model of work with ethiopian immigrants

Cultural integration of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel through multi-tiered systemic interventions

Dr. Sara Ivanir*, Zahava Baruch**

Presented in: International Conference – Working with Marginalized Families and Communities, Mexico, Oaxaca, 3-6 August 2006

Published in: The Oaxaca Book, Working with Marginalized Families and Communities in the Trenches. Ed. Maurizio Andolfi & Laura Calderon de la Barca

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of the silence.- George Eliot – Middlemarch


This paper introduces the work of Ethiopian family therapist and social activist – Zahava Baruch, with Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. The focus of her work is the acceleration of “Evolutionary Processes” necessitated by the gap between the traditional Ethiopian mentality of the immigrants, and modern Israeli society. The specific damage caused by this gap are discussed, followed by systemic interventions designed and found to be effective in facilitating changes and preventing deterioration. The main techniques of the model are: Multi-layered work; perceiving Cross–cultural meeting point as mutually transformative: "Dual Grounding"- in which the therapist is well grounded in both cultures and the "park-bench" technique: – in which the client’s environment is utilized as the therapeutic starting point.

The multi-tiered interventions focus on:  Restoring familial structure & functioning, mending the spousal unit, creating a paradigm for the "Adolescence" life stage and developing the individual's inner voice. The complete paper includes the detailed model and clinical illustrations.

Introduction: Ethiopian Jewry

The ancestry of Ethiopian Jewry is, to this day, still shrouded in mystery. The traditional myth births this people as the progeny of the historical meeting between biblical monarchs King Solomon and Queen Sheba. One prevalent theory posits that Ethiopian Jews are the descendants of Dan, one of Israel's ten tribes who were exiled in 719 B.C. Regardless, the fact is that these people have kept Jewish theology, customs and culture, passing it on from generation to generation for centuries, in total isolation from the outside world.

Ethiopian Jews' connection with the State of Israel brothers that of all Jewish people's spiritual, physical, religious, historical and cultural ties to the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

This almost mystical connection is the cornerstone of Jewish heritage, grounded in biblical tradition. The link with, and longing for, the Land of Israel is ever-present and continuous, and in times of distress and persecution, becomes concrete. The State of Israel is constitutionally mandated and spiritually committed to sheltering and nationalizing any Jewish person seeking immigration [termed "Aliya" in Hebrew, which means "ascension"] and remains ever committed to Jewish communities worldwide.

_____________________________________________________________________ Dr. Sara Ivanir is a family & couples therapist, co-founder and Clinical Director of Shinui Institute – Herzeliya, Israel. email: Tel: 972-(0)3-6412581

Ms. Zahava Baruch is a family therapist, group facilitator & mediator. She is head of the Ethiopian division at the municipal anti-drug association in the city of Ashdod, Israel

Since Israel's inception, the situation of Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia has increasingly worsened. They were prohibited from practicing Jewish religion and teaching their children Hebrew. Their congregational leaders were arrested and accused of "Zionist espionage" and their clergy were under constant scrutiny by the authorities. Eventually, war and famine caused an international lobby to pressure president Mangisto into allowing the Jews' exodus to Israel. Since then, approximately 60,500 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel. Most of them left their homes in haste, leaving anything they couldn't carry and crossing treacherous desert & mountainous terrains on foot, mostly through Sudan. They suffered greatly from bandits, imprisonment, hunger, thirst and disease on a journey that took anywhere from five weeks to several months and even years.

The Jews of Ethiopia came to Israel with a strong, consolidated Jewish Identity. They experienced their journey as a mystical reenactment of the ancient Exodus from Egypt to the "Land of Milk & Honey", and felt as though they were "returning home", rectifying generations of exile. Viewing themselves as "water droplets returning to the sea", they dreamed of becoming whole again as a people, once united with the people of Israel in the Jewish Homeland. They fantasized about Israel as a land of abundance and pictured Israelis as dark-skinned, white shrouded, pious keepers of the Sabbath. They viewed their treacherous journey, great suffering and high death toll as a testament of will, purification and natural selection of those worthy of settling in God's Promise Land. At the end of their perilous trials, these survivors felt entitled, as individuals and as a community, to be welcomed to the Land of Israel. Only as it happened, this welcome propelled them into a crippling time-tunnel.

Encountering Zahava & Conceiving the vision

My relationship with Zahava goes back several years to when she studied Family Therapy at Shinui Institute.* Zahava was a welcomed addition to the multi-cultural fabric of Shinui Institute’s trainees. Zahava and I connected quite naturally, with mutual affection and appreciation. During that time I was her teacher and guide, touring her world that was so foreign to me, and getting to know her as an individual.

From the onset of our collaboration, Zahava intrigued me with her compelling stories full of humor and fascination. We knew that we shared a collective soul and had common values and visions.

Once we selected a topic among Zahava's many projects, I began attending sessions that she regularly conducts with Ethiopian youth, their parents and their school principal in the school setting of the costal town of Ashdod. I observed, filmed and documented many of these sessions at their onset, middle and closure. My goal was to delineate the principles of her work and technique. Gradually I realized that the work we documented at school was inseparable from Zahava's work with individuals and groups outside the school setting, which is not recorded but is crucial to understanding this theoretical & practical model.

*Established in 1985, Shinui is the Israeli Institute for Systemic-Strategic Therapy and studies, which includes a clinic and a highly regarded training center for family therapists. Shinui is extremely integrated in the fabric of Israeli society, guiding and overseeing therapists' projects all over the country. The staff of 20 family & couples' therapists teaches, publishes and lectures throughout Israel and abroad. Shinui's culturally diverse student body is comprised of mental health and welfare professionals from multiple backgrounds and faiths.

As I documented Zehava's work it occurred to me that she was ultimately a healing catalyst in this "time tunnel" that besieged her community and propelled them from the past into the future. In other words, she devises methods and interventions that aim to accelerate societal evolution.

The Time Tunnel

The outcome of any immigration always depends on the cultural disparity between the society of origin and the new civilization. Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel are unlike any other group of immigrants, with 90% coming from undeveloped villages without electricity or running water and where the habitations are straw huts without clocks, phones or currency; they cooked on open fires, had no electricity and had never seen a toilet or a television. We termed this immediate shift from ancient times into the 21st century society, the "time tunnel". The following tables illustrate important aspects of the cultural disparity that these "time travelers" encountered:

Differences in lifestyle

Table 1

Traditional, religious societyModern, pluralistic egalitarian society
Rural communitiesUrban communities
Mainly agricultural vocationsTechnology, business, employees
Religious leadershipPolitical leadership
Primitive technologySophisticated technology
Very little formal educationFormal education is norm, & highly esteemed
Extended family is central unitNuclear family is central unit

Comparison of Social Codes

Respect according to hierarchyEgalitarian code of respect
Decision making by highest in commandLarge margin of freedom in decision making
Politeness, humility & restraintOutspoken, assertiveness, individualism
Introversion, discretion, emotional reserveExtroversion, emotional straightforwardness
Patience, relaxed view of time & comfortHigh pressure, punctuality
Indirect communicational styleDirect communicational style
Few promises, word is always keptPromises are loosely given & loosely kept

Immigration Wounds & Healing Interventions

"Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet" (Ethiopian proverb)  

An immigration of such magnitude, in such a short period of time, with no adequate preparations due to the urgency involved, creates complex problems, the more so as these people abandoned ancient roots and tribal practices, for a country of relative prosperity and comfort where everything seems possible.

"Immigration wounds" is a term that Zahava and I coined to explain that we are not dealing with personal pathologies or clinical situations, but rather with wounds resulting from an instant shift from a very ancient culture in human evolution to a very modern 21st century culture. The wounds we refer to, and the wounds being addressed in the working model, stem from this relocation shift: (table 2)

  1. The loss of authority endured by parents and elders.

The very foundation of the family & communal unit crumbles. Traditional pillars of the community – fathers, elders, spiritual leaders ("kes") are no longer looked upon to fulfill their guiding roles, as they lack knowledge of the new social codes. Thus, sons refrain from turning to their fathers for help with school work, and daughters avoid their mothers' counseling on physical hygiene.

  1. The erosion of the delicate fiber bonding married couples.

Marital relationships are at high risk due to the shift from the traditional paternal society in which gender roles and codes of behavior are very clear and non-negotiable, to an egalitarian society. To make matters worse, many husbands fail to acquire the new skills and personal and cultural codes necessary for adjustment and acclimation, which failure deals a terrible blow to marital stability and satisfaction.

C. Lack of an individual voice and self-advocacy.

Individuality and voicing the individual's desires, dreams and ambitions is unheard of in Ethiopian tradition, where the collective voice takes precedence over the personal one. This mentality leaves them unprotected and under-represented in Israel's modern Western society.

D. The formation of a new phase: adolescence.

In Ethiopia Jews were used to marrying at 12-13 years of age and tackling the complexity of adolescence as married couples, living with the husband’s family. In Israel they have no adolescent role models to explain them what adolescence is.

Basic Techniques for Accelerating Evolutionary Processes

  1. Multi-layered work

This form of treatment is deep and comprehensive, activating all layers pertaining to a person's evolutionary process: intra-personal, family, school, home environment (recreational & health care facilities, shopping areas), work environment, police stations, government agencies etc.

  1. Cross–cultural meeting point is mutually transformative

Every encounter with the adoptive culture becomes a transformative, mutual learning experience for all interacting parties (immigrants & natives or the dominant population).

  1. "Dual Grounding"

The therapist is deeply grounded in Ethiopian culture, while simultaneously firmly rooted in Israeli societal norms and codes. The therapist's dual grounding bridges cultural gaps and models successful bi-cultural existence.

  1. The "park-bench" technique: utilizing accessibility

Treatment and healing often begins at the lowest point in life; any setting that is pertinent to cultural transformation may be utilized as a starting point for therapeutic work.

The Working Model

Let us look at how these fundamental techniques are specifically utilized to accelerate evolutionary processes that are crucial for surviving the “time tunnel”, considering the specific “immigration wounds” discussed above.

1. Restoring familial structure & functioning: horizontal hierarchy

This working model not only reinstates parental security and authority despite the disadvantages in language and social skills, but also provides an educational foreground for incorporating a more democratic view of family hierarchy & functioning. This entails working with parallel groups of children, parents, school’s staff and community leadership. Each group receives detailed explanations and graphic illustrations of the disparity with which they must contend. For example: In Ethiopia, children were compelled to obey their elders. Fathers, mothers and teachers were able to administer physical punishment and their authority was never questioned or interfered with by the state. In Israel, the parents often hadn't grasped local customs or the language, which weakened their status in society and belittled them in their children's eyes. Furthermore, children had new rights, which, for instance, prohibited parents from administering physical punishment thereby rendering them impotent as educators and mentors to their offspring and overturning the pyramid of power:

The aim of the group interventions is to create a horizontal leadership & power distribution by empowering and centralizing the parental unit, and teaching parents how to work side-by-side with their children towards common goals. In this model, every individual can voice their will and opinion, as parents assume responsibility & accountability through listening to their children's needs.

Parents re-establish their status as mentors by passing on tradition to their children who learn to value and take pride in their Ethiopian heritage. One group of Ethiopian students put on, with the help of their parents, a traditional musical performance for the entire, overwhelmingly enthusiastic school population, encouraging other communities to do the same. The school established an annual "Cultural Diversity Day", in which the various communities presented their ethnic customs and traditions.

2. Mending the spousal unit

This model works on two parallel levels: learning new direct, verbal communication skills, while simultaneously reinstating traditional customs infused with new meanings. For example: Many aspects of the marital relationship in Ethiopia were handled through the physical organization of the household and immediate surroundings. Men never entered the kitchen; even if a husband was chasing his wife, reprimanding her for misbehavior, he stopped short of the kitchen, which was her domain and sanctuary. Norms such as these were so strongly held they actually regulated much of the spousal dynamics. However the Israeli household is not designed for such partitions. In fact, Israeli husbands are strongly encouraged to step into the kitchen and take part in the housework.

Spousal communication is largely verbal and very direct, compared to Ethiopian spousal communicational patterns that are subtle and avoid direct verbal confrontations. This disparity between cultures brought about a state of anomy, where husbands could no longer enforce their will on their wives. Wives, who began defying their husbands, had not, however, yet internalized a system for self-defense, and, furthermore, an extended family no longer lived in the same household to serve as a ‘buffer’ between spouses. The result was a horrible surge in domestic violence, homicide and suicide.

According to this model, men are taught new methods of regulating their anger and frustration and alternative ways to foster the cooperation of their wives. The wives learn to reestablish traditional forms of communication, such as administering the customary foot massage & playful mutual feeding. This fresh use of traditional methods heals the husbands' wounded self-esteem and rekindles mutual affection. Although this behavior is seen as demeaning in the context of a more egalitarian culture, the therapist motivates the women by stressing the influence this behavior gives them over their husbands and the chance it provides them to indulge themselves.

3. Developing the individual's inner voice

Men, women and children are invited to speak up as the therapist listens to them intently. Women and children especially, move from being always told what to do and think, to relational patterns wherein they are talked to and listened to. They learn to respond directly to inquiries such as "How are you? What do you want? What feels right to you? What doesn't feel right? What's important to you and what are your aspirations?" The therapists, and sometimes the group, echo each statement, without judgment or discrimination. For example: Zahava rounded up a group of backward students and called them the "leaders' group". Her first question to them was "what are your goals?" The children gradually began to define their own personal goals, such as being a better student; becoming less bashful; "having more friends; making the soccer team". The answers moved from embodying society's expectations to more personal goals.

In Ethiopia natural echoes were used to transmit information between neighboring villages, important announcements being shouted from mountaintops. Zahava uses the concept of the "echo" as a metaphor for internalizing the idea that one's personal voice is also worthy of being echoed and that when one speaks, it creates an "echo" that resonates with the listener. Of course, developing an individual voice is incomplete without accountability. To this end Zahava has parents tape record their fights with the children, and uses these recordings to teach them how to restrain the children and respond to them without "echoing" (reacting to, reflecting) their children's insolence. One mother in training recorded herself saying to her child "I may not know Hebrew, but I know all about being a mother!" When the child heard his mother's recorded voice he was ashamed of his behavior, knowing that his conduct transgressed the values that he'd been taught.

4. Creating paradigm for "Adolescence"

With the loss of authority figures and no traditional role models for adolescence, Ethiopian teenagers are prone to running away from home, drug abuse and crime. To save this youth, Zahava utilizes Ethiopian tradition while incorporating her own professional knowledge & skills in "mind-body" work and other schools of therapy.

She recruits mothers by helping them rekindle ethnic customs such as the "cortical massage" that women traditionally gave their pubescent sons. It is believed that this revitalization of the vascular system, which is completely devoid of sexual innuendo, invokes direct contact between the mother and her son's mind. One boy who was a heavy drug user, reports: "They tried everything on me, parole officer, shrink, social workers…but I just didn't give a damn. The only thing that helped me was my mother's touch."

Table 2

Disintegration of tribal & traditional family unit Multiple lossesTraditional leaders viewed as useless in new realityFathers lose authority – children and wives gain powerInterference of state agencies    Restoring familial structure & functioning: horizontal hierarchyParental responsibility and mature children – democratic approachHorizontal, rather than vertical leadershipIntrojections of knowledge and educational toolsParental empowermentReplace government agents with mediators from the community
Dishevelment of traditional tightly-knit spousal unitLoss of non-verbal cuesLoss of pre-defines gender roles in householdElevated women's status & emasculation of menLoss of intimate behavioral codes – misunderstood in Western contextMending the spousal unitLearning & practicing verbal communication together with traditional non-verbal cuesInfusing new meaning into traditional marital customs & non-verbal language (e.g. foot massage)Redefining parental authority as joint responsibility
Loss of collective voice (frustration, reticence, violence)Lack of personal advocacyLoss of security inherent in collective responsibility Cross cultural mistrust & misunderstanding for lack of personal expressionLack of tools & legitimate language for emotional expressionDeveloping the individual's inner voiceListening, giving legitimacy, empathy, & encouraging verbal expression in individual & group settingsLearning how to be "cross-cultural tourist" – mutual learning of views & codesRebuilding security by empowering the community (e.g. support groups)Personal empowerment & fulfillment
Anomy in lieu of new "Adolescence" life stageUnfamiliar life stage creates profound void for teenagers; lack of tools for individuation & sublimation of adolescent drives; lack of role models; drugs & crimeCreating paradigm for "Adolescence" life stageDevelop aspirations & goals that fit new realityEducate about adolescence in Western societyRekindle parent-adolescent connection, new roles for teens

Dreams of the Future

Towards the end of my documentary work on Zahava’s model, I interviewed a group of 12-13th year old schoolgirls about their ambitions and dreams for the future. They wanted to become doctors, accountants, psychologists… and then they said that they wanted to go back to Ethiopia and donate money to the needy, and one of them concluded: “I want to be a lawyer because it's a difficult profession and I want to show everyone that we can do it, that we are no different and if we put our minds to it, we can succeed”.

When I look at it, I see 3 or 4 generations ahead. I see these people contributing their inner beauty, wealth of culture and tradition to our society, their gentleness that may assist in refining our society and take us forward. There's no doubt about the importance of this immigration, in spite of the difficulties, problems, and even sometimes the desperation.

Zahava and others who grasped and realized the fortifying power of being able to make a change, prove that it's possible and necessary to make persistent, and sometimes Sisyphean efforts, to improve and amend the situation and train more people like Zahava who could make it possible for Ethiopian immigrants to aspire, integrate and live a better life within Israeli society.


While I've long felt a calling to collaborate with Zahava for the well being of Israel's Ethiopian community, I doubt I would have started the work so quickly if Maurizio Andolphi hadn't called upon me to contribute to this conference. The conference's underlying theme of recruiting the "strong" to give voice to the "unheard good", has deeply reinforced my ever-growing belief in harnessing the power of mutual facilitation to create profound change.

Most works presented at the conference were the fruit of widely diverse teams – whether ethnically, socially, professionally or otherwise, all working together towards a common goal and vision to alleviate social and human suffering. These various projects offered a heart-warming glimpse into the vast potential that might be realized by combining and coordinating the proliferation of human resources.  

This is just the beginning for Zahava and me. Our collaboration, appreciation and mutual love, along with the strength and inspiration we received from this conference, compel us to continue the effortful recruitment of other agencies to promote this model of working with immigrant communities. We are currently developing a program for training Ethiopian therapists and consultants to be familial and cultural mediators.

I want to thank Maurizio and all those who've helped this conference come to fruition. I am honored and delighted to be part of this wonderful tribe of healers and activists who are unified in their commitment to battle suffering and social ailments around the world, to take responsibility and action towards real change & transformation.  

Sara Ivanir

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