When 87-year-old Yankle Gladstone donated the majority of his estate to a Jerusalem community centre that would benefit Ethiopian olim, it was hardly the first time he took an interest in that ancient Jewish community.
Back to the early 1970s, when they were still known by the pejorative term “falashas,” he had donated $25 – “ a lot of money in those days” – to help Ethiopians still living in Africa.
More recently, the retired Yiddish teacher joined a number of other Canadian benefactors in providing the $4.5 million needed to renovate a 3-1/2-storey community centre in the Morasha neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The centre, to be known as Canada House, will serve minority communities in the Israeli capital, and Gladstone’s donation will be attached to a dedicated room that will help Ethiopians adjust to life in the modern state of Israel.
Gladstone’s contribution is a small part of the funds raised for the project, but it represents a greater portion of his wealth than that provided by other contributors, said Steve Solomon, a spokesperson for the Jerusalem Foundation, which partnered with the local municipality in the project.
Gladstone “is a simple teacher. He never made big money, but he put his savings to do something special that he could see and appreciate during his lifetime,” Solomon said.
Gladstone joined his niece, Judy, and nephew, Eden, at a dedication and pre-bar mitzvah ceremony, officiated by Ethiopian-born Rabbi Sharon Shalom, at the facility during Passover. The project will launch officially in May 2013.
Gladstone said he is happy to continue to help his Ethiopian “brothers and sisters” acclimatize to life in Israel. That’s an endeavour that should not be limited to the well-to-do, he said.
“You don’t have to be a philanthropist,” he told The CJN. “What I gave came from the heart. You can imagine what a Yiddish and Hebrew teacher earned, so whatever I gave is almost everything I had.”
While his contribution to Canada House can be measured in dollars and cents, Gladstone has had an even deeper connection with Ethiopian Jews. As a child, studying in Yiddish schools in Montreal, he’d heard about an exotic and remote Jewish people, living beyond a river and out of contact with the rest of the Jewish people.
“I thought they were legends,” he said.
A longtime educator and activist, Gladstone was working in the Bronx with black Jews from the Caribbean when he made his first donation to Ethiopian Jewry. He later joined the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jews.
When the first large-scale emergency aliyah took place in the early 1980s – Operation Moses – he was living and working in Israel.
“I was present at the airport during the arrival of Ethiopian children, youths and adults,” he said. “That was a moving scene, to see them brought out on stretchers, many getting blood transfusions, many kissing the ground.
“And we were singing. It was an amazing scene of singing and dancing.”
At the same time, flights were bringing Jews to Israel from the former Soviet Union. It felt like “ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “It was an amazing, amazing experience.”
Gladstone, who lived in Israel from 1979 to 1984, ran back and forth between absorption centres and hospitals, keeping families informed about the condition of their loved-ones. Working with Israel’s ministry of education, he solicited the help of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel to provide math and computer tutoring to new arrivals.
Supporting a community centre in the heart of Jerusalem is particularly meaningful to him, Gladstone continued. Ethiopians have always been devoted to Jerusalem. “Israel to them was Jerusalem.”
Despite the promise of that first aliyah – a second group would be brought in Operation Solomon in 1991 – Gladstone acknowledges “there are problems. Not enough people embraced the Ethiopian Jews.” Their Judaism was questioned by rabbinic authorities, and, like other immigrants, they found it difficult adjusting to Israeli culture and economy.
Solomon noted that Ethiopian Jews who do not do well in school and who fail to matriculate are ineligible for army service. “That’s two strikes against them and they get only marginal jobs,” he said.
One of the projects contemplated for the renovated centre will be to “help Ethiopian youngsters get caught up and help them academically and socially,” Solomon stated.
Gladstone believes the Toronto community should step up and establish a permanent organization dedicated to helping Ethiopians.
As for himself, he remains optimistic Ethiopians, like olim before them, will integrate into Israeli society.
The community centre can only help. “It’s important for the Ethiopian community to feel they have a place, a centre. For me, that’s a wonderful vision, so Ethiopians feel they belong, they are part of a community centre,” he said.
They are part of the people of Israel and “the Jews of the world are my family. The main thing is not that I contributed money, but my soul,” he said.
“It’s impossible to put into words that you’re working with family, who were isolated from me.”
For more information on Canada House or the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada, contact Monica E. Berger at mberger@JerusalemFoundation.ca, or call 877-484 1289.