Thursday, April 6th, 2017...4:55 pm

A taste of Ethiopian Jewish culture

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Rebecca Avera represents Israel to the Jewish community in Las Vegas


Rebecca Avera is a patriotic Israeli, although she has participated in protests against government policies.

Her loyalty owes in large part to her parents’ dream of aliya. Members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, they fled their homeland amid war and repression. Her uncle, her father’s oldest brother, was murdered by the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Rebecca Avera recently traveled here for an Ethiopian Shabbat at Minnesota Hillel. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Her father escaped Ethiopia in 1979, and made his way to Israel via Cyprus. In 1984, Avera’s mother took the dangerous trek through the Sudanese desert in her quest to reach “Jerusalem” — the term many Ethiopian Jews used for the Jewish state.

“You know, 4,000 people died on this way,” Avera remarks. “My mom got really sick and she was unconscious for one week. They had to carry her.”

After a stay in a Sudanese refugee camp, the Israel Defense Forces(IDF) rescued the Ethiopian Jews and flew them to Israel, in what is known as Operation Moses. Avera’s mother was taken to an absorption center, “where my dad was already a Hebrew teacher there.”

Avera has nine siblings — “three of them currently are in the IDF.”

The 30-year-old Israeli traveled here for an “Ethiopian Shabbat,” March 24-25, at Minnesota Hillel. She talked to the Jewish World on a Friday afternoon, after arriving in the Twin Cities late the previous night.

Avera is the Israel emissary to the Jewish community in Las Vegas, Nev. Prior to that posting, she was Hillel at Stanford’s Israel Fellow, which introduced her to some of the controversies over Israel on U.S. college campuses. She knows the lay of the land from her time at Stanford, and from speaking tours that have taken her to other U.S. campuses.

Generally, the topic of Israel provokes “a lot of disagreement.”

“It’s not only non-Jews,” she says, “it can be the Jewish community, as well.”

As a member of a minority group in Israel, she was raised to criticize and protest government policies that riled the Ethiopian Jewish community. “At the same time, I love this country,” she adds.

“The beauty of democracy is that you have the option to have freedom of speech… and you can criticize your government, you can criticize your country,” she comments, in defense of Israel.

In representing Israel in the U.S., she wants people to know that her country is about more than war and conflict. Again, she notes that Jewish students, especially in the San Francisco Bay area, are sharply divided about Israel. “You can feel it.”

“Being an Israel Fellow, our mission is to negotiate with everybody together,” she says. “It’s not easy, it’s tough.”

And, Avera adds, “a lot of people didn’t expect me to be Israeli, because of my skin color. One time, this Jewish student told me, ‘Your country is an apartheid state.’ And I was looking at her, and I felt sort of an anger, because this history doesn’t belong to what’s going on right now.”

Avera says that she’s prepared to sit and talk “for hours,” in order to counter such perceptions — and she allows that such statements often reflect the fact that people “are still very young, they’re learning… What they see on the news, that’s what they get. And I’m the reality. I’m there to tell them the reality.”

A story about Avera that ran last year in j. – The Jewish News of Northern California quoted 18-year-old Stanford freshman Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin: “The best thing about having Rebecca on this campus is that she is just so Israeli. She’s a true sabra, very sassy all the time, but unmistakably loving. Rebecca is an endless pool of energy. She pours her heart into everything and inspires us.”

Avera mentioned that she didn’t learn Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, until she started studying it at the age of 18. She also is learning to cook traditional Ethiopian dishes.

A native of Haifa, she served in the IDF, in a military police unit at West Bank checkpoints. She is a graduate of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, where she studied government, diplomacy and strategy.

When she returns to Israel, Avera likely will enroll in a post-graduate program. And she doesn’t want to go into politics.

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