Bethlehem Endale, or “Betty” as her friends call her, enjoys the shock she evokes speaking Russian in Israel.
Endale was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the daughter of two Ethiopian Jews. A former contestant on Ukraine’s “The Voice” and a finalist in Ukraine’s Eurovision competition, the emerging singer is spending her summer staffing Taglit-Birthright trips in partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group for Russian-speakers.
She recently spoke with The Times of Israel from Birthright’s staff seminar in Jerusalem about her unique background and how she hopes to use it to inspire her groups.
“In 1986 my parents were on an exchange program for Ethiopians and Soviet students,” Endale said. “Both of them came to the USSR — my dad to Bolhrad and my mom, Kharkiv. My dad didn’t like Bolhrad so he moved to Kharkiv where he met my mom.”
“When they met, they realized they were both Jewish. They set a date and they got married and had me in 1988,” she said.
“As I grew up, I was a part of the Jewish community. We keep the basics of Shabbat with challah and kiddush. We didn’t do everything, but it was good enough and I’m very grateful.”
Endale’s parents also maintained a connection with their family in Ethiopia through infrequent visits and speaking Amharic at home. Endale doesn’t speak the language fluently, but says she understands it.
Endale also attended Chabad’s private Jewish day school in Ukraine.
“I was the only black girl in school but it was very peaceful — it felt like everyone was family in school,” she said.
“I never [experienced] racism- – only once when a new Jewish student joined the class in the fifth grade. He started saying, ‘You are black,’ and other things. But the other kids stopped him.”
“You know what ‘Black and Jewish’ means? My friends say that it is a jackpot for any anti-Semite or racist,” Endale said. “It’s like double trouble, but I never had that stereotype because I grew up in different surroundings and I’m grateful for that.”
Endale has been very involved in the Jewish community, participating in Hillel in university, Chabad, and the Jewish Agency where she served as a youth counselor for four years.
Endale’s first visit to Israel was on a 2009 Birthright trip.
“It was a crazy experience,” she said. “At passport control, there was an Ethiopian soldier and she looked at my passport, checking it again and again and said, ‘You’re from Ukraine? Really? I think you’re Ethiopian?’”
Endale said Israelis were immediately enchanted by her story.
“As soon as I got out of the airport, I was doing interviews almost every day,” she said. “[Walking] down the street, I would see Ethiopians and I was super excited to see Ethiopian Jews — I was staring at them but it was beautiful… beautiful.”
There were other perks, too.
“I went to one shop on Jaffa Street [in Jerusalem] to buy some shoes. I was speaking in English but when I switched to Russian and asked my friend something, [the shopkeeper] was shocked,” said Endale.
“It’s impossible,” the shopkeeper said, after finding out that he and Endale were from the same town in Ukraine.
“I got a 50 percent discount and bought two pairs,” Endale chuckled.
Endale said this happens to her all the time in Israel.
“Whenever you look at the person, that’s how the brain works, you put people in boxes and you never expect a black African Jewish girl who speaks Russian. That’s shocking,” she said.
“I was blown away by Israel. I just loved it,” Endale said of her first trip.
When she returned to Ukraine, she enrolled in the Jewish Agency’s Zionist youth counselor course which gave her the opportunity to travel to campuses and connect young people to Israel, an experience she said will come in handy this summer.
Searching with song
Though Endale is a dentist by trade, several years ago she shifted her focus away from teeth to launch her singing career. She is currently working on her first solo album — in English.
Last year, Endale was a participant on Ukraine’s “The Voice” where she hoped to find more than just fame.
Endale’s baby sister disappeared from the Ukranian hospital where she was born in 1991.
The day Endale’s mother was supposed to leave the hospital with her newborn baby, the hospital informed her that the child had died in the newborn ward.
“They said the baby was already buried and to take your paperwork and go. My parents were screaming, trying to get more information, but they were kicked out of the hospital,” Endale said.
Endale only learned of her family’s loss from her parents decades later.
“My parents kept quiet. I didn’t even know until I was 20. They told me that they used to go to the hospital and look for the doctor. They had a paper showing the baby was born and died but nothing else,” she said.
Once Endale knew what happened, she returned to that hospital and began reaching out to organizations and individuals she thought might help, to no avail.
Endale said that a police report was never filed and at the time of her sister’s birth, kidnapping of newborns was common in the city.
When Endale saw an opportunity to audition for “The Voice,” she thought perhaps by making a public plea on television, someone might come forward with a clue.
“My agenda was maybe somebody would see a girl like me in Ukraine and help me. And I wanted to share that story,” she said.
Endale received around 1,500 Facebook messages after appearing on “The Voice” but no promising leads.
Endale said her parents still believe their child is alive.
“Anything that could happen would be a miracle, and I’m going to do everything possible on my side. But life goes on and it’s beautiful,” Endale said.
Life goes on and it’s beautiful
It’s a mindset that Endale hopes to bring to Birthright groups this summer. Endale said most Russian participants come from a Jewish background and are connected in some way to their Jewish community.
“I hope to share my point of view on Israel and hear theirs,” Endale said.
Endale said she recently visited the monument at Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery, commemorating Ethiopian Jews who died on their journey to Israel.
“To see that memorial really touched me — it shows the love of Ethiopian people towards Israel — [as a Birthright leader] I will share the experience of my people as an Ethiopian Jew,” Endale said.
“Whenever you feel [that] connection and unity, you don’t feel alone. That’s what made me love my Jewish identity,” she said.