On the surface, they may not seem to share much in common. Victoria Gendel is a charming, pixyish Russian woman. Elias Inbram is a tall, photogenic Ethiopian male. However, both are Jewish 20-something college students who grew up in small, isolated villages and are now living in Israel.
Both are also Federation success stories -- determined young adults whose families were aided by agencies connected with United Jewish Communities (UJC). They haven't just made aliyah; they've reconnected with Jewish culture.
On a sunny February afternoon, inside an airy conference room at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' headquarters, Inbram and Gendel are taking a break from completing the last leg of a two-week UJC-sponsored American visit -- a "thank you" tour of sorts for the pair -- that included stops in Denver, Waco, Palm Beach and Phoenix. After a final excursion in New Orleans, Gendel and Inbram will return to their normal routines in Israel.
Gendel can't see herself living outside of Israel. She speaks only Hebrew with her Russian friends there, no Russian or English.
"I see myself as Israeli. Most of my friends are Israeli," Gendel told The Journal. She added that such rapid assimilation is the only way to become a vital part of her adopted homeland.
Gendel has come a long way from her youth in Novorossiysk, a small town by the Black Sea, where her parents hid their Jewish background from her. That all changed when, at 13, she received a call at home from a Jewish Agency camp, which brought her to Israel on a visit. The experience spurred Gendel to explore her Jewish heritage further. Three and a half years ago, with the help of the Jewish Agency, Gendel made aliyah and participated in the Jewish Agency's Selah Program at the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Jerusalem.
Today, the 20-year-old is a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She, in turn, helped her parents emigrate to Israel, and that odyssey -- teaching her own parents to adapt to Israeli society -- has informed how she would like to apply the social-work degree she is working hard to complete. After all, she points out, middle-aged people have a harder time acquiring a new language and restarting their lives in a new environment than younger people do.
Inbram's arrival to Israel began with a harrowing odyssey. At age 8, he walked with his family from their village of Shire Town in a band of Ethiopian Jews that escaped from his homeland under the cover of night. For 40 days, the caravan traveled on foot through Ethiopia until they reached the Red Cross refugee camp in Sudan. The Inbram family spent two very difficult years in Sudan, surrounded by disease, famine and death, waiting for the day that Operation Moses would help transport them to Israel. Through it all, the prospects of reaching Jerusalem kept them afloat spiritually and emotionally. A younger brother and sister were born en route, the latter named Jerusalem, after the city in which they had blindly invested so much of their hope and faith.
In 1983, with the assistance of the Jewish Agency, the Inbram family was airlifted to Israel. They moved into an absorption center in Beer Sheva, the town where the Inbram family still lives today. In his late teens, Inbram did his three-year stint with the Israeli Defense Forces' (IDF) intelligence unit. Today, 28-year-old Inbram is a business management major at Ben-Gurion University, studying with the help of a Jewish Agency student scholarship.
Discussing Ethiopian assimilation in the Jewish State, Inbram believes that those of his people who have opted to live exclusively among their own kind are making a mistake.
"They don't think about the future generation of kids," he stressed.
Inbram does not pull any punches -- there are still major inroads to be made in helping to move Ethiopian Jews from the absorption centers, on which they often become dependent, into Israeli society. Part of the problem, he believes, is that sometimes the native Israelis fail to pick up on the cultural and psychological nuances of their Ethiopian brethren and take a heavy-handed approach when working with Ethiopian Jews. Nevertheless, he knows that his countrymen mean well.
"Sabra is a fruit that inside is very sweet, outside is tough," Inbram said, drawing an analogy between the fruit and an Israeli-born citizen.
Social workers, Inbram added, need to engage more established Ethiopian Israelis into assisting Ethiopian immigrants. But make no mistake about him or his intentions -- Inbram is very grateful to live in Israel, and there is no other place he would rather be. He noted that his experience in the IDF was one of cultural unity. And despite his criticisms of some social issues at home, Inbram does not want his main point to get buried.
"In general, Ethiopian immigrants are very happy in Israel," he said. "I feel very good in Israel. I feel at home. Especially after one year studying in Germany."
"When problems with Arabs begin," Gendel said, "we come together."
As much as the two Israeli immigrants have in common, Inbram and Gendel do not agree on everything. At one point, they argued fervently over the speed of Ethiopian assimilation into Israeli society. It is not an argument that comes from cultural enmity, but rather from two forceful individuals with different perspectives on the same issue. A couple of opinionated Jews arguing over current events -- so what else is new?