Israeli Ethiopian Works with Children with Special Needs

Original Article Published On The Jewish Ledger

NEW HAVEN — When Shlomit Daniel set out for school each morning in Ethiopia, she could have never imagined a day when she would be teacher in the United States.

“Many children, especially girls, didn’t go to schoolthey studied at home with the kessim (Ethiopian Jewish priests). My parents understood the importance of education for my four siblings and me,” reports Shlomit. “But it wasn’t easyit was a long walk, and I was usually the only Jew in a class of 40 or 50 children.”

But Shlomit continued her studies and began a long journey that included making aliyah to Israel, serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, going to college, and finally, moving to the U.S.

Today, she lives in New Haven and works with students at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, the Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy (formerly the New Haven Hebrew Day School) and at New Haven’s Talmud Torah Meyuchad (TTM).

At the day schools, students are referred to Daniel by classroom teachers, and she works with them on academic and social issues. At TTM, Daniel helps instruct nearly 40 children with a range of developmental, learning and social difficulties. And she still finds time to teach Hebrew language at the Slifka Center at Yale University.

“Shlomit has highly specialized skills in the area of special education — something Ezra needs. She has a gentle nature with kids and they respond to her very positively,” said Shelley Kreiger, principal of Ezra Academy. “She is here because the DJE and the Jewish Foundation see this need in the community and have financially supported this position so that Ezra and Hebrew Day can benefit.”

A Success Story

Shlomit grew up knowing her family would one day move to Israel.

“My grandmother’s father was the rabbi of Gondar,” reports Daniel. “We were always learning and thinking about Israel. We didn’t feel ownership of our place in Ethiopia. We knew one day we would make aliyah.”

The Daniel family did move to Israel, spending one year in an absorption center in the north of Israel before moving to a home in Yavneh.

Shlomit learned Hebrew quickly, excelled in the sciences, and received her first choice of jobs in the Israel Defense Forces. Daniel was accepted to an educational corps known as Naarei Rafael (Raphael’s Youth.) In this division, Daniel worked with soldiers who she notes were “impoverished in every way.”

In addition to her military training responsibilities, Daniel also developed curriculum and training material, and she dealt with complex behavioral and emotional problems of soldiers in her division.

“What I loved most is that the Army worries most about chevrah — community,” observes Daniel. “The Army spends money and manpower on chevrahto make a better society. And you become part of that society.”

After serving in the army, she enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and took courses in the two areas she lovedsciences and education.

“When I was at Hebrew University, I couldn’t stop thinking about my soldiers from their impoverished backgrounds. Why did society wait for the Army to do the job of teaching and helping them? Why didn’t we do that in the schools?” wondered Daniel.

She decided that that was something she wanted to change. She transfered to the David Yellin Teachers College in Jerusalem and received her Bachelor of Education degree in regular and special education.

In Israel she taught Hebrew language to Russian, Indian and Ethiopian immigrants at the Mevasseret Absorption Center outside of Jerusalem and worked with children with emotional difficulties.

In Israel, Shlomit met her husband, Canadian-born, Charles Small, a professor of urban development. Small taught at various Israeli universities before accepting a teaching position at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

While Daniel notes that her transition to America and New Haven was difficult at first, she has settled in and acclimated well both professionally and socially.

“I like to try new things and have new experiences,” she said. “And I’m not afraid to fail.”

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