Brian Blum
March 20, 2012, Updated February 18, 2015

Avraham Terifa is in the eighth grade but he looks like he’s only nine-years-old. A tiny dynamo of a boy, he stands before an audience of several hundred at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot She’ananim concert hall and begins to play his violin. All around the room you can hear jaws start to drop as the music that emerges from his diminutive frame suggests someone twice as big and three times as old.

Avraham is just one of 30 children from the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem who is studying at the Jerusalem Conservatory Hassadna, a unique institution whose mission is to provide music instruction to children between the ages of 3 and 18, “regardless of physical or mental ability, socio-economic level, ethnicity or religious affiliation.”

Avraham is part of a program called “From Risk to Opportunity” which grants full scholarships to children of Ethiopian descent who, more often than not, come from very difficult home environments, rife with poverty and sometimes even abuse. Many of the children are referred to the program by social workers at Jerusalem’s Municipal Welfare Department.

The program was founded by Ruth Mason and Bob Trachtenberg, who have been active in supporting the Ethiopian immigrant community and were disturbed when they realized that, at a friend’s daughter’s dance recital, there were no Ethiopian children represented. Ruth says she thought “what if there are Ethiopian kids with musical talent? Can they develop it? The vast majority of their parents don’t have money for that.”

They established the “From Risk to Opportunity” in 2005 which, in addition to the scholarship, covers rental of a musical instrument, transportation costs and home tutoring.

Avraham wasn’t the only Ethiopian-Israeli musician to perform at the concert held last week to celebrate the program’s success. Ronit Taklo was equally impressive. Even smaller than Avraham, one might expect this 10-year-old girl to be intimidated by the grand piano in front of her, but her confidence was stirring and the audience was once again riveted. The same for Meron Moola who belted out (in English) the lyrics to “When You Believe” from the animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

While the music performed was primarily Western classics (Brahms, Mozart and the like) along with that Steven Schwartz movie pop tune, there were also two traditional Ethiopian numbers sung (and danced) by Molokon Patego, a guest performer.

The evening had two celebrities in attendance. Former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch’s husband is on the Conservatory’s board and some of the program’s participants played at the swearing in ceremony of the new chief justice. Beinisch presented the children with certificates of appreciation. Belaynesh Zevadia, the Israeli ambassador designate to Ethiopia (and the first Ethiopian-Israeli to become an ambassador) was also in the audience.

The “From Risk to Opportunity” program is exemplary in another way: It does not segregate the children into a separate track for disadvantaged youth as too frequently happens with the Ethiopian community elsewhere in Israel. Rather, the young musicians are fully integrated into the Conservatory’s mainstream program, which provides instructions for 550 talented young people.

The results show: three students have been accepted to the Jerusalem Music Academy High School – the first Ethiopian-Israeli students to be accepted to the prestigious school’s music track.

As for Avraham, he is one of them. His fiddling days, it seems, are just beginning.

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