Israel’s Ethiopian-born champion of higher education

She survived a tough journey to Israel as a toddler. Now Pnina Gaday Agenyahu is an eloquent world spokeswoman on behalf of Ethiopian Jews.

Pnina Gaday Agenyahu does not remember trekking for two weeks with her mother and elder sister from Ethiopia across the desert of Sudan. She was only three years old when they arrived at a refugee camp waiting to be brought to the home they’d never seen – Israel.

Agenyahu, now 30, was recently appointed as the first Ethiopian-born member of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. And as Hillel director at Tel Aviv University since August 2007, she is also the world’s only Ethiopian-born director among more than 500 campus clubs run by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

At a time when Israel is examining its successes and failures in absorbing Ethiopian Jews who began arriving in the early 1980s – their numbers today reach about 130,000 – Agenyahu’s achievements are all the more exceptional..

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She tells ISRAEL21c that she owes much to her mother’s decision to move to Haifa after two years in an absorption center in northern Israel.

“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.”

Her mother and stepfather could not help with schoolwork as her classmates’ parents could. “I had to accept that, but I did not have to accept that this would happen to my own kids. It will be different,” pledges the newlywed, who lives in Yehud, near Tel Aviv.

She came to fully appreciate the positive effects of her mother’s choice during her second year in an army educational unit. Living in an Ethiopian Jewish neighborhood of Rehovot, she taught teens leadership skills and helped dropouts get back into school.

“That was the first time I saw that not everyone had grown up like me,” she says. “They had much bigger challenges, and many of them had turned to drugs and alcohol. 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.”

Recognizing opportunities

From Agenyahu’s perspective, success hinges on being aware of opportunities and taking advantage of them. “I see that young [Ethiopian] 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.”

Her mother worked in a kindergarten and cleaned houses until severe asthma disabled her. Her older sister helped support the family from the age of 12. “In Ethiopia, education was only for those who could be spared from supporting the family. Usually only one of the children could go to school, and in my family that was me. My mom and her new husband pushed me to earn a higher education.” Later they sent her younger half-sister and half-brother to college as well.

Agenyahu opted to board at a private girls’ high school in Jerusalem. “The quality of education was better than at the public school in Haifa, and they had lots of after school programs I wouldn’t have had at home because my mom would not have had money for them,” she explains.

After the army, she enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she was disappointed to find few classes and activities relating to Ethiopian Jewry.

“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.”

To her surprise, the event attracted not only funding but also about 300 participants. Later she coordinated cross-cultural initiatives such as a Yemenite evening and an Italian-Jewish event, and eventually she became Hillel’s program director.

World spokeswoman

After graduating, she taught Zionism and Jewish identity in overseas Jewish communities on behalf of the Jewish Agency. Her near-perfect English is a result of two summers at Camp Ramah in Chicago, and a few months in Australia and England from 2005 to 2006.

Despite her full time job, Agenyahu is often asked by world Jewish federations to come share her personal story, report on the status of Israel’sEthiopians and explain the need for developing Jewish identity on an Israeli college campus.

“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.”

The programs she began at TAU stress community volunteering with youth at risk, Holocaust survivors, Darfur refugees and children of parents struggling with illness. She gives study sessions connecting this work with fundamental Jewish values. And she facilitates student dialogues between native Israelis, new immigrants and short-term visitors from abroad.

Agenyahu fit the bill when Education Minister Gideon Saar was seeking qualified women and Ethiopians to serve on the Council for Higher Education. This body sets policies and grants accreditation at Israel’s 200-plus institutions of higher education.

“The Education Ministry is making efforts in improving education among Ethiopians,” she says. “Today there are many questions about the future of our country and how higher education makes for a more equitable society.”

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.