A New Light of Ethiopian Jewry at TAU

Pnina Gaday assumes her post as the first Ethiopian Jew to direct a Hillel center

Photo: Pnina Gaday
Pnina Gaday on the podium at
November's UJC General
Assembly meeting in Tennessee.

Pnina Gaday was only two years old when she joined tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews trekking to Sudan to reach their desired “homeland,” Israel.  Last month, again among thousands of people, she shared the podium with Condoleezza Rice at the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, held November 11-13.

It was frightening to stand in front of nearly 4,000 people, recalls Gaday. But, conquering her fear, she announced that she would direct the center for Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, at Tel Aviv University. In her new position, Gaday becomes the first Ethiopian Jew to head one of the organization’s 500 centers. It’s an historic appointment.

TAU reaches out to the Ethiopian community

“I am honored to be the new director of Hillel at Tel Aviv University, and the first Ethiopian Jew ever to be named a Hillel director anywhere in the world,” Gaday says. In her position Gaday will direct and supervise Hillel’s cultural and educational activities at the university. She will also lead a project that is close to her heart — GUZO, an empowerment project for Ethiopian students.

Tel Aviv University has a long-standing commitment to aid the Ethiopian community in Israel. Most recently, American businessman and philanthropist Joel Tauber endowed the Tauber Initiative for the Advancement of Ethiopian Youth, a five-year commitment to promote the emigration and education of Ethiopian Jews from junior high school through the university level.  Tauber is a chairman emeritus of American Friends of Tel Aviv University.

A role model for Ethiopian Jews

Today Gaday finds herself acting as both a role model for Ethiopian Jews in Israel and as an educator of the rest of the Jewish community that knows little about Ethiopian Jewry. Gaday hopes that through Hillel she will be able to encourage young Ethiopians in the Tel Aviv community to pursue higher education, and to show the students on campus how diverse and inclusive Judaism can be.

Despite being part of Israeli society for more than two decades now, the Ethiopian community in Israel is still marginalized.  Crime, poverty, and low enrollment in colleges and universities suggest that much work is needed to bring Ethiopians into the Israeli mainstream.

“Ethiopians aren’t integrating well in Israel because you can’t see them everywhere,” says Gaday.

Ethiopian contribution to Israeli security and culture

“We have still made a significant contribution to Israeli society over the last 30 years,” says Gaday, highlighting Ethiopians’ role as volunteer combat fighters in the Israeli army. The community is also well established in the area of entertainment and the arts.

Gaday notes there are still huge gaps between Ethiopian Jewry and the rest of the Israeli society, especially among certain religious groups. “The oral Torah didn’t make it to us in Ethiopia. My grandfather still makes sure to pray as the sun comes up and slaughters an animal on Pesach just as we are taught in the Torah, but my parents weren’t raised in a home that had separate dishes for milk and meat.”

Encountering bigotry

Upon reaching Israel, Gaday says, Ethiopians met a culture shock they never expected. “When my mom dreamed of coming to Eretz Yisrael, she imagined a place where everyone was religious and holy,” says Gaday. “It was a terrible shock for her to see what a secular country we had arrived in. And worse, people even questioned whether we were actually Jewish.”

To counter the negative stereotypes, Gaday initiated an Ethiopian cultural event for Hillel in Jerusalem, which has continued to be an annual celebration. But more needs to be done, she stresses. “We have to start with education.”

The Hillel community

Hillel, which created its first center in Israel in 1951, now impacts the education of thousands of young Israeli students as well as new immigrants and overseas students. The organization has nine centers in Israel offering a unique educational perspective on Jewish culture and social change.

Hillel's goal is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so they can further enrich and impact Jewish people and the world. Its leaders are dedicated to creating an inclusive environment for Jewish college students, where they are encouraged to grow intellectually, spiritually and socially.

Gaday hopes to play her part through Hillel. She envisions a future where all Jews will learn how to be tolerant and supportive of each other. “We are all the products of an exodus of one kind or another,” she concludes. “We all have a magnificent story to tell and to retell. And only together we will be able to see a united Jewish nation that embraces immigrant communities, creates a unified people, and allows a young generation to grow, develop, and blossom to their full potential.”



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