Memo to U.S. Jews: Ethiopians Are Part of Jewish Heritage, Too

As director of Tel Aviv University's Hillel chapter, Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu become a leading advocate for the Israeli Ethiopian community. Now she's an envoy in the U.S.

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One of the first decisions Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu had to make after her recent move to the United States was where to go for High Holy Day services.

It may come as a shock to many of her Orthodox Jewish high-school classmates and even to some of her relatives back in Haifa, but the Ethiopian-born Israeli opted for B’nai Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue not far from her new home in Rockville, Maryland.

It clearly made an impression on her.

“What was amazing to see was all the effort made by the rabbi to make sure that all the congregants were following along and understood what was being said,” recounts Gaday-Agenyahu in an interview by Skype with Haaretz. “In Israel, because the prayers are in Hebrew, you tend to take for granted that everyone understands what’s going on when they come to services on Yom Kippur, which for many Israelis is the only day of the year they come, so nothing is explained. But many of them simply don’t understand even if it’s in Hebrew.”

Before taking up her new position, as Israel’s envoy to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, just a few weeks ago, Gaday-Agenyahu was for six years the director of the Tel Aviv University Hillel chapter. She was the first Ethiopian Israeli to represent the Jewish campus life organization, which has 550 chapters around the world. In her new position, the 31-year-old is again a trailblazer, as the first Ethiopian-born woman to hold such a high-level post in the Jewish organizational world.

For the next three years, Gaday-Agenyahu will be responsible for maintaining and strengthening ties with the sixth largest Jewish community in the United States. The Greater Washington Federation includes Washington, D.C., all of Maryland and northern Virginia, which combined have an estimated 270,000 Jews.

But it was not the visit to the suburban Washington congregation that turned Gaday-Agenyahu into a champion of Jewish pluralism and religious tolerance. That process, she explains, began many years before, when she first became involved in Hillel and realized how ignorant many Israeli students were about the different streams of Judaism. “For most of them, it’s either Orthodoxy or secularism,” she says. “And that’s why you find that so many Israelis, when they travel abroad, they go to the Chabad house, which is ironic to me because they’d never go to Chabad in Israel. But they feel most comfortable there because it’s the closest to the traditional way they know of doing things, and they’re not open-minded yet to see other ways of being Jewish.”

As Hillel director at Israel’s largest university, Gaday-Agenyahu was determined to change that. “It can’t be all or nothing,” she says. “I wanted them to see that between being secular and being Orthodox there is so much in between that they can choose from. “

And how does she define herself? “That’s a hard question. If you’d asked me 14 years ago, I’d tell you definitely Orthodox because I went to an Orthodox high school, I grew up in an Orthodox home and my family still defines itself as Orthodox. I can’t say I’m secular because I don’t like the Hebrew term hiloni, which means not holy, so probably the best way to put it is to say that I’m Orthodox-light.”

If Gaday-Agenyahu’s career track is not typical of her peers, neither is anything else she’s done since setting foot in Israel in 1984. Born in a small village near Gondar, Gaday-Agenyahu was 2 years old when she, her mother and her sister walked to Sudan. They waited in a refugee camp for eight months before being brought to Israel as part of Operation Moses, the first major airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

After a brief stay in an immigrant absorption center in the northern town of Ma’alot, her mother decided to move the family to Haifa. She wanted them to live among veteran Israelis and integrate more fully into Israeli society. Gaday-Agenyahu’s father and grandparents joined the family in Israel later on.

Unlike the other Orthodox girls in her high school, who did one year of National Service after graduation, Gaday-Agenyahu enlisted in the army, which meant serving for two years. “I had a dream of wearing a uniform and being a fighter,” she says.

For the first year Gaday-Agenyahu was a tour guide in a special army unit for religiously observant women. For the next, she was asked to serve as a youth leader in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Rehovot populated almost exclusively by Ethiopian Jews.

“I was 19 at the time, and what I saw there was shocking to me,” she recalls. “These were Ethiopian kids who were high-school dropouts, they were involved in drugs and alcohol and disrespectful to their parents. I’d never seen this before.” With the help of an American friend who had worked in the recording industry, she designed a program that put many of these troubled teens back on track by teaching them to express themselves through music.

After the army, Gaday-Agenyahu enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she became involved in Hillel and was accepted, on scholarship, to a special Hillel program to train Jewish educators. It was on there, she says, that she was first exposed to different ways of interpreting Jewish texts and of experiencing Judaism.

More recently, as director of the Tel Aviv University Hillel chapter, Gaday-Agenyahu become a leading advocate for the Israeli Ethiopian community. She was instrumental in obtaining recognition for the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd on the national school calendar, among other accomplishments. She also became a very popular speaker, in Israel and abroad, on issues involving the community. In 2012 she became the first Ethiopian Israeli to be appointed to the Council for Higher Education in Israel.

Married to Avi and the mother of 15-month-old Eitan, Gaday-Agenyahu is still busy settling into her new American home. But she’s already set two key goals for herself in her new role: to expose the Jews of Greater Washington to facets of Israel that don’t always make international news (“It’s not only about Israelis and Palestinians fighting”), and to reach out to young people so they become more engaged in Jewish communal life. In pursuing this latter goal, she believes her years of experience in Hillel will come in handy.

She’s aware that American Jews will find her exotic and that over the next few years there will be many requests to share her personal story and the story of Ethiopian Jewry. Gaday-Agenyahu says that not only will she be happy to oblige, but she hopes these stories will eventually become part of the collective Jewish narrative, just as she has made the stories of Jews from other communities part of her personal narrative.

“When I was a little girl,” she recounts, “we had a neighbor who was like a grandma to me. Whenever I got home from school early, and my mother wasn’t around, she’d bring me into her house and serve me borscht. She used to tell me about her family’s experiences in the Holocaust, and because she used to share that with me it became part of my story, too. My goal is for others to feel that the Ethiopian story is part of their story as well.”

Pnina Gaday-Agenyahu. 'My goal is for other Jews to feel that the Ethiopian story is part of their story.'Credit: Courtesy
Pnina Gaday-AgenyahuCredit: Courtesy

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