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A Class Act

Teens from Ethiopia find a haven and learn about their own culture through an arts program at the Queen of Sheba Center


For a generation, pop music has served as an entrée for Ethiopian youth into the Israeli mainstream. The 1993 recording Shlomo Gronich & The Sheba Choir achieved gold album status while the eponymous 2002 Idan Raichel Project with its fusion of Ethiopian, Yemenite and Arab vocalists became a smash triple-platinum hit.

Jerusalem's Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Cultural Center, which is housed in a former discotheque that can be reached from the underground parking lot at 28 Pierre Koenig Street in Talpiot, may be the source of the next cultural triumph. The center, where some two dozen Ethiopian teens from Kiryat Menachem and Talpiot meet every Sunday and Tuesday evening, teaches the young immigrants music, dance and theater as a way to bolster their self-esteem, thus furthering their integration in Israel.

Founded in 2005 by a Avi Elazar as a social club for Ethiopians, the center achieved amuta (not-for-profit) status two years ago. Elazar then approached Tracey Shipley, along-time activist in the Ethiopian community who is originally from Orlando, Florida, and asked her to imp0lement her program teaching traditional Ethiopian culture to Ethiopian Israeli youth.

"I'm a strong believer that until you feel good about who you are and where you come from, you can't integrate successfully into any society," says the vivacious project coordinator who came on aliya in 1984. "In/addition, as a creative therapist, I believe in the power of the arts to connect people to their origins in a positive and dynamic way. That's what's so fun about the arts."

Shipley explains that while these teens, all of whom were born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are bicultural and bilingual, their acculturation has been difficult because of the huge gap between their homeland and their adopted society.

"A lot of these kids are embarrassed to speak Amharic in front of their Sabra counterparts. Since most of the work we do as the center is in Amharic, it makes it cool for them to speak their mother language," explains Shipley - who laughs that she herself knows four words in Amharic: amasagnalo (thank you), denane? (How are you?), dena (I'm fine) and anchi konjo (you're beautiful).

The center employs veteran Ethiopian-Israeli performing artists Mulat Elazar, Adena Beeyena and Beyne Getahun as instructors in song, dance and theater. The latter, a graduate of the University of Haifa's theater arts program, has appeared on stages across Israel, the US and Europe. Elazar has performed in musical theater across Israel as well as in Europe and Nigeria. Beeyena teaches dance and choreography in Jerusalem.

"I've been on the stage for 10 years and I always have butterflies ibn my stomach. It's not easy, Getahun counsels his teenage protégés.

On Sundays he, Elazar and Beeyena teach a combination of traditional Ethiopian song and dance and hold a workshop to create original scores and dances. On Tuesdays they help the students with their theatrical skills. The themes revolve around home life, school and the community.

"Often we're able to learn about their personal lives through the skits that they create. Afterwards we discuss their family dynamics and the challenges they encounter, including racism," notes Shipley. "One story one of the boys told was that while playing football on the streets of Kiryat Menachem with his Ethiopian friends, a native Israeli boy asked to join. The boy's mother then ran out and scolded him that he can't play with the Ethiopian kids because their skin color is contagious and he would become black. "One of the girls who lives in Talpiot told a story about the girls in the grade above her in high school who drew a virtual line in the hall and said 'You Ethiopians stay on the other side,' These same girls will cross the street not to walk on the same sidewalk with them."

The center provides a supportive base for catharsis free of racial taunts. The center also allows teens to act their age rather than always being forced to take care of parents who find it more difficult to adapt to a new culture.

Havto, 17, who asked that his surname not be used, says, "I've been very excited to embark upon this journey to learn about my traditional culture." Getacho, 16, concurs: "No matter what the weather or whatever else is happening in my life, I wait for Sundays and Tuesdays. They're the highlights of my week."

Rivka, 17, adds: "This is my second year in the theater program. It's made a tremendous difference in how I present myself day to day, and the process is so much fun."

On a recent evening, parents and siblings were invites to watch their sons and daughters perform. The series of skits drew peals of laughter with inside jokes about eating injera (a traditional Ethiopian flatbread) with a knife and fork. Quips about YouTube attest to the rapid acculturation and the generation gap that has left many of their parents behind.

All activities at the Queen of Sheba Center are free, notes Shipley, thanks to funding from the Jerusalem Municipality's Kidum Noar program, which works with high-risk youth, the US Embassy's Office of Public Affairs, the municipality's arts department and the local Neighborhood Improvement department of Talpiot.

Shipley is fund-raising to expand the Queen of Sheba program with as youth orchestra composed of traditional Ethiopian instruments including the mashenko (a string instrument played with a bow like a violin), krar (a string instrument strummed like a guitar), kabero (traditional drum) and washint (flute).

Dear Tracey,

I just wanted to thank you again for such a phenomenal night at the Malkat Shva Cultural Center. The experience was an absolute highlight of our trip.

Not only did it expose our group to issues we were previously unaware of, but it also provided us with an unbelievably fun bonding experience - for our group, as well as with your group. Thank you so much for putting everything together so last minute!

As promised - aside from the experience being so enlightening and wonderful - here is some more feedback.

The dance workshop was so much fun. We loved making fools of ourselves and seeing how talented all the kids are. Adena and Mulat were so great. The info session, where we spoke about Ethiopian culture, was extremely informative and meaningful coming from the kids.

The theater workshop was a lot of fun. The kids' plays were fantastic, and kol hakavod to them for putting them on for a bunch of strangers.

All in all, though, it truly was an amazing experience. We had so much fun getting to know you and the Ethiopian teenagers of Jerusalem. I really hope we can continue to partner together for future programs.

Thank you so much for your flexibility in putting together a program for us so last minute and for being so warm and welcoming to our group throughout the entire program.

All the best,

Ayelet Kanana

Group Leader

Yeshiva University Student Group 2012

Dear Tracey,

I loved watching the kids have fun, and seeing their parents watching them enjoy their culture. The dancing was very exciting, and it looked like the dancers felt comfortable with the traditional steps.

It was very moving to see them in modern clothes connecting with their ethnic background when most of them have never even been in Ethiopia.

Good luck, and let me know about the next exciting events you are planning!

All the best

Nicky Cregor

Coordinator, Community Social Work

Community Services Authority

Jerusalem Municipality