Thirty-two-year-old Efrat Mekonan has never fit into an predictable picture or story; that’s part of why she is so determined to help other Ethiopian-Israelis who are struggling. Born in an isolated Jewish community in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, she lost both her parents before she turned eight, and at nine, walked for six months, her one-year-old niece on her back. After reaching a Sudanese transit camp she was airlifted to Israel and eventually settled in Beit Shemesh, a suburb of Jerusalem.
As new immigrants, Ethiopian-Israelis have often felt they face discrimination and lack adequate representation to address their concerns and needs. In 2005, Mekonan participated in a Community Empowerment program, funded by the Ethiopian National Project, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the United Jewish Endowment Fund. Twenty-four participants learned how municipal leadership works and how to take action to ameliorate conditions for other Ethiopians in Beit Shemesh.
The vast divide between native Israelis and Ethiopian immigrants, convinced Mekonan that change is necessary. She decided to run in the municipal elections held last November. Unfortunately, the school where she teaches forbids teachers from entering a political race, so Mekonan withdrew before the election, but she is determined to take advantage of any opportunity to act and advocate for those in need.
Another natural leader, 27-year-old Pnina-Falego Gaday, has used the Israeli university Hillel circuit as an outlet to “awaken interest among Ethiopian students” in their heritage and culture. Trekking to Sudan in 1984’s Operation Moses to fulfill her mother’s dream, Pnina is now living that dream, finding a place in Israeli society and excelling there. In 2007 she was appointed Hillel director at Tel Aviv University, a fitting choice after Pnina spearheaded many successful initiatives at Hebrew University Hillel, like Ethiopian Night and Guzo- Journey, “a year-long series of workshops and enrichment programs for Ethiopian-Israeli young people on campus.”
These programs encourage Ethiopian students to connect more deeply to their roots, while also rigorously pursuing their studies. Pnina does acknowledge distinct differences for Ethiopian-Israelis, even in the sort of Judaism they practice, but she also doesn’t see this difference as a barrier. She has found a role in the Israeli community, and aims to give the same sense of inclusion and uniqueness to other young Ethiopians.