I was sitting with my friend Racheli early one morning last fall at an Ashkelon community center as she fielded urgent phone calls, dealt with logistics for an upcoming event and welcomed surprise visitors with warmth and generosity. I could only marvel at the seamless way she handled it all. More crises came up. More calm. Each time Racheli seemed able to leap another tall building in a single bound. As the pace of this continued into the next hour and her grace stayed intact, I began searching behind her chair for a Wonder Woman cape.
And while I can happily add more to her list of heroic skills here, Racheli Tadesa Malkai is indeed most famous for her superpower of building community. It is a fitting origin story to an epic adventure. Back in 2017, at 2 a.m., after getting her newborn to sleep, she decided on the spot to send a Facebook post inviting other Ethiopian women living in Israel to join her in co-creating a new kind of community for themselves. It was her own version of a leap for humankind, a call out to the universe.
It was something Racheli had been thinking about for some time — this idea of how to cheer herself on, and at the same
time champion other women from her community. Here she was — a wife, a mother of three, a sister of seven brothers, a daughter of parents who had left everything in Ethiopia decades ago to come to Israel.
Racheli was figuring out how to make her own bold journey in a land with lots of opportunity but lots of obstacles, too. She had so much she wanted to learn from others and to share, especially as she had just completed the daunting task of getting her college degree in her early 30s. One truth Racheli instinctually knew was that in helping herself and the women around her, together they could improve the quality of life for many in the Ethiopian community in Israel.
The following morning, after her late-night invitation was sent out, Racheli woke up to messages from about 2,000 Ethiopian women who were ready to join this effort. Her bold move of showing up gave a new kind of opportunity to connect and empower each other. The Facebook community has continued to grow over time as women gave each other encouragement, advice, tough love, referrals and concrete support. This community, built over years now, is grounded in the principles of mutual aid and solidarity.
Within a few years, the network reached well over 17,500 members — about one third of all the women of Ethiopian descent in Israel. Local groups sprouted to meet in person, courses were started, tools were offered to help women who hoped to advance themselves in higher education, in their careers and everything in between. The group also became a platform supporting businesses owned specifically by Ethiopian women, creating a kind of “micro economy of scale.”
Together the community offers a way for women to celebrate each other’s successes, while also giving support when women find themselves in precarious situations such as domestic violence or sexual harassment. Over time, with so many opportunities and so many ideas, Racheli decided to take the next step — to formalize these varied efforts. In 2020, she established Empowering Ethiopian Women, the first nonprofit of its kind in Israel, dedicated exclusively to improving the lives of women of Ethiopian origin in Israel.
Through various collaborations their work continues to expand. Examples include everything from a recent partnership with Microsoft, which is providing mentorship to young women studying computer science, to a partnership with Tech Career for training and skills building workshops. Activities such as English courses and financial webinars are being offered to the community. Local meet-ups are taking place in cities around the country, like a recent one in Ashkelon where women spoke of successful stories of entrepreneurship.
Racheli’s heroic journey isn’t one in which she went out on a quest to explore foreign lands to search for meaning, leaving all those she loved behind. Rather, her grand adventure is to help other Ethiopian women see their own greatness in their everyday lives. Aside from skills, toolkits and mutual support, it is about understanding individual strengths and collective assets in order to help each other thrive. It is also about honoring the generations of women before them who helped to shape who they are today. Much of their efforts explore how Ethiopian identity and culture connect to their everyday lives in Israel. Just one of the many examples is the first gala event that took place last spring, honoring their rich Ethiopian heritage and celebrating Ethiopian women who are trailblazers in various fields.
For now, the nonprofit Empowering Ethiopian Women hopes to build on its grassroots culture as it grows. There is a balance of keeping its original spirit at the same time that it moves to a more institutionalized nonprofit model with built-in mechanisms to ensure community engagement. Certainly, it has been a tall order for Racheli along with countless volunteers to answer all the needs of thousands of women on a regular basis. The transition over time can help more and more women leap buildings in a single bound with the needed scaffolding underneath.
Racheli and everyone who is part of Empowering Ethiopian Women are just getting started. Make sure to stay tuned for the next installment. PJC
Nancy Strichman, Ph.D., teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a master’s degree in international development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared
society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives with her family in Kiryat Tivon and grew up in Pittsburgh. This article first appeared on The Times of Israel.