By Avigayil Kadesh
Pnina Gaday Agenyahu’s classmates in Haifa all got parental help with homework. Her own mother couldn't do that -- she wasn’t literate in her native language and certainly not in Hebrew. But her decision to live among Israelis rather than in an Ethiopian immigrant community was well thought-out.
“We were the only Ethiopian family in our neighborhood,” Agenyahu says. “On the one hand, it’s a privilege to live among a wider family and we missed that support, but on the other hand my mom understood that here she would be able to raise her kids with more opportunities. It was more challenging to be on our own, and it was lonely, but it also required us to be like the Israelis around us.”
And despite the lack of homework assistance, she excelled academically. Now 30, Agenyahu was recently appointed as the first Ethiopian-born member of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. Since August 2007, she has been the Hillel
director at Tel Aviv University, the world’s only Ethiopian-born director among more than 500 Hillel campus clubs.
Not just a role model
Pnina was three years old when her mother took her and her older sister on a perilous journey by foot from Ethiopia across the desert of Sudan to a refugee camp. Eventually they were brought “home” to Israel along with thousands of others who had survived similar treks. Today the number of Israeli Jews with Ethiopian roots is estimated at about 130,000.
After two years in a northern absorption center, the family moved to Haifa. Agenyahu says she understood she was different from her school friends, but she did not realize that she was also very different from fellow Ethiopians. This she discovered in the army, while serving in an educational unit. During her second year, she lived in Rehovot among Ethiopian immigrants, teaching teens leadership skills and helping dropouts get back on track.
“That was the first time I saw that not everyone had grown up like me,” she says. “They had much bigger challenges. At 19, seeing that broke my heart, and I understood that in my life I wanted to be not only a role model; I wanted to see what I could do to help. Every year, I find a way to volunteer in the community no matter what else I am doing.”
She wants to make today’s Ethiopian kids aware of their potential. “I see that young people today are not always aware of the opportunities in their lives. It’s hard to define the doors open to you when you are so focused on your poverty and helping your family.”
This, too, is something she understands well. Her mother worked in a kindergarten and cleaned houses until becoming disabled by severe asthma. Agenyahu’s older sister had to leave school at the age of 12 to help put food on the table.
“In Ethiopia, education was only for those who could be spared from supporting the family,” she explains. “Usually only one of the children could go to school, and in my family that was me.”
Agenyahu opted to board at a private religious girls’ high school in Jerusalem. “The quality of education was better than at the public school in Haifa, and they had lots of afterschool programs I wouldn’t have had at home because my mom would not have had money for them,” she explains.
Her mother and stepfather encouraged her to go on to college. Later, realizing the importance of higher education, they sent Agenyahu's half sister and brother, born in Israel, to college as well.
Agenyahu enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, hoping to study sociology to prepare herself for working in Ethiopian Jewish communities. But there were few classes focused on this ethnic group and even fewer activities for Ethiopian students on campus.
“I read everything I could, and almost every assignment I got I connected to my community,” Agenyahu says. “At the campus Hillel House, they had Yiddish classes and clubs for English-speakers and Russian-speakers, but nothing for Ethiopians. So I asked the director if we could plan something celebrating the culture of Ethiopian Jewry, and he said I’d need to raise the money for it.”
The event turned out to be such a success that the director asked her to coordinate other cross-cultural initiatives, for example for Yemenite and Italian Jews. She went on to become Hillel’s program director.
After graduating, Agenyahu taught Zionism and Jewish identity overseas on behalf of the Jewish Agency. She spent two summers at Camp Ramah in Chicago, and a few months each in Australia and England from 2005 to 2006.
Though her job at Tel Aviv University is full time and she got married less than two years ago, Agenyahu often accepts invitations to speak to Jewish federations in other countries. They want her to share her personal story, talk about the status of Israel’s Ethiopians and explain why an Israeli university needs a Hillel.
“It’s not so obvious why we have Hillel groups in Israel,” she says. “Judaism in Israel is taken for granted, but most of Jewish life is kept by one ‘side,’ the Orthodox, while the other ‘side’ chooses to be more Israeli than Jewish. I always tell people that you can take responsibility for your Jewish identity without being religious.”
As for her own religious identity, Agenyahu laughingly says her Orthodox friends would describe her as “Orthodox light” while her secular friends see her as Orthodox. Either way, her faith is clearly important to her and she always ties Hillel activities to fundamental Jewish values.
For instance, she not only arranges for students to volunteer in the Tel Aviv community -- with youth at risk, Holocaust survivors, Darfur refugees and children of parents struggling with illness -- but she supplements that with study sessions revealing how such work is valued in Jewish tradition.
She also facilitates student dialogues between native Israelis, new immigrants and short-term visitors from abroad, seeking greater understanding among Jews from many different backgrounds.