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Azrieli’s Shmuel Legesse Envisions a Brighter Future for Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish Immigrants

For doctoral candidate Shmuel Legesse, the journey to Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration has not been easy.

Fulfilling his father’s wish, Legesse served as an Israeli police officer.

Fulfilling his father’s wish, Legesse served as an Israeli police officer.

As a child growing up in the poverty-stricken town of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, life was full of hardship and danger for Legesse. But it was also full of dreams—specifically his father’s dream, as magistrate, to help his family and all the Ethiopian Jews in their town make aliyah [immigration to Israel]. “My father was a very strong Zionist,” Legesse said. “But he also cared deeply about his people and had the ideology of a leader, almost like Moses. He would say, ‘I can’t go to Israel myself until all of my people have made it there.’ ”

Sadly, Legesse’s father never achieved that dream. On his deathbed, however, he made Legesse promise to keep fighting for it. “He told me that we all needed to make aliyah and that if we wore Israeli uniforms and protected Jerusalem, it would bring happiness to him in heaven,” Legesse said.

The strength of his father’s belief and dedication to Judaism made a powerful impact on Legesse. He obtained an academic scholarship to Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and later served in the Israeli police force, fulfilling his father’s request. While he was proud of his identity as an Ethiopian Israeli Jew, he quickly realized that many Ethiopians, especially young teens, didn’t share that pride. “When I made it to Israel, I had this dream and I knew what it meant to me,” Legesse said. “But the younger generation doesn’t have that. They experience this great cultural clash, because Ethiopian Jews practice a Judaism that looks very different from modern rabbinic Judaism, but the schools our children attend only teach that mainstream Judaism.”

It was this realization that launched Legasse on his path to Azrieli.

According to Legesse, the deep confusion and sense of alienation many Ethiopian Jewish children in Israel  experience is caused by the cognitive dissonance between their religious upbringing in Ethiopian Jewish culture, the Judaism they are taught in schools, and the larger secular world around them. He also believes that confusion has led many young Ethiopian Jewish teens to drop out of school or the army and become involved with drugs or crime, further disenfranchising them from Israeli society. “People get fed up with them because they do these things, but they’re too young to be branded as criminals and given up on,” he said. “They have so much to offer and could be such a valuable resource to the nation.”

Legesse decided he needed to do something.

Legesse addresses Ethiopian Jewish children at an event celebrating The Great Day of Blessing, an Ethiopian custom, in Israel.

He began by starting a six-week summer day camp, called Yechalale or Efshari [It is Possible] that provides leadership training to more than 100 disadvantaged teens of all backgrounds each summer, mostly aimed at Ethiopian teens. The camp took a three-prong approach, offering English and math lessons taught by volunteers, out-of-the-classroom coaching in motivational speech and activity, and volunteerism. “For example, we would examine different Jewish leaders and international Jewish communities to figure out what they’re doing well and how the kids can apply those lessons in their own lives, or clean and paint the house of a disabled person in their community,” Legesse said. “We showed them that they matter, that they have the power to contribute something and make someone else’s life in their own community better. That gave them courage and self-esteem—it was a blessing.”

Legesse engaged in other forms of social activism in Israel, serving as a member of the Coalition of Hasbara Volunteers for a year and fundraising for an Ethiopian Knesset member’s campaign. But he also started thinking of ways to reach Jewish Ethiopian teens before they began to feel isolated and prevent it from happening in the first place. “I realized there needs to be schools that integrate the two experiences the children are having,” Legesse said. “We need to integrate Ethiopian and modern Jewish practice in the same place, teaching them to respect who they are as Ethiopians and making sure they emerge from their schooling with self-esteem, self-respect and self-identity. We have to tell them, ‘Listen, you’re not so different from other Jews.’ ” He added, “Once we have that, we can talk about how they can be a part of and contribute to the modern religious world, the larger Israeli society and, eventually, the international Jewish community.”

Legesse with Natan Sharansky

Legesse with Israeli politician and human rights activist Natan Sharansky.

Legesse had a vision—but he knew that to accomplish it, he’d have to start from the ground up. “Jewish education is not just one thing—it’s administration and ethics and so much more,” he said. When he learned about Azrieli, he knew he had found the right place to get started. “Here I can learn not only how Jewish day schools are structured but also about concepts in American education that provide me with different perspectives, knowledge and information than many people have in Israel, while strengthening my English skills,” Legesse said.

Courses in Organizational Theory and School Management, Jewish Educational Policy and Community Relations and Jewish Education have given Legesse a solid foundation on which to build his own school, and the opportunity to study closely with leading educators and administrators such as Dr. David Schnall, dean of Azrieli, has provided him with a framework for how school leaders are facing many of today’s toughest educational challenges. But at Azrieli, Legesse has learned, the conversation goes two ways. “Dean Schnall gives me the opportunity to bring my experience as a Jewish Ethiopian Israeli to the table here,” he said. “It’s about deepening the learning process for all of us.”

Schnall agreed. “Shmuel Legesse has committed his life to creating opportunities for his fellow  Ethiopian Jews to succeed economically and socially in their new homes in Israel,” he said. “Having lived through the challenges of bias and discrimination in his birthplace and refugee displacement in his homeland, he means to create responsive educational and cultural institutions where troubled youth can have a fresh start, learn important career skills and reconnect with their faith and tradition.”

Ultimately, Legesse hopes that after years of hard work, study and preparation, he will get a chance to turn his skills and dreams into action when he graduates and returns to Israel. He is proud of his Azrieli education and excited to begin building his school. But according to Legesse, the school is only the beginning.

“I want to make sure all disadvantaged Israelis can get a better education and even attend university,” he said. “We need to break the cycle of poverty and ignorance and make these people a resource for our Jewish nation, making sure that all our resources are accessible and enjoyable for every Jew in our united Jewish state.”