When Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw, entered a Solomon Schechter Day School prekindergarten class, in New Milford, N.J., a caretaker excitedly asked the children, “Do you know where she’s from?”
“Africa!” one confident little girl shouted.
The adult quickly corrected the 3-year-old, explaining that Aynaw is in fact from “Eretz Israel.”
The little girl’s reaction demonstrated one way in which the distinctive background of the current holder of the Miss Israel title is playing out. For many of the children — and adults —who met Aynaw as she traveled the tristate area in June, it was a first encounter with a black Israeli Jew.
Aynaw, 21, was one of about 71,500 Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel between 1990 and 2004. Born in the village of Chahawit, in Ethiopia’s Gondar Province, Aynaw immigrated to Israel at age 12, after her parents had died. She did not know a word of Hebrew. It was a transition, as she recalled, of going “from the Third World to the First World.”
In Israel, Aynaw reunited with her grandparents, who had immigrated a few years earlier. She spent time in an absorption center, and eventually settled in her grandparents’ apartment in Netanya, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv that has a large community of Ethiopian immigrants.
“I was a frightened girl who did not have a clue as to what the future holds for me,” Aynaw said in an interview with reporters at the Schechter School. “I didn’t know how I would integrate, and I didn’t think that I would ever get to do all the things I am doing today.”
Today, Aynaw — better known by her nickname, Titi — is a national icon. Since winning the beauty pageant in February, she has become a fixture on Israeli TV and in magazines, sharing time and again her heart-warming story of immigration, integration and success. But the integration of most Ethiopian immigrants in Israel has been anything but smooth. A report by Israel’s state comptroller, published last March, found that more than half of the families that emigrated from Ethiopia are living below the poverty line, double the national rate.
Interviewed by the Forward following her Miss Israel victory last February, Aynaw said that though there is racism toward her community within Israeli society, she has not experienced it. Speaking at the school on June 14, Aynaw chose to portray only the rosy side of her integration.