Ethiopian Jews had since ancient times harbored the dream of returning to their 'homeland' - Jerusalem. In the 20th century, this dream was realized. Ethiopian Jewish immigrants came to Israel in large numbers in two major waves: Operation Moses in the early and mid-1980s and Operation Solomon in 1991. Today, Israel is home to 56,000 Ethiopian Jews.
But, despite ambitious plans to smoothly integrate them into the mainstream, the results have been disappointing. The lack of a lucrative livelihood has been a major problem. In Ethiopia, the community had lived in small villages and had practiced subsistence farming, a vocation that did not equip them for gainful employment within an industrialized nation.
This resulted in the social segregation of the community, with women being the worst sufferers. From looking after large families with the limited income at their disposal to facing discrimination from within the community as well as from the local population, Ethiopian Jewish women have had to face tough challenges.
"Discrimination of women of Ethiopian origin in Israel," explains Lauren Lyons, 28, an activist working with Sisters, a Tel-Aviv-based, non-for-profit NGO that works with immigrant women, "could be a result of Israelis fearing immigrants and the change they bring. Each wave of immigration has brought with it a period of unrest - the local population have needed to adjust, the newcomers have needed to adapt. Transition for the Ethiopian Jewish community has not been entirely easy. Just like other groups of immigrant Jews, who made 'aliyah' (refers to Jewish immigration to Israel since its establishment in 1948), Ethiopian Jews have faced obstacles in their integration into the society because of racist attitudes, cultural differences, and lack of education.
As is the case almost everywhere in the world, skin color is the starting point of the discrimination. Then follow language barriers and cultural differences. The arrival of a black African group to a country with predominately white- or olive-complexioned people who have had no previous experience of interacting with such communities led to situations rife with tension. There were other sources of conflict too. The Ethiopian Jews knew little or no Hebrew and spoke mainly Amharic. Culturally, they also tended to be a very intimate and closed society. All this made it more difficult for them to be absorbed into Israeli society given the lack of opportunities for the two communities to interact with each other. The financial strains Ethiopian Jews routinely experience only made matters worse."
The women face discrimination from within their community as well, probably the result of living in a patriarchal society where women are subordinate to men. They mainly work at home and if they want to engage in activities that take them outside the home, they would need to seek permission from their husbands.
In an effort to counter the discrimination from within and outside, Sisters helps these women use their traditional craft of embroidery, or 'rikmah', and coiling as a tool for empowerment. The Rikmah Project, which began in 2005, gives the women an opportunity to stay connected with their roots and, at the same time, convert their domestic talents into income-generating skills.
The idea came from Esther Eilam, 65, one of the founders of Sisters and a prominent Israeli feminist, who drew inspiration for this venture from a somewhat similar programme initiated for the tribes of Bedouins living in the Negev Desert.
"The women from the Rikmah Project are using an aspect of their culture to improve their lives in Israel. The idea is that they do not completely lose their identity and blend into the larger culture by forgoing their traditions and forgetting where they came from. Instead, they should utilize their traditional talents to generate income for their families."
The project is open to all Ethiopian Jewish women in Israel although the community is generally concentrated in the southern part of the country. Currently, 200 women are part of this economic initiative, most of them learning about it through word of mouth. It is easy to join the group as there are no lengthy forms or bureaucratic procedures involved.
The women do fine embroidery on clothes - mainly dresses and blouses - and create ornaments for the synagogues. All the raw material is provided by the NGO. The ready merchandise is sold in three high fashion stores in Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Ra'anana - the three major cities in Israel. The products are priced between 50 and 200 NIS (New Israeli Sheqel)
Each woman earns about 600 NIS a month (US$1=3.30 NIS). This is not substantial, but, according to the women, it's better than being unemployed and penniless.
Lakia, 40, believes the project has given her the feeling of being a part of something greater. "I have got a place to come and interact with other women like me. Not only am I engaged in a creative craft, I feel I am being respected, valued and recognized. Also, I have an opportunity to work and contribute to the household income," she says.
Besides providing an opportunity to earn, this project helps to showcase authentic Ethiopian Jewish culture and fosters in these women a sense of pride in their heritage. According to Eilam, the project eventually aims to create a Mutual Exchange Network of Women.
"By creating a link between the women," says Eilam, "the embroidery project aspires to develop a feminist community and create a social and economic network through mutual learning and social and economic action. The idea is to offer the participants both 'life changing knowledge' and sound professional knowledge."