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Introducing Bahalachin

By Karen Primack

In 1996 Solomon (Shlomo) Akale founded the organization Bahalachin--The Ethiopian Jewish Heritage and Cultural Center. He created Bahalachin in Israel, as a response to difficulties his fellow Ethiopian immigrants were having in their new land. In August, he was in the US, introducing his organization to officers of various Jewish organizations in a few cities, including Kulanu officers in Washington.

Akale studied political science at Bar Ilan University and worked for the Ministry of Absorption for seven years, until 1993. Born in an Ethiopian village, he was educated in Gondar. He is quick to acknowledge that he had many advantages being educated in a city like Gondar, noting that many of his fellow Jews stayed uneducated, in rural villages, to avoid assimilation. It is these former villagers who have the most difficulty with absorption in Israel. While working at the ministry, Akale noticed how drastically family structures in Ethiopia and Israel differed. In Israel, he elaborated, children live in dorms and are busy with activities. Elders have no authority, and there is tension between children and elders over traditional values. Youths sometimes get involved with drugs and end up in jail.

Akale formed Bahalachin (the word is Amharic for "Our Culture") in Tel Aviv as a multi-faceted center. One unit is devoted to family counseling by elders. He said 4000 couples, many seeking divorces, were served at the center, and 80 percent were able to settle their differences. He observes that the program saves the Israeli Government money.

An education department presents lectures and workshops to inform both Israelis and Ethiopians (and other newcomers) about each other's culture. A genealogy unit preserves family histories on computerized records. Noting that his father can recite by memory 24 generations of his family tree, Akale is trying to get personal histories from Ethiopian elders before they die out, but he laments that he has only one staff person for this pressing work. The center's small but important library is the largest resource and archival center in Israel on the Beta Israel. There is also a documentation project, which preserves the oral culture maintained by the community's elders, mostly through audiovisual recording.

A branch of Bahalachin in Ethiopia will collect Beta Israel documents and holy books that are currently in the possession of churches, monasteries, and some individuals. This work is pressing, since some religious and historical places are being desecrated and destroyed by local farmers.

An important part of Bahalachin is its folklore performance group, for many reasons. The project teaches young Ethiopians about their rapidly-vanishing culture, and bolsters their self-respect and self-confidence. The troupe also introduces non-Ethiopians (it performed in Paris as well as Israel) to the beauty of the Beta Israel culture, smoothing over tension and prejudices.

Akale is interested in putting together a performance tour for the troupe in the US. Interested JCCs and other organizations can contact him at bahal@netvision.net.il. The center's web site (in Hebrew), www.bahalachin.org.il, has further information. Bahalachin has received a $500 from Kulanu.

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