Interview: Yifat Kasai on Ethiopians in Petach Tikva Schools

Update: I heard on the radio at around 1 PM today that the Chabad girls’ school, Or Chaya, has refused to accept 5 Ethiopian students. Or Chaya is part of the state religious system. The education ministry said that sanctions will be taken.

I met Yifat Kasai two years ago, when her eldest son entered first grade at my children’s state-religious elementary school. In this interview, she graciously shares her experience making aliyah, her job helping Ethiopian teenagers adjust to Israeli schools, and her thoughts on a Petach Tikva school that has been in the news.

Tell me about your aliyah. I made aliyah from Ethiopia to Beersheva in 1984, when I was six years old. I was the seventh of nine children, and my father had just remarried. Two more children were born here.

We experienced mixed reactions from native Israelis. The social workers and other professionals welcomed us with open arms, but people in the community were not so kind and sent out dogs when we went to school. Until 5th grade, I never walked to school without an adult.

What did you study? After high school I entered the army, then took a year off to decide what to do and eventually got a degree in administration. Most of my siblings also have academic degrees. The three oldest, who were already married when we made aliyah, are part of the religious community like I am. The rest aren’t, but they aren’t completely secular either.

What is your current position? I work at the local religious girls’ junior high school, coordinating a program that serves over 100 Ethiopian girls. The government maintains a similar program in every school with a concentration of Ethiopians.

What is the current controversy regarding the Ethiopians in the Petach Tikah school? Nir Etzion, a state religious elementary school, was serving a strictly Ethiopian population. Activists in the Ethiopian community have been objecting for years but the municipality and education ministry insisted that nothing could be done. Over the summer, the majority of children were transferred to other schools. But a group of parents, mostly new immigrants, wished to remain. So the school opened on September 1, amid protests.

The protests were effective and during the last few days, the remaining students have been transferred out. I don’t know why it has taken so long, and why it was done at the last minute. It’s disruptive for everyone.

What do you think about Nir Etzion? I don’t believe segregated schools should exist. When I’ve attended meetings with administrators from Nir Etzion, they were justifiably proud of their graduates who do extremely well in junior high. But when these children are exposed to the huge socio-economic divide during early adolescence, it lowers their self-esteem. The girls in my program complain that the native Israeli girls are always talking about what clothes and shoes they’ve bought. The children who attended an affluent elementary school also suffer from these differences, like when the teacher asks what they did in the summer. The Ethiopians may have visited grandparents, while the more affluent students visited two foreign countries. But the younger Ethiopian children accept this as the reality. They learn from an early age how to function in Israeli society.

Do you think there is an advantage to being in a segregated school, in that the children don’t suffer from racism or discrimination in school? Yes, but that advantage is more than offset by the distance created between the two communities. The Ethiopians need to acclimate to living among native Israelis, and the native Israelis need to accept the Ethiopans as an integral part of Israeli society.

Two Ethiopian children joined each of my children’s classes this year. Were they from Nir Etzion? Yes, each class in our school took on two additional Ethiopian children. The private religious schools  didn’t object as they did two years ago. They were warned in advance that they would face sanctions if they did not accept the children.  Mind you, this is not a great hardship for the schools as the Ethiopian children come with generous funding for the many ancillary services they receive. Some of the children from Nir Etzion will attend schools outside of Petach Tikva.

When my older children were in elementary school, I remember sitting outside the class while an Ethiopian mother met with the class teacher. The teacher was screaming at the mother. Yes, that happens. I feel that the level of discrimination against Ethiopians has grown.

Do your children speak Amharic? My husband is also from Ethiopia but while I am a native Amharic speaker, he knows only Tigrigona. We speak Hebrew with each other and with our three boys.

More about Ethiopian integration into Petach Tikvah schools.

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  1. Good interview. Sad to hear about so much racism. I used to work in a large school in Jerusalem and the Ethiopan kids seemed to be very much a part of the “hevreh”.

  2. My daughter goes to “Or Chaya” the state Chabad school, and she said her teacher told the class some new girls from Ethiopia will be attending the school. She’s only six so I didn’t get a lot of details but this seemingly contradicts the reports in Haaretz and on the radio.

  3. Thank you for posting. I have been very interested in this issue. I feel that unnaturally forcing Etheopian students into schools where they don’t fit in is not good for their self esteam. I wish that more could be done for these elementary schoolers in a homogenous environment to help them ease into Israeli society while allowng them to also relax and be themsleves among people with more in common. Maybe an afterschool enrichment program or something. I think that pulling kids out of ther community for the sake of beng multcultural puts a big strain on the parents and children. It is harder for the parents to be involved in the school and get to parent-teacher conferences and it is harder for the kids to see their classmates after school.

    I’m surprised that the Chabad school was singled out for rejecting the students. I don’t know enough about the issues, and Or Chaya does have an admissions process, but was under the impression that they accept many children from diverse backgrounds. My daughter (a first grader at Or Chaya) told me they are getting a new student from Ethiopia. I hope it works out. I just think it’s pathetic that they waited until now. Maybe I’m just jealous that the girls mom didn’t have to sit through orientation 🙂 It’s nice that the girls wear uniforms; less room for judgement. I’m probably still the only mom there who doesn’t speak Hebrew. We were suposed to write blessings for our kids for the new year and by the time I figured out what I was suposed to be doing, all I could do was draw pictures. I just hope the girl WANTS to be there. Being at a Chabad school when you wish you weren’t could really suck. My daughter said they got prizes the first day for saying “psukim” and all the girls already knew the 12 psukim (12 torah verses that the Rebbe initiated children saying as one of the first things kids learn, including verses from Tanya, which non-Chasidim do not study.) I’m guessing there are many pictures of the Rebbe and his wife, mother, etc. and some of the things they say/chant about the Rebbe could definately make some (including me) uncomfortable.

    • I just wanted to mention my opinions are based on growing up in South Florida, which is just starting to recover from a terrible system of busing kids away from home for the sake of integration. It didn’t change black kids wanting to hang out amongst themselves. And it didn’t change the make-up of the gifted classes – generally half Jewish with maybe one or two black kids. It just made it harder for working parents to volunteer in the class and it left one or two kids in each class who didn’t have a computer at home or parents at home to help with homework. I didn’t think much about the language issue, which was not an issue in my county, but is in Israel.

  4. Thanks for posting this Hannah. It was interesting to read. I am glad that the Ethiopian kids will be integrated into the other schools. In my daughter’s Ulpana, they have classes of Ethiopian girls in each grade. I asked her if the girls can join the “regular” classes and she said that if they want to and the teachers feel they can handle the schoolwork they can but that not that many want to.

    • How is that so different from them having their own school? Is Ulpana high school? Do the girls in the Ethiopiam classes get extra help or are the standards lower? They all have to do bagrut, right?

  5. Great interview Hannah!
    You would think we would have figured it out by now, after all the different aliyot we have had. The only way to integrate kids into the life of the country is to, well, integrate them into the schools. That’s where kids socialize and are socialized. Keeping them apart doesn’t make their inclusion easier afterwards, it only puts it off.
    My children didn’t have Ethiopians in their grade school but in high school some did and my older kids put a lot of effort into volunteering in the ‘caravan sites’ with Bnei Akiva. (long time ago) The experience good for everyone. .

  6. Today my daughter came back from her school (Or Chaya – Chabad) and said an Ethiopian girl visited her class today but didn’t start yet. So it looks like reports singling out Or Chaya are unfounded.

    Hopefully a solution will be found for all involved without blaming specific schools for not wanting to accept. While I’m not against diversity I am against busing kids to different neighborhoods and cities for purposes of integration. Like Yosefa I am basing this on growing up in the US and seeing what an abject failure it was there.

    The worst part about this, and something the media hasn’t been mentioning much is why did the Education Ministry wait till the first day of school to close it? Much more could have been done at higher levels to avert this crisis.

    • Aaron, I don’t doubt your daughter’s account. However,it seems that some of the schools have accepted some new children and rejected others. My son’s class has yet another new student today from Ner Etzion.
      The concern about the timing was discussed on the radio and in the Haaretz article, too. They definitely messed up with that one.
      According to a representative from the state religious schools in this article, four of the state religious schools will contain 10-40% Ethiopian students. How can they then compete with the private system, which gets 75% of its funding from public sources (and the rest from tuition).

      • I think that is is almost comical that the Education Ministry is so concerned about “equality” and “diversity” when they’re running a school system with three separate tracks for Jews, one for Arabs, and state support for private institutions. Such a fractured system will only breed inequality and those who want to be with their own will take advantage of it. There are a lot of special interests to please and most attempts to change the system only backfire.

        • Sorry Aaron & Hannah – my comment here was actually meant for Hannah on the main thread but I seem to have misclicked

        • Aaron, you’re right, there is inequality in the system. The private system takes huge amounts of public funding and gets the privilege of choosing who their children will, and more importantly, won’t study with. The Arab schools do not have equal facilities and that should be corrected. I may be wrong but I don’t know of protests by Arabs to integrate the schools, although Arab-Jewish schools definitely exist.

          • Probably because now you’re talking about possible religious conflicts, like mixing Jewish schools and Catholic schools but it IS very strange that public schools are not integrated. While some classes could be different based on what students choose to study, I wonder if integration in the long run would go a long way towards peace.

      • I’m curious about the objection to busing that was raised in several of the comments. I’m not familiar with Petakh Tikva but are the private schools that were mentioned has having issues with this purely neighborhood schools where all the kids are just walking down the street to school? In that case I can see some arguments against busing in children (regardless of their ethnic or socio-economic status) as they would be socially at a disadvantage from being outsides – even if they had the same background as the locals. But then again, this same argument would apply to a neighborhood mamlachti dati school.

        But if all the kids are bussed in from all over town to a school, why is it so bad that kids who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds or whose parents happen to be Ethiopian immigrants. The kids in younger grades are most likely tzabarim in part by now, I would guess (at least a portion of them – and the ethiopian community, in my experience, is far from monolithic). If there are issues with integration from different neighborhoods and kids being outsiders, that problem should be applying to all kids in a school with busing and not just a subset of them.

        My kids go to the singular mamlachti dati school in our town and so kids are bussed from all over and from all socio-economic and ethic backgrounds. No one seems to have suffered as a result. And friendships have never appeared to be based on common ethnic background or socio-economic equality in their classes. To be fair, I note there isn’t really a clearly competing private school option in town either (except for haredi)

        • Our state religious school is supposed to be a neighborhood school. Yet the registration area is quite large, to cover neighborhoods without a state religious school, so some children are bused in. We are talking about 5 kilometers at most. The private schools, on the other hand, draw from a much larger area, including the neighboring city of Givat Shmuel and the outlying neighborhood Hadar Ganim, the subject of my earlier post on Morasha. A friend told me she switched her son’s registration from Noam to the state religious school when she found out that half of his first grade class would be from Hadar Ganim. I imagine that the Chabad girls’ school, which is part of the state system, also draws children from all over the city.

          • The Chabad school (Or Chaya) actually draws from several cities. We sent my older daughter to the state religious gan only because the Chabad school we were registered for closed two days before school began last year. It worked out well and we’re sending my son there now. I think I’m just sensitive to different things. The school recycles, they don’t get too much junk food, and the teachers don’t smoke. I haven’t interrogated the other moms or kids, but my kids haven’t come home with any bad influences. I think it’s fine to let kids know that people interpret the Torah differently, their friends aren’t doing anything wrong, we just don’t do that/ eat that/ wear that in our family..

        • Shoshana – Because families with less money are less likely to have cars or money for cabs.

      • As a teacher, it upsets me that the students had to switch schools late in the game. It’s unfair for the students especially but also for the teacher, though here in the States in inner-city public schools we’re used to having the number of students change at the whim of the administration. I was going to be bused out of my neighborhood for a gifted school but my mother decided against it because she felt the commute would be hard for me at such a young age (elementary school). I also wonder about Yosefa’s comments. How are these students getting to these schools and backs? What happens if they miss the bus? My sisters were bused to other schools and they missed they had to walk for miles or not go to school at all.

        There have been number of students on single-sex vs. co-ed education. I wonder if anything has been done in America on colleges that are purposely segregated like all-black colleges. I know that a number of my friends who went to all-black colleges felt that their self-esteem grew in these colleges whereas my experience in college as one of the few Hispanics was too have professors accuse me of plagiarism and having to deal with racism on a regular basis that I hadn’t had to deal with in my very well integrated high school. Of course, the major difference with all black colleges is that the students have a choice.

        • I hope to see Yifat today to confirm, but I don’t believe the Ethiopian population in Petach Tikva is so concentrated that all of the children walked to Ner Etzion. If a child misses the bus there is fairly reliable public transportation, and as I mentioned the distances are not as great as I imagine they are in the US. The city arranges a private school bus or taxi for those who need it.

  7. I work in a special education gan, run by chabad. There is one Ethiopian boy in the gan and the other parents have complained, and ask that he leave (he only began last week at the start of the schoo year). The ganenet of the class also initally refused to take him, saying she “couldn’t work with people like that” I just find the blatent racism shocking.

    • This is something that truly horrifies me as the whole issue of saying they are missing background to keep up with the same classwork and language skills should be an almost non-issue if you are talking about 3 or 4 year olds.

      Would those same parents also want an American immigrant child to be rejected since of course they don’t speak hebrew either?

    • Hi Miri, Can you expand on that? I just don’t understand the issue. My daughter had an Ethiopian boy in her Mamad gan last year and I don’t think anyone thought twice. I would think a special needs school should be more understanding. I guess since I don’t understand Hebrew I’m blissfully unaware of what other mothers are saying. What is the issue? Are they allowed to watch movies or TV that the other students can’t and they might discuss it in school? My daughter started kita alef with Chabad this year and maybe they just didn’t ask a lot of questions because I wore a sheitel, but I don’t recall reading even a single rule about conduct outside the class. What are “people like that”? What are they doing differently that could negetively impact the class?

      • I think the only thing they’re doing different is being a different skin color and having a different culture. As the interviewee mentions a lot of these kids, like her family, are religious and observant and some aren’t. But that comes down to telling your kids, this is what we do and this is what they do. If your kid is going to survive in predominately secular world, they need to understand that.

    • That’s awful. That poor kid. And kids are so sensitive. They feel things that adults think they don’t notice at all.

  8. I agree with Risa and find Miri’s story extremely shocking. Where is all the talk about treating our fellow Jews well?

    • Not just Jews, how about fellow humans? Fellow creations of Hashem? My baby is in a special needs school with a wide range of cultures. There are Chareidim, sucular Jews, a Muslims all learning and teaching together. Of course, most of the kids don’t talk, so they’re not having much influence on each other, but I’ve never heard complaints about having Muslim teachers or therapists.

      How do we stop this nonsense? Will the next generation just grow out of it?

      • Hypocritical. At the top of this thread you said ethiopian kids shouldn’t be put “Where they don’t fit”, and that blacks shouldn’t be schooled with other kids because “They still like to hang out together”.

        This is racist. These kids are JEWISH and therefore fit in a JEWISH school. You make excuses for why they should be kept separate up-thread, and then say how terrible racism is down here. Oy.

        Black people in america have always been treated like rubbish. They’re poorer, they have worse health, and they’re angry because they know the system discriminates against them at every level. By treating Israeli citizens of ethiopian origin in the same way, that’s how you end up with an angry disaffected community.

        Also, There are plenty of gifted black children, they just aren’t given the same chances as white kids.

        • I’m not alllowed to have contradicting views? I think racisism here is pretty bad if not worse than the states. It’s not just Ethiopians, it’s Sphardim, Russians, and others. I’m sure there are many gifted Ethiopians, but I also think immigrants in general have to work a little harder and for some youngsters being in an environment that moves at their own pace might be worth the lack of challenges. Too many challenges could damage the kid’s self esteem and cause them more problems throughout life. If there was a simple right and wrong answer, we wouldn’t still be dealing with this issue. I think a lot of the immigration was handled poorly right from the beginning and it will be hard to fix all the underlying issues. It will also be a long time before we have statistics to show the results of any efforts. For instance, in the states statistics have shown affirmative action to do a lot of harm, including raising the drop-out rates in college. A smart kid who could have excelled at Emory manages to get into Cornell via affirmative action and drops out because it’s too hard. When I say, “where they don’t belong” I meant no racisism, I was referring to any student who gets into a school where they couldn’t have passed the entrance on their own, this could include kids forced into a school at the last minute just as much as siblings who are let into a school because their older siblings are stronger learners but they can’t keep up.

          • But how do you know the student is there because of affirmative action? Of course, these statistics exist and what you say is true to some extent but the problem there is how affirmative action is being put in place. We have a problem of putting students into situations where they are not prepared instead of preparing them or choosing underprivileged students who ARE prepared despite the awful circumstances they come from.

            Now we have a problem where people imagine that any person of color in college must be an educationally or economically disadvantaged affirmative action case. So much so that there have been extensive articles written to show that a lot of minorities at Ivy League schools are legacies from wealthy minority families.

            I had trouble in college because of professors and fellow students who felt that I had gotten in because of affirmative action and was taking someone’s spot when I had earned the grades and SAT scores to get there. I was from an immigrant community though born here but I was reading Shakespeare when my fellow students weren’t reading at all. My parents were the immigrants who worked hard and graduated at the top of their high schools and colleges. I knew that I had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously–our parents and our teachers banged into our heads every day and unlike some of my fellow students, that only made me work harder.

            We can’t make assumptions that because these students have to work twice as hard that they can’t cut it. I have had students who are immigrants from all over the world, including Africa but because of the ethics, the way they valued education and hard work…unlike many of their American counterparts of any race, they did so much better than other students. Unfortunately, doing better at their segregated schools was not the same as doing better at fancy private schools and still, many of these students, including myself, went on to do great things. One of my fellow classmates from Nigeria, an immigrant, became a Yale professor. All of my immigrant students went on to college and succeeded against all odds.

          • What Aliza says above is the root of the issue. The definition of prejudice is looking at a person and making assumptions based on their appearance or cultural background. I’m sure this has happened to everyone reading this time or another.

            We can’t look at Ethiopians and see one group. Some have been here for a generation. Some here for a few years are functioning well already and some aren’t. Some kids have a stable home life, some do well in school. Just like in the general population. Of course some of the needs of Ethiopians are unique to their community because of cultural differences, but their ability to cope with the differences varies widely.

        • Right on, Batya. The thing is that for the very reasons you state, you’ll often find all the black kids or all the Hispanic kids or all the white kids sitting together with “their own kind” instead of integrated. Beverly Tatum wrote a very good, deep book about this issue: “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity.”

          I have a friend that was poor but smart and she was bused into a private school. She was the only Asian girl in the whole school. For years, she was plagued by other students with horrible, racist remarks. She was never safe in school and it was really psychologically damaging to her. Does that mean she didn’t belong in the school? No. That means there’s a problem with the school, the officials who let this happen and with us for not making sure that ALL children feel safe in their classrooms, their hallways, etc. Bullying by parents or fellow students for whatever reason shouldn’t be tolerating.

          There’s no way these students are going to come in completely unaware of all the media surrounding them being bused into other schools. It is 2011 and it seems like Israel is having its own Brown vs. the Board of Education like we did in America. Who are these parents who are teaching their children that hating fellow Jews and fellow human beings is ever the right thing to do?!!!!

          • It’s not just skin color. People use religion as an excuse, but on many levels it’s valid. My understanding is that as part of the immigration/conversion thing, Ethiopians have to go to religious schools, but it can be hard being the only student who doesn’t do many things at home. My daughter got an “aleph minus” for prayer her first week probably because they didn’t say as much at her national religious gan., but at least we’re supportive of the idea of praying to Hashem and she likes it and wants to learn. It’s one thing to be pushed into a strong math or Hebrew class that challenges you, but if your heart is not into the religious part and you have no support from your family, it could be very confusing. Beyond that, the Ethiopians that were already Jewish have a strong and interesting culture. I think there should be more done to support that and help peers and classmates respect different (valid) ways of practicing Judaism. Tradition is so important in Jewish law. There are so many things that are allowed or forbidden simply because that is the tradition of the community. And that’s the LAW… you do what your community does or what your rabbi says. (I’m not talking about the picking and choosing of Reform or Conservative) I wish there was more room for variety in a classroom setting and that children were taught to respect other people’s traditions not as more or less religious, but important to the Jewish people as a whole. The Jewish people have a history of protecting their traditions with their life, and now many Israeli’s send their children to expensive schools to further protect their very specific (and often exclusive) traditions with the learning environment. Most of the Ethiopian community does not have the money to support this system, but more should be done to keep them from being forced into schools that leave no room for variance in practice.

    • that’s the thing. a lot of people don’t think these kids are jewish. these are the same people who think that sephardim aren’t jewish and shouldn’t be in their schools. and mizrahim are in the same boat. some people think only ashkenazim are jewish and that’s sick. we should cherish the diversity of the jewish people, not AGAIN plague each other with this baseless hatred.

  9. It was a nice read, even though I do not have much idea about your place. I hope people will grow up and stand against racism.


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