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Josh Yeddis, Ben Brettmann of Denver help Ethiopian teens get a grip in Lod

Josh Yeddis poses with newly-found friends from the Ethiopian Jewish community in Lod.ROSH HASHANAH EDITION

DENVER native Josh Yeddis once believed that he would never follow the family tradition of working in the real estate business, but at 33 he’s old enough to realize that these things have a way of happening on their own.

Sure enough, soon after his graduation from American University in Washington, DC in 2002 he found himself working in Denver’s lively commercial real estate market.

It didn’t take him long to figure out what he was good at it — so adept, in fact, that during the recent Great Recession, when many realtors found themselves in troubled waters, his own practice with Re/Max Masters — which he eventually transformed into a residential specialty — never suffered much of a slump at all.

This early professional success notwithstanding, Yeddis was also sharp enough to detect that something important was missing from his life.

“At some point I began to feel that all I was doing was helping people become more materialistic, helping them trade a million dollar house for a two million dollar house,” the energetic, engaging Yeddis reflected in a recent interview.

“I didn’t feel like I was doing a lot for the community. At the end of the day, I felt, what was I doing to give back? I couldn’t find it.”

That was something his family had always emphasized, Yeddis says: “Growing up, I was always taught that giving back to the community is something that you have to do. My parents taught me that you give back more than you were given. I was given a lot in my life and it’s my duty now to give back. It’s that simple.”

Finding a way to express that, however, was not so simple, he admits.

He had unknowingly received his first clue in 1997, when he joined Denver’s Israel Study Tour during his junior year in high school.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” Yeddis says.

The second, and definitive, clue came in 2010, when fate brought him back to Israel.

That was when Yeddis and his close friend Ben Brettmann attended an Allied Jewish Federation Young Leadership Mission to Israel that included a visit to Lod, a city in central Israel that has long struggled with issues of poverty and crime.

Lod and the Allied Jewish Federation have a relationship that goes back to the 1970s and 80s. Through the federation, Denver Jewish philanthropists raised the funds to build the city’s first community center. Years later, when fire almost destroyed the center, federation supporters from Denver helped rebuild it.

WHEN Yeddis and Brettmann first saw Lod in 2010, its problems were more than apparent, particularly among Lod’s significant population of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.

The Denverites learned many of this community’s dynamics from representatives of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), a program devoted to helping Ethiopians succeed in Israeli society.

On their last day in Israel, a speaker for the ENP named Noah told the visitors about how he had walked for six months, through the barren desert of Sudan, then undergoing a civil war, to realize his dream of finding a new life in Israel.

The speaker’s “modern day Passover story” impressed Yeddis and Brettmann immensely.

“We were blown away by it,” Yeddis says, adding that he and Brettmann immediately grew acutely aware of a striking dichotomy within the Ethiopian immigrant community.

They are a people of extraordinary courage, resilience and Jewish commitment who, once having once made it to the Promised Land, have found their lives dominated by social isolation, racial discrimination, crime, drugs and poverty.

Seeing such woes up close didn’t disillusion Yeddis, an avid federation supporter who readily describes himself as an enthusiastic Zionist.

“It wasn’t disillusion,” he says, ‘but it was definitely a wake-up call. We all think of Israel as a kind of utopian society where everything and everybody gets along.

“The reality is the Jews don’t get along with each other, except when they have to, meaning when they’re in serious trouble or getting attacked.

“If anything, it spurred me to do more.

“It was a wake-up call and it was also a call to duty, a call to arms, a call to do what you can.”

At last, Yeddis had found a way to give back.

BACK in Denver, Yeddis and Brettmann wasted little time. They set up a non-profit, the Fulda Foundation, named for the town in Germany where Brettmann had grown up.

Emigrating to the US at the age of 8, Brettmann understood all to well the difficulties of being an immigrant in a new country. He and Yeddis saw an obvious parallel with the difficulties facing Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

“We saw the kind of conditions they were living in, and knowing that they did not have a safe place to go once school was out, we said they’ve got to have something,” Yeddis says of the Fulda Foundation’s first idea.

“So we just took it upon ourselves. We went around to all the Colorado people, whether active in the Jewish community or not, and said, ‘We need help. We need to raise money.’ And we did. We had an amazing response from the community.”

Coordinating their work with the federation, the two activists raised about $20,000 in a few months.

Then they went to work, heading back to Lod, where a group consisting of Yeddis and Brettmann and five other young Denver Jews spent several weeks putting that money to good use — and getting their hands dirty in the process.

Their work, at a modern Orthodox high school for boys and an EMP center for girls, was dedicated to providing a place where the young people could go between the time school let out and their parents got home.

“It was really just to give them a safe haven, a place to get off the streets at night.

“Their parents don’t speak the language and they don’t have any education, so they’re working two or three menial jobs. And Lod is a very high risk area for these kids, especially for the girls.”

SHORT-TERM objectives included protecting the girls from older men who often take advantage of them, and keeping as many youths as possible away from the temptations of drugs and crime that Lod’s mean streets offer in abundance.

The long-term objective is to help the Ethiopian kids improve their grades and embark on the usual Israeli path to a successful career and financial stability.

“In Israel, if you can’t get into the army, your chance of being a productive member of society in Israel is incredibly tough,” Yeddis says. “It was based on these kids trying to integrate into the Jewish realm.”

The Denverites were welcomed immediately by the Ethiopian Jews in Lod, already familiar with Denver from the city’s community center which, Yeddis says, has become the “epicenter” of the community.

The Fulda Foundation group soon earned the local nickname of “the Denver people.”

With the aid of Ethiopian Jewish youths and a number of other Israelis waiting to join the IDF, the Fulda group made themselves at home.

“We stayed in the community, in what were basically dorms, right around the corner from the school,” Yeddis says.

“And that was part of it. We didn’t want to be like the church-going groups that go in there,  paint a wall and then leave. We felt that part of what we were doing was creating a platform that would exist and continue for years. We weren’t going to be this in-and-out group.

“We wanted to make sure that they understood that we were there for the long haul. We were there to make a difference. Part of that was letting them see us.”

At the high school for boys, the workers repaired and renovated an entire floor and converted it into an after-school gathering place.

“We scraped drywall, we replaced windows, we spackled, we painted, we did furniture, drapes, you name it. It was a full tear-down and rebuild.”

At the girl’s school, the work was much the same.

“We tore it all apart, took everything out, cleaned up the entire place, repainted, brought in new furniture

Yeddis — “an artist by heart, I guess” — even painted wall murals in both of the new facilities.

The Denverites also took local kids on day trips, to the desert, the Golan, David Ben-Gurion’s house in Tel Aviv, an afternoon of paintball competition — “places,” Yeddis says, “that they needed to connect with in order to understand what Israel was and is.”

When it was all over and the projects were completed, the Denver visitors were honored and thanked by the town’s dignitaries, as well as by those residents of Lod who will benefit most directly from their work.

When Yeddis got home to Denver, he received an email from one of the Ethiopian kids in Lod who had consistently worked by his side.

It said simply: “Josh, when are you coming home?”

At first, the message confused Yeddis, but then he realized what the question was really about: “When are you coming home — to Lod?”

“What this community did was really take us into their arms,” he says. “They accepted us. They took us in for Shabbos dinners.

“This whole community knew we were there. And when we were leaving all they could say was, ‘When are you guys coming back?’”

YEDDIS now has an answer for them.

In December of this year, he plans to take himself and another group of Fulda volunteers back to Lod for yet another bout of work — perhaps another school renovation project, and almost surely more interaction with the city’s youth.

Specific ideas for the trip are still forming in his brain, he says, “but we’re looking to connect more with the kids.”

He wants to introduce them to even more important aspects of Israeli life, while remaining respectful of their own heritage as Ethiopian Jews.

“They are stuck in the flux between the Ethiopian world and the Israeli world so you have to give them a little of both for them to understand where they fit in.”

In the meantime, the Fulda Foundation is beginning to manifest a local component, which has already participated in such projects as Habitat for Humanity and is planning further involvement with Denver’s needy communities.

Yeddis says he hopes to continue such local and overseas service projects as long as he and his fellow activists are able to do so.

“It has brought a lot of meaning to my life,” he says.

He’s been a very busy man over the last two years, he adds. In addition to maintaining his professional career, he has given a lot to others in the form of resources, physical labor and friendship.

“And all I can tell you,” Yeddis says, “is that it’s all come back a hundredfold.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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