Batya was just four years old when she made aliyah from Ethiopia with her family during Operation Solomon. From absorption center in Tzfat—where she remembers little aside from the first snowfall she ever experienced—they moved to a "caravan" (a pre-fab house, similar to a mobile home) in Be'erotayim, a small community in Central Israel.
She began first grade in a nearby town. When the school bus full of Ethiopian children pulled up at their new school, she recalls, the children there had climbed on the fences and were waving to their new classmates. "It was a very warm welcome," she said, smiling at this memory. "I loved school."
After a few years in Be'erotayim, Batya's mother, tired of the isolation and eager for a permanent housing solution, moved the family to Hadera. Although she was only in fourth grade, Batya was already astute enough to be aware of the disadvantages Ethiopian Israelis faced, and confident enough to do something about it. She began offering dance lessons to neighborhood children, whose parents could not afford to pay for extra-curricular activities. The lessons culminated in a neighborhood performance that the mayor of the city attended.
After high school, Batya enlisted in the army, where she served in a special unit for the Druze for two years, including during the Second Lebanon War. Despite her intelligence and confidence, Batya felt uncertain about her future as the end of her army service approached. She wasn't sure what do to next—she was really interested in academic studies, but simply didn't know where to start.
Fortunately, a week after she was released from her army duty, she received an invitation to take part in a "Released from Duty" conference, organized jointly by a youth center and the Hadera city hall. She was intrigued—here was an opportunity to learn how to prepare for life as an adult civilian.
"This invitation answered my deepest needs," she said. During the seminar, Batya filled out a questionnaire about her interests and goals. There was a section about volunteering, and she indicated that she'd be glad to volunteer at the youth center itself. "They called me after one or two weeks, and offered me the chance to participate in a Young Leadership course." It gave her a sense of purpose: "When you are released from the army, it's not easy to find a job, or figure out what to do or where to do." In disadvantaged areas like Hadera, employment is especially hard to find.
During the four-month young leadership course, "We learned what it means to be a citizen, the responsibilities you have as a grownup, and how to take responsibility for your life. They teach you basics like opening a bank account to how to be accepted to academic studies." "We were given the tools to build a business plan, to develop an idea and accomplish a vision."
JDC's Centers for Young Adults are located in cities with large immigrant populations. Open to all young adults, they serve as a central venue for projects to help young immigrants find their place in Israeli society. The centers provide a wide range of counseling and orientation services under one roof, including guidance regarding higher education and vocational training, job skills and life skills.
Recently released soldiers like Batya are frequently unaware of all the options available to them, especially when they come from poor neighborhoods with few positive role models. "The center offers and reveals us to all kinds of things that exist," —things, Batya says, that she might have figured out eventually, but that the youth center brought to her attention. She received guidance and direction to help her figure out what to study, got information about scholarships she could apply for—and help applying.
The center offers a kind of cultural melting pot, providing a venue where Ethiopian immigrants can meet Russian immigrants, other olim, and native Israelis as well. "We all had the same goal," Batya says of the other young people she met there. "We want to improve our city, reduce violence, and change the sad reality that some families can't afford to send their kids to afterschool activities."
Batya, who is now 23, proudly states, "Today I am a second-year law student at the The College of Management Academic Studies. What I am most interested in is constitutional law, where we study the basic and natural rights of every human being."
In addition to her own studies, Batya is tutoring three sisters—"three charming girls who I really love. These girls are being raised only by their father, and he is doing a tremendous job. Sometimes we study; sometimes we sing, dance and just have fun." Batya's proud of being a role model to them, and it's clear that she's as attached to the girls as they are to her. Grateful for the opportunities she herself has been offered, she regards her relationship with the girls as a way of giving back.
The programs of the JDC, like those that helped Batya, are funded in part by the generosity of the Tidewater Jewish community through gifts to the UJFT's annual campaign. Every dollar we raise makes a significant difference to real people like Batya—at home, in Israel, and in 70 countries around the world. To make your gift, click here.
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