UJF sending nearly quarter million to help Ethiopian youth in Israel

UJF sending nearly quarter million to help Ethiopian youth in Israel

The Pittsburgh Jewish community is sending $242,000 to fund education and outreach programs for young Israeli Ethiopians, the United Jewish Federation has announced.
The money will go toward covering a budget shortfall at the Ethiopian National Project, which brings together several organizations with the goal of better integrating Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society by focusing on children between the ages of 13 and 18.
In the wake of a troubled economy that is hitting nonprofits and governments especially hard, the ENP is facing a 51 percent budget reduction this year, and the United Jewish Communities — an umbrella group of Jewish federations — put out a call for help in late July, looking to raise $3.7 million in advance of the upcoming school year in September.
Without the additional funds, the ENP says it will have to cut 2,500 teenagers from its Scholastic Assistance program and shut down 15 of its 22 Youth Outreach Centers.
The ENP calls the Scholastic Assistance program the “centerpiece” of its efforts. The six-year program, which started in 2004, includes mentoring and after school tutoring to increase graduation rates. In 2006, 32 percent of Ethiopian-Israeli seniors in the program passed high school graduation tests, compared with 23 percent among those not in the program.
The Youth Outreach Centers offer after school options for teenagers. The program began in 2005 with eight centers and tripled over the following three years.
“The whole program is really to help Ethiopian kids get out of the cycle that they’re in,” said Joe Berkofsky, communications director for the UJC.
Since the first wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel 25 years ago, the community has faced more difficulties being absorbed into Israeli society than other populations.
Nearly 70 percent of the 115,000 Ethiopians in Israel live below the poverty line, compared with 21 percent of emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Around 20 percent of Ethiopian-Israelis between 18 and 35 are unemployed. The ENP believes that focusing on teenagers can prevent those statistics from carrying over to another generation.
The Israeli government in 2006 created a five-year plan to improve absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, but recently cut 20 percent of the funding from the current budget.
The $242,000, which came from several donors, including one large anonymous donor, represents almost half of the roughly $500,000 collected by local federations so far.
“We’ve really only just begun hearing back from communities,” Berkofsky said.
The Pittsburgh funds will keep 242 teenagers in the program, according to UJC estimates.
“There’s so much potential in these young people,” said Brian Eglash, UJF senior vice president of financial resource development. “They’re very bright. They just need to be given an opportunity, and that’s what this project is doing.”
The ENP holds special significance for Pittsburgh because the late Karen Shapira helped found and was the first volunteer chair of the international initiative, Eglash said.
“Historically, the Pittsburgh Federation has been among the leaders nationally in raising dollars and awareness about the needs of the Ethiopian Jewish community,” Edgar Snyder, chair of the Israel and World Jewry Commissions, said in a statement. “We were the first Federation to provide financial support to launch the Ethiopian National Project.”
Over the past few years, leaders from the ENP have visited Pittsburgh, and recently a Chevra Mission of Pittsburghers to Israel met with teenagers involved with the ENP.
ENP is a partnership of the UJC, the Israeli government, representatives of Ethiopian Jewish community organizations, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Israel and Keren Hayesod-UIA.

(Eric Lidji can be reached at ericl@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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