Growing up in an Ethiopian village that had no school, Aviv Abebe learned shepherding and farming but not reading and writing.
In 2003, when he was 11 years old, he and his family immigrated to Israel — and suddenly the world of education was open to him. He studied at a yeshiva in Rehovot and eventually earned a master’s degree in Bible and rabbinic literature, as well as rabbinic ordination.
This fall, Rabbi Abebe and his wife, Adi, are coming to teach middle-school grades at Ben Porat Yosef yeshiva day school in Paramus.
Hebrew immersion is a foundational principle of the 450-student school. Each year, five Israeli couples and two Israeli National Service volunteers work in the classrooms at BPY, ensuring that all children from nursery to eighth grade learn to speak and understand Hebrew on a near-native level.
In an interview we have translated from Hebrew, the Abebes talked about why they chose to be emissaries (“shlichim” in Hebrew) abroad and what they hope to accomplish.
“I remember very well the shlichim from the Jewish Agency who came when we were still in Ethiopia, and especially the sight of the Israeli flag they held in their hands,” Rabbi Abebe said. “As an immigrant, the connection with Jews in the diaspora is very important to me. I feel an obligation to faithfully represent the State of Israel that I love so much.”
Rabbi Abebe served as an IDF combat soldier during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. He met his wife six years ago, when they both were volunteering on weekends at a Jewish Agency immigrant absorption center, teaching Jewish traditions, Hebrew language, and Israeli culture.
Ms. Abebe, also 27 years old, said she and her husband decided to have their wedding on the first night of Chanukah “so that our private light would illuminate outward, just like the Chanukah menorah.”
She’s now a drama teacher; before she met her husband, she had worked at a Jewish camp in the United States. She will teach Hebrew at BPY and she will organize social activities there.
The couple and their two children, Amitai, 4, and Avishag, almost 2, will live in Teaneck.
“When we told Amitai we are moving to a state called New Jersey, he said, ‘What fun! We’ll get to eat lots of ice cream!’ and we asked why he thought that,” Ms. Abebe said. “He answered, ‘Ben & Jerry’s!’ We live near the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Israel, and ‘New Jersey’ sounded similar to him.”
BPY emissary couples typically stay three years before returning to Israel, according to Dr. Chagit Hadar, the school’s principal of Judaic studies.
Dr. Hadar described the Abebes as “a very sweet, warm family” whose mixed ethnicities — Adi Abebe is a born-and-bred sabra from Ashkalon — will be an ideal model for the school’s mix of students from diverse Sephardi and Ashkenazi backgrounds.
The process of choosing new shlichim begins the November of the preceding school year, and includes face-to-face interviews, which Dr. Hadar conducts in Israel. For the last two years, BPY has recruited shlichim from Ohr Torah Stone, a modern Orthodox network of 27 educational institutions in Israel founded in 1983 by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin and headed since November 2018 by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, formerly of Teaneck.
Ohr Torah Stone so far has prepared 500 couples as shlichim through its Claudia Cohen Women Educators Institute, the Beren-Amiel Program for Educational Emissaries, and the Straus-Amiel Program for Rabbinical Emissaries. The Abebes are among its most recent crop of graduates.
“The Claudia Cohen Institute gave me guidelines on the issues and dilemmas that may arise during our mission, and strengthened my understanding of the importance of the great thing we are setting out to achieve,” Ms. Abebe said. “It was a formative experience for me to sit and study together with a special group of people who are on a similar journey to mine.”
Rabbi Abebe said the Straus-Amiel Program “gave me inspiration and many tools for our mission in the community and in the school. The weekly studies were profound, fruitful, and varied. There is no doubt that we are arriving much better prepared than we were before.”
Dr. Hadar said she seeks Israeli couples who are not only talented teachers but whose philosophy meshes with the religious Zionist core values of the school. Those values are based on the approach of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine and one of the fathers of the religious Zionist movement.
“The agenda is to make sure the philosophy of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, and Torat Yisrael” — the People of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the Torah of Israel — “will be part of the students’ lives and they’ll be engaged in that philosophy,” she said.
Rabbi Abebe said his goals are “to teach in a way that will make students become meaningful learners and thirst for more; and to create a true connection with the families in the community.”
Ms. Abebe added that she will strive to “deliver Hebrew lessons accurately and creatively, so that the students will come to classes with a real desire to learn and progress.”
Other couples who graduated from the Ohr Torah Stone emissary programs in July will be serving Jewish communities in Nebraska and in Washington, D.C.; as well as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.
“Our emissaries are serving critical roles throughout the world today, positively influencing the lives of Jews with a variety of backgrounds who are searching to connect to their faith and tradition,” Rabbi Brander said. “They give diaspora communities so much, simultaneously growing and learning from their experiences.
“When they return to Israel after several years abroad, they bring that experience back and use their new skills and knowledge to enrich communities they engage with in Israel.”