Eli Mantson had a long journey to get to the room in which he sat the Israeli Bar exam this year. One of just three Ethiopians to reach the final hurdle to becoming a lawyer, Eli arrived in Israel at the age of four, walking to the Jewish state from his birthplace via Sudan.
He says he would never have made the final stage of the journey from refugee to attorney had it not been for the help of the Hadassah Youth Village, which took him in after he dropped out of school to work at the age of eight.
Eli was just four years old in 1984 when his family made the thousand-kilometer walk from Ethiopia to Sudan. Where he, his parents and eight siblings were met by Mossad agents as part of the covert “Operation Moses”, an initiative to evacuate Ethiopian Jews from Sudan during the famine that ravaged the country while the world rallied to help.
The agents split up Eli’s family and took them in smaller groups to Israel.
Upon arrival in Israel, Eli’s family faced challenges shared by many other Ethiopians who have emigrated to Israel, including poverty and abject discrimination. His parents, who were farm workers in Ethiopia, were limited to temporary jobs.
Eli left school when he was eight to help support his family, working a few difficult years in the Netanya market. He realized, even at a young age, that only he could take charge of his fate, and it was with this in mind that he approached a social worker, imploring her to help him complete his education.
“It was my parents’ dream to come to the Jewish state,” Eli tells Haaretz. “They were always pushing us to get an education. They supported us by talking to us...they couldn’t in any other way.”
The social worker, inspired by Eli's gumption, set out to find him a school, driving him from one place to the next until they arrived at that the Meir Shfeyah Hadassah Youth Village.
“Everyone helped me; teachers, counselors, principles,” he recalls. “These people don’t work there for the money, they work there to help children with my story, that’s their reward.”
From there Eli joined the Israel Defense Forces, as asergeant in the Border Guards. His military service gave him the discipline needed to succeed in the highly competitive field of law, and when he took the bar exam this year – one of 2,400 hopefuls – he passed.
Kids who end up in youth villages aremostly placed via the Ministry of Welfare. “Some have police records or have parents who can’t cope with their children,”says Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Director of Hadassah. Goldstein, Eli’s mentor(whom he respectfully refers to as a “lioness”) claims “the kids are victims of the socioeconomic situation.”
Today, most of the kids at the Hadassah Youth Villages are from the former Soviet Union and justone-third are Ethiopian, Goldstein says. The youth village, which was started as an aliyah youth initiative does not cater exclusively to Jewish children, and works with the Druze and Arab communities as well.
Although the schools are secular, Jewish holidays are observed, and there is a weekly Shabbat dinner.
“I couldn’t have succeeded without Hadassah’s help,” Eli maintains. “My success is theirs too.”