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Difference Maker

Asher Elias uses high-tech training to lift Ethiopian Jews in Israel

In Israel, most Ethiopian Jews are trapped at the bottom of society in dead-end jobs. Asher Elias gives them high-tech training to boost their upward mobility.

By Ben Lynfield/ Correspondent / January 16, 2012



Kibbutz Nachshon, Israel

The poster in Tech-Career's simple office shows a young black man and woman, each with dreadlocks, leaning on each other as they work away on laptop computers.

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"Narrow the digital gaps," it proclaims.

In an adjoining classroom, 20 Ethiopian-Israelis, who are listening intently to their instructor in a course titled "Introduction to Systems Activ­a­tion for Windows 7," are doing exactly that.

The course is part of Tech-Career, an intensive program of study designed to equip Ethiopian-Israelis – who constitute the poorest segment of the Jewish population – with the tools to join Israel's dynamic and high-paying high-tech industry. The program also aims to develop young leaders who will help lift the Ethiopian-Israeli community out of poverty, stagnation, and marginalization.

Asher Elias, whose parents were among the first Ethiopian Jews to immigrate to Israel in the 1960s, launched Tech-Career seven years ago, continuing his social activism, which began with his membership in an advocacy group called the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry (IAEJ).

In 2004, only four Ethiopian-Israelis worked in the high-tech sector here, all of them trained in Ethiopia. Now there are more than 200, the vast majority of them Tech-Career graduates. They work at leading companies such as Amdocs, Matrix, and the Israel Discount Bank.

Jolted into a path of activism

Mr. Elias, a soft-spoken, upbeat man who invariably answers with "superbly" when asked how he is doing, first became interested in computers as a teenager. After his mandatory military service, he graduated from Jerusalem's College of Management with a degree in business and computers and went to work for a marketing firm in Tel Aviv.

In 1996, he was jolted into pursuing the path of activism.

The Israeli government, it was revealed, had been discarding all blood donations from Ethiopian immigrants out of fear they were infected. Ethiopian-Israelis staged a huge protest that included clashes with police. Many in the Ethiopian community saw the government's actions as clear evidence of racism.

"The big protest came at a time when I had decided to do something meaningful with my life, and it struck me that I could play a role," Elias recalls. "On the one hand, there was this amazing [Ethiopian] community that arrived in the country and wanted to fit in. And on the other hand, there was this Israeli society that did not recognize it or know it.

"The sense was of a great loss, a missed opportunity. My feeling was to work on making this connection for the benefit of all."

To do this, Elias began working for the IAEJ as it strove to make gains for Ethiopian Jews in employment, housing, education, and other realms.

Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel amid great fanfare: 14,325 were flown covertly from Ethiopia in 72 hours in a stunning 1991 operation when they were threatened by political instability there. But the community's integration into Israeli society has often been unsuccessful, especially compared with that of other groups, such as immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many of the Ethiopians were uneducated, came from rural backgrounds, and lacked the skills needed to succeed in the Israeli economy.

Half the income of others

At first the government encouraged sending Ethiopian children to boarding schools that were often below standard and prepared them for only menial jobs. According to the IAEJ, today 60 percent of Ethiopian-Israelis work in unskilled jobs, often as cleaners or security guards. The average household income of Ethiopian immigrants is about half that of other Israelis, the IAEJ says.

Ethiopian Jews who search for work may encounter prejudice. A survey of employers two years ago showed that 53 percent preferred not to hire an Ethiopian immigrant.

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