Oshra Yosef-Friedman’s first memories of growing up in the Ethiopian Jewish village of Ambover, near the city of Gondar, were about being Jewish.
“My family always knew that we were Jewish. We observed Shabbat and celebrated Passover and Yom Kippur,” Yosef-Friedman told JNS.
Yosef-Friedman is the most senior member of the Israeli government of Ethiopian descent, with the exception of three Knesset members. JNS spoke with her while she was in Chicago to deliver two talks and prior to meetings planned in New York.
The youngest of nine surviving children, Yosef-Friedman’s parents would tell her and her six brothers and two sisters to be cautious about expressing their Jewish identities outside of their village, for fear of being attacked by Muslims or Christians living nearby.
The family did not celebrate Hanukkah or Purim but did observe Sigd, an Ethiopian Jewish holiday held 50 days after Yom Kippur. The day—whose name means “prostration” in the Ethiopian language Ge’ez and which Israel recognized as a national holiday in 2008—commemorates the acceptance of the Torah and Jewish yearning to return to Israel, she said.
In the 1980s, the Ethiopian government forbade Jewish practice and jailed and killed Jews on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Thousands of Jews fled to nearby Sudan as a result of that persecution, as well as devastating famines.
“My family was the last to leave our village, because my father wanted to make sure that everyone left safely,” Yosef-Friedman said.
In the refugee camp—which Yosef-Friedman remembers as very large—her parents again cautioned her and her siblings to avoid calling attention to themselves as Jews. She remembers her parents lighting particularly-large fires on Friday afternoon, so that neighbors wouldn’t be suspicious by a lack of fire on the following day.
Yosef-Friedman was told in the refugee camp that Jerusalem was the “City of Gold,” leading her to believe it was actually made of gold. After nine months at the refugee camp, the then 7-year-old and her family made aliyah in November 1984.
They were part of Operation Moses, which consisted of several covert missions, in which the Mossad and CIA flew about 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudanese refugee camps.
Making Israel more diverse
In Israel, Yosef-Friedman found not gold-paved streets, but a precious opportunity to study in school as a woman. In Ethiopia, young girls were expected to prepare for traditional roles as mother and homemaker, and they were not educated in schools.
After completing high school in Israel, Yosef-Friedman joined the Israel Defense Forces, where she said she was one of the first officers of Ethiopian descent. First as a teaching officer working with family absorption in Tiberias and Kiryat Shmona, and then as head of the Ethiopian immigrants section of the IDF’s Education and Youth Corps, she sought to integrate Ethiopian Israelis, and other immigrant soldiers, into the military by educating IDF brass about cultural differences.
Many young Ethiopian Israelis were taking care of their families, including financially, which was leading to high Ethiopian dropout rates in the army.
“If they are presented with a choice between the army and their families, they will choose their families,” Yosef-Friedman told JNS.
Yosef-Friedman told JNS she is proud of having established an IDF unit dedicated to increasing the number of Ethiopian Israelis in the army and trained other commanders to better understand unique cultural situations that Ethiopian Israelis face.
Following her service, she completed an undergraduate social sciences degree at Bar-Ilan University and a master’s in immigration and social integration at Ruppin Academic Center. She is a doctoral candidate in education at University of Haifa.
Yosef-Friedman directed three scholarship funds and has served as host of the daily Channel 10 television show “Out of the Bubble.” In 2018, she was named deputy director-general of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, a governmental body.
In her current role, she works with the public and private sectors to encourage more young women to enter leadership positions. Her work also centers on advancing programs to eradicate both violence against women and prostitution in the country.
Yinam Cohen, consul general of Israel to the Midwest, said that Yosef-Friedman—who spoke at the consulate on July 10—focuses on challenges for girls in kindergarten, long before they enter the workforce.
“Young girls need to have the same opportunities that young boys do, whether that manifests in soccer teams, math classes or the workplace,” he told JNS.
The consulate, in hosting Yosef-Friedman as a speaker, is “doubling down on our promise to make Israel, and by extension the Midwest, a more diverse and equal place to live, work and thrive,” he said.