NEW MILFORD, N.J. — When Yitayish “Titi” Ayenew, the first black Miss Israel, was a young orphan who moved from Ethiopia to Israel, it was learning the Hebrew language that turned around her fortunes.
“Then, I was a scared child,” Ayenew, 22, told students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, N.J., this month. “I did not know what would be my future, or that I would do the things I am doing today. For me, an inner change occurred when I overcame the obstacle of learning Hebrew. I am in control of my destiny — everything is possible. My life is entirely different, both because of the things I have done and now, knowing what I want to do.”
Crowned Miss Israel in February, Ayenew, the first woman from Ethiopia to hold the title, said in an interview with JNS.org, “Being Miss Israel is a responsibility I take seriously.”
Ayenew’s heavily scheduled visit to the United States from June 9 to 14 included speaking engagements, fundraising events, and time with celebrities of the Jewish world. She said her trip was “a wonderful opportunity to meet with many people.”
Ayenew recounted her journey from a small village in Ethiopia to the state of Israel, which she described as “a modern place, with modern schools, where one is expected to be part of a modern society.”
She grew up in a Zionist family in Ethiopia, she told the Solomon Schechter students. “We always felt we belonged in Israel and were eager to get there.”
Ayenew’s grandparents immigrated to Israel in 2000, and her parents had expected to join them, but both of them died. Ten-year-old Yitayish and her brother were cared for by their aunt, and two years later, they arrived in Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency for Israel. They lived with their grandmother in Netanya.
“The first thing I wanted was to learn Hebrew, and of course to get to my grandmother’s home,” she recalled. “It was challenging for me and for all the other olim (immigrants). Remember, I was speaking Amharic and had to learn Hebrew quickly and well — inside and out.”
In the Israel Defense Forces, Ayenew supervised a unit of army police charged with maintaining border checkpoints outside of Jerusalem. It screened Palestinians and Israelis going in and out of the country.
“It’s a very responsible job,” she said. “The safety of Israel is dependent on security inspections. Young people have to learn to check for anything that could be a problem. [That] wasn’t easy.”
“I recommend that each of you go to the [Israeli] army,” she advised the students. “In addition to serving Israel, it is a place for personal growth. I learned things in the IDF I could not learn in any other place. By 21, I had faced so many challenges, I am prepared for anything that may come… and now, I have to learn English, too.”
Addressing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and those who characterize Israel as an apartheid state, Ayenew said those critics of Israel “speak about things they do not know.
“They have not been in Israel and think the way we do things is negative,” Ayenew said. “I can say what Israel is for me is how Israel accepted me, educated me, gave me all the options to do all that I want to do.
“I was without mother, without parents, with nothing,” she added. “We were welcomed, loved, offered every opportunity to dream and to succeed. Without Israel, I would have been in a village somewhere, probably a mother by now, with no education, no dreams.”
Ayenew’s Miss Israel crown was not the first major accomplishment for Ethiopian women who have immigrated to the Jewish state. In a period of three decades, like women from other ethnic communities in Israel, they have served in the officer corps of the IDF, in academia, as diplomat and as Members of Knesset.
In Netanya, the city where she was raised with her grandmother and which is now home to the largest number of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, Ayenew has partnered with the Netanya Foundation to raise awareness about its Ezorim project, which provides a community center offering after-school activities including sports, music, art and dance.
“It takes the kids off the streets,” said Shlomi Waroner, CEO of the Netanya Foundation, who accompanied Ayenew on her U.S. tour.
Ayenew has returned to Ethiopia twice. Her first trip, three years ago, was a private family visit. Soon after being crowned Miss Israel, though, she returned, this time with an Israeli news team that documented her journey. During this second visit, she successfully arranged for the aliya of her cousin who had been left behind in Ethiopia.
“Part of being Jewish is being in the state of Israel,” she said, with visible emotion. “To be a Jew is to keep the tradition, to continue to be who we are. I am proud to be a Jew.”