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Telling the story of Ethiopian Jews in Israel

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Since 2008, photographer William Rasdell has traveled the globe — to southern Africa, the Caribbean and across the U.S.— under the auspices of his My City, My World project. Rasdell says his goal is to "give young people around the world an opportunity to recognize they are part of a larger community, to accept there are other people in similar circumstances, to grow beyond their isolation."

The latest leg of his journey was a 21-day field study in Israel, documenting the life of contemporary Ethiopian Jews. Rasdell will present the results — including his own photos, as well as those taken by members of the Israel-Ethiopian community — beginning this week at the Arthur M. Glick JCC.

Rasdell took inspiration from the project from an ad he saw while living in New York City. It shows a smiling African American child relishing a slice of bread. The tag line: "You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's real Jewish rye."

"While it sold bread, it also had the effect of further embedding the stereotype that there are none of African descent among the Jewish people," Rasdell says. "In 2013, I set out to create a contemporary profile of the Ethiopian Jews — the Beta Israel. By some sources, the Beta Israel [or House of Israel] are the descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes, linked with the tribe of Dan. They practice an ancient form of biblical Judaism proscribed by the Orit, the Torah as translated into the Ge'ez dialect."

With Tel Aviv as his base, Rasdell traveled to three of the sixty Beta Israel sites in Israel — Lod, Rehovot and Gedera.

The exhibit shows how traditional ways can be lost within three generations. The Ethiopian Jews are an agriculture-based people who, before relocating, had no contact with the world outside of their isolated villages. And they entered an industrialized Israel speaking a language that was not Hebrew. "The third generation has become so taken over by the U.S. technology culture," he exclaims. "They are more connected with young people globally than with the traditions of their grandparents."

The Efroymson Family Fund has supported Rasdell's My City, My World project for the past decade. "Bill and I have known each other for about fifteen years," says Jeremy Efroymson, a vice chair for the fund. "We have respected each other's work over all that time. Bill's work is bringing cultures together with art and photography. He seeks out our similarities rather than showing only our differences."

Larry Rothenberg, director of arts and education at the Arthur M. Glick JCC, sounds a similar note: "The stories of integrating traditions and culture into a new environment are certainly important to us right here. The challenges, dreams and evolution [of Ethiopian Jews] resonate with us in not only in the Indianapolis Jewish community but in the entire community. When Bill went to Israel he did not really know what to expect, so his experiences as shown in this exhibit are true adventures and physical manifestations of Bill's exceptional open-heartedness."

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