Pnina Agenyahu and her family

An Ethiopian Jew Makes Aliyah A Second Time

What an Israeli Ethiopian Learned About Judaism from American Jews.

In November 1984 my mother left Ethiopia with me on her back, walking for 14 days and 15 nights through Sudan to travel to Israel. This summer, after four years in the United States as The Jewish Agency’s senior shlicha (emissary) for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, my journey to Israel continued, on what felt like my second aliyah. Only this time, I held my child on my back, as well as all that I had learned about my faith, my culture and my place in the world.

For the last four years, my family and I have been living in the Greater Washington, DC area. I came here thinking that I would act primarily as an educator. The program’s intention is to place young, vibrant Israelis into Jewish communities in the United States to teach about Israel from a firsthand perspective. But, looking back, although I hope I made an impact on my new American Jewish community, I leave feeling like more of a student, having learned more about Judaism, other cultures and my homeland than I ever imagined possible.

I know that Jewish identity is far more complex than I grasped while living in Israel. I was raised in an Orthodox school and community in Israel and was not exposed to any other Jewish movements. As for most Israelis, Judaism was either Orthodox or Secular. It wasn’t until I participated in a summer youth program with American Jews in Israel that I was made aware of the existence of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist denominations. However, I did not fully comprehend their meaning until years later when I came to America as a shlicha.

My husband, Avi, and I chose to be members of  B’nai Israel, a Conservative congregation in the DC area. It is a very dynamic and progressive community, made up of Jews with various viewpoints on God, practice and culture. The B’nai Israel community embraced me, my husband and our son, Eitan, even though we are viewed as a “mixed-marriage” in Israel because my husband is secular and I am considered Orthodox. For the first time, Avi and I were able to attend a service together, standing next to each other, along with Eitan. This helped us connect through our shared Judaism and I saw that Avi opened up to practicing religious Judaism in a very joyful way. Eitan began learning the prayers and understanding the holidays. I saw him now taking pride in being Jewish. And for me, I had the privilege to have an aliyah on the bimah. I had never been able to do this before as a woman in my Orthodox synagogue, and it moved me to tears.

Going back to Israel I hope to bring my family’s flourishing Jewish life and identity with us. Before my time in the US, I felt that I needed to balance my Orthodox life with my secular life. But now, I realize that this is my Jewish life and that I can love and embrace both without having them contradict one another.

I also learned that practicing Judaism extends beyond what we do in synagogue or on Shabbat. Through my work at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, I learned so much about the importance of building community and taking care of those who cannot care for themselves.

One memory in particular that stands out about this was at Federation’s Annual Sara & Samuel J. Lessans Good Deeds Day. It’s one of my favorite community events, where The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington organizes around 7,000 community volunteers to come together and give back at multiple locations for multiple causes over the course of a day. When I asked a 5-year-old volunteer if he was having fun he asked, “Can I do more work? Because if I do more work that means I help more people in the world that need my help, right?” It was so satisfying to hear a child affirm the value we were working so hard to pass on.

I learned that a love for Israel extends beyond calling it home. Witnessing how Jewish Americans love Israel enforced my love for it. I was touched by their concern about any event that made the news, asking for my opinion on the matter. I was so impressed by the interest they had in learning Hebrew and speaking it with me any chance they could. I fell in love with my country all over again, speaking about the food, the music and sharing the culture. Being in America reinforced the idea that being an Israeli is a privilege and I should never take it for granted.  

As I make aliyah for the second time, my Jewish identity is even stronger. I am grateful for this opportunity from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and The Jewish Agency, and to all of my friends and community members who welcomed me in. While I am sad to leave the community that my family and I have been a part of for four years, I am excited to return to my country with these lessons I have learned about myself, my country and Judaism.

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