Ethiopian-Jewish Sigd Festival 2020: Meet Ora Tesama of Friendship House

Wednesday, November 11, 2020 11:00 AM

"Friendship House has become an important juncture for Ethiopian olim to engage with veteran Israelis and get involved in all sorts of new issues and ideas."

(Photo: Ora Tesama, KKL-JNF Photo Archive) 
The Sigd, which is observed 50 days after Yom Kippur, is Ethiopian Jewry's most significant holiday. It is also an Israeli national holiday. Towards Sigd 2020 (November 15), we interviewed Ora Tesama, director of Friendship House, a community and heritage center for Ethiopian Jewry in Kiryat Bialik.

Ahead of the annual holy Sigd Festival celebrated by Ethiopian Jewry, Ora Tesema, Director of the Friendship House in Kiryat Bialik, described how her vision to assist the integration of Ethiopian Jewry into Israeli society was taking shape. Friendship House is an Ethiopian Jewish community and heritage center in Kiryat Bialik.

”We launched the Friendship House in 2018 with the aim of creating not only a community and heritage center for Ethiopian Jewry but also to make the center a hub for the people of Kiryat Bialik in general, Tesama said. “Today, two years later, I can say with confidence that all our wishes have materialized.”
(Photo: Ora Tesama, KKL-JNF Photo Archive) 

Ora Tesama's life story has made her intimately familiar with the challenges facing Ethiopian olim (immigrants to Israel). At the age of 10, she made the arduous journey from Ethiopia to Israel via Sudan, during Operation Moses. After graduating from the renowned Kfar Hassidim High School, she began her work with Ethiopian olim at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. She later served as the emissary of the Jewish Agency to Ethiopia. In 2014, the Kiryat Bialik Municipality approached Tesama and asked for her assistance in coping with the large influx of Ethiopian olim that had settled town's Tzur Shalom neighborhood.

“It was during this period that the vision of creating a cultural and educational center for Ethiopian Jewry began to take shape,” Tesema said. “I knew that the Ethiopian olim needed something to hold them together and connect them to their heritage and culture. It was obvious that they had greater absorption difficulties than other immigrant groups in Israel. Most came from remote villages in Ethiopia and had never experienced a modern city with an advanced economic system. They had never even used electricity before. Their families were scattered and their traditional norms and beliefs were challenged.”

What benefit do the Ethiopian olim get from the Friendship House?

“The Friendship House is a community center in every sense of the word. It serves the entire Ethiopian olim community in Kiryat Bialik and beyond from kindergarten till old age. The design of the attractive facility was inspired by the customary Ethiopian Tukul, or mud hut, with its cone-shaped thatched roof surrounded by large open areas. When Ethiopian olim arrive at the facility, it is clear to them that this is their place. It reminds them of the home they left behind. They feel that they can meet here and not feel different because of their old customs. At the same time, they are learning Hebrew and being gently exposed to our Israeli way of life.”

What part does KKL-JNF have in the Friendship House?

"KKL-JNF plays an enormous role. The entire garden and open area surrounding the buildings, including the lengthy trails through the countryside adjacent to the facility, were created by KKL-JNF. This enables olim to feel connected to nature as they did when living in the small remote villages where they grew up. KKL-JNF is also creating a community garden next to the buildings, where children and adults can grow produce and herbs as they did in Ethiopia. Needless to say the entire compound, including the buildings and gardens, is very attractive and appealing. It did not take long for members of the general public to take an interest. Today our facility is being used frequently by all sectors of society. We have teacher’s union groups who meet here, advanced study sessions run by a variety of organizations, groups from the police, and local government. The list is unending."
(Photo: Ora Tesama, KKL-JNF Photo Archive) 

What effect does this have on the Ethiopian olim?

"The result is remarkable. When I realized that our large beautiful facility was in demand by so many different groups and organizations, I decided to open the bookings to all, free of charge, as long as they enabled the participation of Ethiopian olim. Through this, Friendship House has become an important juncture for Ethiopian newcomers to engage with veteran Israelis and get involved in all sorts of new issues and ideas. And, just as importantly, veteran Israelis meet Ethiopian olim and come to understand who they are. The system works, and has created wonders. The success of the last two years can be measured by the huge quantity of people who make use of Friendship House and what it has to offer. Friendship House is a place that grants respect to the people who use it and receives respect in return."

How did the Corona pandemic affect activities over the past eight months?

"During the ongoing Corona crisis, the scope and volume of our work has skyrocketed, and emphasized just how vital our facility has become for the city. For example, we are now hosting five school classes in the mornings for a nearby school that does not have enough classrooms to separate pupils into the mandatory small capsules."
(Photo: Ora Tesama, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

The Ethiopian Sigd festival is coming soon. How will it be celebrated this year?

"Due to the Corona restrictions, the celebration is going to be different this year. It’s disappointing because our first two festivals were amazing. We held each of them in the beautiful KKL-JNF gardens before huge crowds. They were really special events with much praying, music, and dancing. This year, in order to prevent people from congregating and endangering one another, we have decided to use a city van that will travel all day through the Ethiopian Israeli neighbourhoods playing traditional Ethiopian music and prayers. This will be our way of bringing the festival spirit to the city this year."