South Floridian works to improve lives of Ethiopian Jews
By Tania Valdemoro, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Yigal Kahana wants to save the world, one Ethiopian Jew at a time.
A key strategy, he believes, is to win them supporters in the United States. To that end, he introduced Ethiopian Jews to Christians and other Jews when he brought the Bahalachin ensemble earlier this month to perform dances and songs in their native language, Amharic, at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.
Jewish leaders say the move from an agrarian to a highly developed, bureaucratic society has been difficult, even traumatizing for Israel's 105,000 Ethiopian Jews, who began coming to Israel through Sudan and other nations in the late 1970s.
The community's ongoing struggle to acclimate and thrive socially and economically in their spiritual homeland captured Kahana's heart. Their emergence into Israeli society following the massive airlifts sponsored by the Israeli government Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991 signaled the kind of peaceful coexistence Kahana believes can be achieved between disparate groups in society.
Kahana, a South Florida lawyer, became an advocate for Ethiopian Jews nearly five years ago, when he began researching ways to make direct connections with them in Israel.
"As part of the world Jewish culture, to miss out on Ethiopian Jewry is to make myself smaller," Kahana said.
He calls his work "arbitrage," or "taking something less valuable in one place and bringing it to another place where it is more valuable."
He is simply helping out the underdog, said his mother, Rivka.
"Yigal wants them to have a better life," she said, adding somewhat ruefully, "It would be nice if he had a normal life, got married and had a family, but there's no time."
Kahana is a lawyer by training, but his litigation and real estate law practice has gone through fits and starts as his many projects for Ethiopian Jews consume more and more of his time. He visited Israel five times last year alone.
Bahalachin, which means "our culture" in Amharic, was founded by Kahana's friend Shlomo Akele in 1996. The organization's overarching mission is to preserve and disseminate Ethiopian culture within Israel so that a mutual understanding may develop.
"If you know me more, you're not going to judge me," Akele explained.
In South Florida, Kahana always seeks to make new contacts with Jewish and non-Jewish groups so Bahalachin has a venue to perform and share its folklore with others. But lobbying can be slow going at times, he admits.
Kahana is also raising money from Israeli lawyers so that two Ethiopian law students can concentrate on their studies instead of working to support their families.
Then, there is the English course he began last year, where he tutors 16- and 17-year-old students in Zefat, Rehovot, Hadera and other cities so that they may pass the high school exit exam and graduate later this year. His students are now reading Elie Wiesel's Night.
When he goes to Israel today to spend two months teaching his students, Kahana will notice who has made the most progress in their English or who needs to be accompanied to a parent-teacher conference. He also will see who lacks shoes and clothes.
Kahana praises American and Israeli Jews for helping out their Ethiopian brethren, but having seen the continuing socioeconomic gaps firsthand, he is clearly looking to make a more direct impact.
"We can make progress. We don't have to leave the situation in the woeful state it's in."
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