By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Upbeat and friendly, Israel’s newest diplomat in Chicago doesn’t seem like she could have worked as a no-nonsense drill instructor in the Israel Defense Forces.
“People would tell me, you don’t look like a commander. You don’t look tough,” recalled Ariella Rada of her days training non-infantry support soldiers in the IDF. “I said, ‘Why does a commander have to be a tough person? You just need to be a person with a responsibility who needs to be a little bit firm with his recruits.’”
Rada the commander had to practice diplomacy with some rough edges during her mandatory stint that conscripts Israelis of both genders. She has since added many softer touches in her present job as consul for academic and community affairs, covering a multi-state area radiating out from Chicago.
“I was a commander of men who really didn’t want to go into the army,” Rada said of boot-camp trainees destined to become drivers, laborers and serve in other combat-support units. “In the beginning, I was very nice. But I understood I needed to be a little bit tougher to survive.
“You just work on (toughness). You need to be less nice. I used to give them orders – you have five minutes (to finish a task). The clock is going. You just make them sweat and run, and they won’t (be late) again. You don’t praise them (for being on time). They’re in the army. They’re supposed to be on time. In order for them to listen, you have to be strict.
“I went with them running, and field (operations). Commanders do everything with them. We go to sleep after them and get up before them. You need to wake them up. Most of the time it would be maybe 5:30 a.m. It was 30 minutes of trying to wake them up.”
Rada is an Ethiopian Jew, a product of a traditional community that likely diverged from the ancient Hebrews some 3,000 years ago. And while Rada’s main job is to educate both Jews and non-Jews about the Israel of today, she has the added benefit of passing down the story of the Ethiopian Jewish experience.
“People ask me, what do you represent?” Rada said. “Are you Ethiopian? Are you Israeli? What are you? I respond that why can’t I be both? I’m an Ethiopian Jew. I am Israeli. I am everything together.
“In my house, my mom always talked about the yearning for Jerusalem. My grandfather did not make it to Israel. He was a very religious person. He was a believer. She always said I have to remember where I came from in order to know where I am going to. I remember I was born in Ethiopia. I come from this culture, one that was very present in my house. I have a community I am attached to. But I am also Israeli. I grew up in Israel. I love Israel.”
Rada emigrated to Israel in 1984. She spent most of her youth in the city of Beer-Sheba. In 2010, Rada completed her bachelor of arts degree in Government, Diplomacy & Strategy and later a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC).
Rada said she is just one of three Ethiopians – all women — working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in diplomatic jobs very coveted in Israel. Thousands apply, but relatively few are chosen. Rada made the cut in 2015, with her first overseas posting coming a year later as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Peru. Lima had only a couple of thousand Jewish residents. Now Rada will move up in class reaching out to the 300,000-strong Chicago Jewish community along with sizable Jewish populations in the likes of Milwaukee and St. Louis.
“The first thing I really liked are the people here,” Rada said of Chicago. “The Jewish community accepted me with their hands open and invited me to (many) places. In Lima, the community is small and you don’t have a lot of events. But here, it’s opposite.
“I told my friends I visited New York, and people don’t even look at you. Nobody looks at each other. One thing different here is people enter the elevator in my building and say, ‘Hi, good morning.’ I was surprised because I thought people were supposed to be like New York. I really like Chicago.”
Rada is charged with carrying out the consulate mission of strengthening ties between the Midwest, its Jewish communities and Israel. But she has an additional attraction to start the conversation.
“One of the things I bring here is the diversity that exists in Israel,” she said. “I am the diversity that is in Israel. In Lima….they asked me where I came from. I said Israel and they said, ‘What?’ I needed to repeat 10 times just for them to understand I’m from Israel. It would always end with the question where I was born? I’d tell them Ethiopia.
“They were so shocked, they were so surprised. I understand the majority think the people who live in Israel are white, blue-eyed people. I’m here to show that Israel is so much more, so much more diverse with (many dozens) of languages.”
Hebrew, of course, is Rada’s first language. Her accented but charming English is a second language picked up in school or business by many Israelis. For her Chicago posting amid a big Hispanic community, Rada is conveniently fluent in a third language – Spanish. She learned her native Amharic at home. But that language is her fourth and last, as Rada was unable to practice it as much as she would have liked, having emigrated to Israel at age 3. Her Spanish thus is better than her Amharic.
“One of the problems we have is lack of information, ignorance,” Rada said. “People don’t really know about Israel. You have to stop assuming. When I told them there were 144,000 Ethiopians in Israel, they were surprised. It goes on and on. They didn’t know that Gaza was once a part of Israel, that it was evacuated.
“Unfortunately, today there is bias in the media. People believe everything they read. One of the first times I actually heard something that made me understand how horrible it is, was when I first came to the U.S. I talked to some children in Texas who asked, ‘Do you live in (underground) shelters? Are you riding camels in Israel?’ They didn’t know. They heard there was a lot of war. They didn’t think we went out, we didn’t go to a nightclub.
“My purpose here is not to tell people to believe everything I say. Hear what I have to say. Here what other people say. And then go do your research. Read about it, see videos and decide for yourself. The problem is they don’t know. They just believe what they hear (in the media).”
Rada figured she had a new post in a country harboring the world’s second largest Jewish community that had experienced very little violence. Then came the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, claiming 11 Jewish lives.
“I was shocked,” Rada said. “You don’t expect something like this happening in the U.S. But then I saw all the comments (of support). So many communities stood up and said this is not our way. And all the (pro-Jewish) rallies made me so much more hopeful. So many people stood up against this. I saw the worst and then the good. Anti-Semitism is something we need to address and we need to talk about.”
The cultural norms most Jews around the world experienced were not in synch with the lives of Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Israel, who long ago were cut off from the historical flow of most of the religion. Rada’s role as a maturing adult will be to carry on an oral history of a Jewish community so cut off from ancient times it did not celebrate either Purim or Chanukah.
Rada said one theory is that Ethiopians were part of the Dan tribe, separated from the main body of migrating Hebrews in Egypt. Another was they were descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Still another theory is that they were once part of the tribe of Judah.
“I have empathy for refugees because my family was in a refugee camp for a short time,” Rada said. “People need to understand the Ethiopian Jews didn’t go to the refugee camps or Israel because they had hard times. Or they were looking for a better life. They had dreamed of Israel and Jerusalem for thousands of years.
“They could have gone to the U.S. They could have gone to Europe. But they went to Israel because they believed this is their homeland. It’s all about a dream, thousands of years of yearning to be in your ancestors’ homeland.”
Rada’s family fulfilled that dream. Now the young diplomat is in Chicago to practice another ancient Jewish creed — as an educator.