you are here and we see you here.”

We had workshops in the evenings to understand the challenges facing the Ethiopian-Israeli communities, and we would reflect on how we could truly make a difference, and leave a positive impact on these communities through our volunteer work. This was our goal and our mission.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

One of our most moving and truly original experiences was when we were invited inside the homes of community members in Gedera to partake in a traditional and sacred Ethiopian welcome and coffee ceremony. The Ethiopian’s call the coffee “Buna,” and so this night’s activity was named, “Café Buna.” Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an integral part of their social and cultural life. An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is a great example of Ethiopian hospitality.

Typically, in Ethiopian culture, performing the coffee ceremony is almost obligatory in the presence of a visitor. We didn’t have hours and hours to spare, but sometimes these ceremonies can take a few hours, so if you’re looking to experience this special ceremony, keep that in mind, and sit back and enjoy it because it’s anything but instant coffee — this isn’t Keurig K-Cups folks. In addition to the coffee, our hosts also made us delicious chickpeas, which are common in Ethiopian homes, and which we all ate in a hurry.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

The next few days were spent in Rishon LeZion. This is the fourth largest city in Israel, and is located south of Tel Aviv. It was founded by European Jewish Immigrants and in 2009 its population stood at approximately 228,200. It had beautiful pure green land, the air was crisp and fresh, and the sky was light cobalt blue. Rishon is also a popular area and venue for pubs, dance clubs and restaurants.

Together, with the newly formed Gar’in Ihud in Rishon, we worked on our next volunteer project, which was to refurbish and paint the entrances and interiors of neighborhood apartment buildings with guidance from members of both Gar’inim.

While we were painting these apartments, people from the communities would come out with curious, bright eyes, smiling at us and thanking us, with deep gratitude for our work. People would make us homemade falafel for lunch, and one lady kept bringing out delicious Israeli treats for us to eat and snack on. Everyone in the building was touched, and so appreciative, word of our presence seemed to spread like wildfire in the best way possible.

Volunteer Projects

Children playing in the nearby park would also come over and try to get involved with our projects. The feeling of doing something for someone else, and seeing the gratitude so deep in their eyes, that they themselves are so moved to physically help, is a picture that no one can paint or tell accurately.

At the end of our work in Rishon Le’Zion we had finished painting and refurbishing four full apartment buildings, and planted trees in the community gardens. All around, children were smiling, and families were graciously thanking us. One of the Gar’in leaders said to us at the completion of our work there, “I have no words, no words,” and that said it all.

Woman of the Laquiya Weaving Project, working on a rug
Woman of the Laquiya Weaving Project, working on a rug

On community service trips, like this one, you typically won’t be allotted much free time, so when you are, definitely make the most of it and have a great time exploring the country you’re in. We had two evening outings, one to Galon Kibbutz Coffee House for a pub and hookah night, a very popular night activity in Israel, and one to visit the popular streets of Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem for shopping, eating, bargaining and bar hopping.

This neighborhood is kind of the, “place to be,” so to speak. It’s the mecca of exciting nightlife and activities in Jerusalem. The bars on Ben Yehuda were crowded and extremely exciting. Much more fun than American bars, I can honestly say.

However, almost every bar in Israel has some type of hookah going on inside, and being offered to its patrons, so if you’re thinking of frequenting Israeli bars, especially in Jerusalem, make sure that tobacco doesn’t bother you too much, and you bring plenty of shekals (israeli currency) with you to spend on the drinks they offer and of course the exciting, lively nightlife and music that Jerusalem has to offer.

With each site we visited in the next few days, we were engaged in JDC’s local and global approach to issues and challenges in Israel, and how we could help; not only in Israel, but when we arrived back in our own communities.

We were accompanied by JDC representatives who helped us place our service projects with the Ethiopian-Israeli Gar’in into the larger context of JDC’s work in Israel and around the world.

JDC’s Work & Projects in Israel

We visited Café Europa in Ashdod (A JDC program that brings together Holocaust survivors three times a week and serves as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all the social, cultural and supportive needs of survivors, utilizing professionals from a range of therapies.) In addition, Café Europa brings together survivor’s families and young volunteers to create an intergenerational community. We were lucky enough to sit and hear the story of a Holocaust survivor while we were there.

A young man in Gedera
A young man in Gedera

We also visited The Laquiya Weaving Project, which was an incredibly innovative project. It was run by ‘Sidrehis,’ the grassroots Bedouin women organization in the Negev established in 1997 by a group of Bedouin women from different locations in Israel. Sidreh’s main goal is to improve and strengthen the status of Bedouin women in the Negev through personal, social and economic empowerment programs like this one.

We were able to watch the weaving first hand, and hear about the struggles of oppression these women face daily in their society. This project was part of JDC’s investment in the development of social services for Israeli Arabs, Druze and Bedouins.

We completed physical and social volunteer work (a combination that you’re bound to experience if you decide to venture on a community service trip) that fulfilled the Gar’inim’s mission together with its Ethiopian-Israeli and veteran Israeli members. Over the course of our time in Israel our projects included neighborhood beautification and renovation work, community gardening, and mentorship and youth leadership development.

The trip not only changed the community’s lives for the better, but it changed ours forever. We made connections and bonds with the people in the communities that we will never forget.

We are currently running a campaign, in efforts with JDC and UMASS Hillel to raise money to send back to the Ethiopian Israeli Communities in order to make a lasting difference in their lives. Some of us plan on going back again, to give more of our time, hearts and souls to these very special communities once again.

Further Information

If you’re interested in going on a community service volunteer trip, like this one, or learning more about JDC and their mission, please visit

If you’d like to make a donation in order to help the Ethiopian-Israeli Communities in Israel, Please e-mail Sam Krentzman at

Nicole SobelNicole Sobel is a student at UMASS Amherst and an editorial assistant for GoNOMAD. She writes our daily Travel News Notes Blog.

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