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Ethiopian-Israeli teen, ENP leader tell stories of success fueled by Federation

(L-R): Rachel Rivera (Women’s Philanthropy summit co-host), Grace Rodnitzki, Batel Marsha and Peggy Langert (Women’s Philanthropy summit co-host) at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Nov. 8. (Danielle Larcom/JFSA)

Batel Marsha, an 18-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli, says the Ethiopian National Project’s SPACE (School Performance and Community Empowerment) program “saved me ­— maybe not literally saved my life, but totally helped me get to where I am today.”

Batel will join the Israeli Air Force next month, where she will train to be an air traffic control commander, using state-of-the art technology. Without her SPACE tutors, she says, she would not have graduated from high school with the high grades necessary for such training, or have the confidence to pursue her dreams, which include being an entrepreneur with her own start-up  someday.

About 175 people heard from Batel and ENP Director of International Relations Grace Rodnitzki earlier this month, at Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona leadership summits held in support of JFSA’s 2018 Community Campaign. The Federation helps sustain Israeli education and social services programs through its annual overseas allocations as well as grants made in cooperation with the Jewish Community Foundation.

At the Women’s Philanthropy summit lunch on Wednesday, Nov. 8, Rodnitzki briefly told her own story before introducing Batel.

Originally from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Rodnitzki met Israelis as a teenager and fell in love with the idea of making aliyah. But a shaliach (Israeli emissary) told her Israel didn’t need 17-year-olds who’d be dependent on the state; it needed educated people who could truly make a difference. So she attended Brandeis University, graduating in 1990, and made aliyah immediately after.

“For me, the life-changing moment was, I was there on May 24, 1991,” she says, when Israel carried out Operation Solomon, the secret airlift of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours. She remembers going out the next day and seeing busloads of Ethiopian newcomers, largely uneducated farmers and shepherds from rural communities. “I wondered if I was going to be successful, and I was a university graduate; I studied Hebrew at university; English is my native language, which is a commodity in Israel. I remember seeing these newcomers, draped in their traditional white garb, and saying to myself, ‘My G-d, imagine what challenges they will face.’”

Federations created the ENP, a partnership between Diaspora Jewry, the government of Israel and the Ethiopian-Israeli community, Rodnitzki explains. Since 2004, it has provided not only afterschool academic assistance, but also social, nutritional and emotional support for thousands of teens like Batel.

Batel, who was born in Hadera, Israel, along with her four siblings, displayed both her command of English and her sense of humor with her opening remark, noting that it was her first time in America, and while she may not have made it to Fifth Avenue in New York City, she did get to shop on Fourth Avenue in Tucson.

She explained that Israeli students must choose their majors in ninth grade. “I majored in software engineering and chemistry,” she says. “Really, the rest of your life is determined in the ninth grade.”

Her parents both left Ethiopia in 1984, and both their journeys were intense, she says.

Her mother was brought to Israel through Operation Moses, another secret operation that spanned six weeks from November 1984 to January 1985. It was dangerous for Jews to try to leave Israel; people who were caught were thrown in jail, sometimes for many years. Her mother’s family was not impoverished, and she and a brother attended school through fifth grade, Batel says, “but they knew their home as Jews could only be found in Israel.”

Hiring guides, the family left for Sudan under cover of night to avoid neighbors who might report them to the police. Batel’s mother was 15 years old. It took them a month to reach Sudan, walking only at night. “Their journey was filled with hardships and obstacles,” she says, including two encounters with robbers. They spent nine months living in Sudan, hiding the fact that they were Jews; her grandmother became ill, but it was her grandfather, upset that his wife might not live to see Israel, who ended up dying in Sudan.

When the family finally went to Khartoum for the airlift, it was the first time any of them had ever seen an airplane, and some others in their group were so frightened by the noise they ran into the jungle and were never seen again.

Her father was one of the lucky few whose family all survived, although they had been separated on the journey to Sudan. When they were reunited, it was the first time his traveling companions saw him smile.

Her parents met in Israel, married, and moved to Hadera, where they both worked hard, her in a preschool and her father at the electric company, “to provide everything they hoped to give us, their children.”

The fourth of her parents’ five children, Batel points out that her older brother and two sisters didn’t have ENP to provide “the little helping hand that made all the difference to me.” But the program will be there for her younger brother, who is going into seventh grade next year. “I know he’ll also go far,” she says, “but knowing my little brother, he’ll definitely need that extra help that SPACE gives.”