Ethiopian Jewish children in Israel are playing with black-skinned dolls as part of an attempt by Jewish and black communities worldwide to bridge gaps between the two groups.
The Project People Foundation, an African American organization that works on interfaith projects, distributed more than 1,000 dolls to Israel through its Sponsor-A-Smile Campaign.
“It’s about more than just giving a child a doll,” said Linda Tarry-Chard, an African American who is the founder and president of PPF. “It’s about getting an icon that looks like them.”
The initiative was originally created to fill a void in the lives of black South African children. Helen Lieberman launched the campaign in Cape Town as a protest against an apartheid-era law that banned the production of black- skinned dolls.
Lieberman, a Jewish South African, aids children in the South African townships through her social service agency, Ikamva Labantu, which means The Future of Our Nation.
“When the police were coming into the townships, I tried to keep the children quiet and I looked for something to give them to hold onto,” Lieberman remembered of the tumultuous apartheid-era in South Africa. Her search, however, turned up no dolls that black children could identify with.
After meeting in New York through a contact in the American Jewish Committee, Tarry-Chard and Lieberman joined forces to orchestrate the first shipment of 15,000 black dolls from the United States into South Africa.
“We collected from all over the U.S. — major synagogues, churches, universities,” Tarry-Chard said.
People were moved by it and did it.”
The next phase of the project came when, as Tarry-Chard explained, “we moved from charity to commerce.”
Lieberman devised a training program to supply needed employment for South African women by teaching them to make the dolls. Shipments were reversed, and dolls made in South Africa were also sold in the United States.
With the help of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, Jewish individuals and organizations began buying these black dolls for $20 and designating them for shipment to Israel for Ethiopian children.
“Black children play with white dolls with blond hair and blue eyes that don’t look like them,” Tarry-Chard said. “It shows a message.”
The first shipment to Israel, 500 dolls donated by the Board of Jewish Rabbis of New York, arrived in time for Chanukah.
Among the recipients in Israel were the two children of Adisu Massala, the first Ethiopian Jew to become a member of the Knesset.
Massala told NACOEJ his daughters were delighted to have dolls that resembled their own images.
“There aren’t many cuddly black dolls that are beautifully made,” said Lieberman. “There was a ready market to give children a sense of self.”
(For more information about the black doll project, contact NACOEJ at (212) 233-5200.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.