Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, an Israel advocate, television personality and the first Ethiopian-Israeli model to be crowned Miss Israel, visited two Maryland universities last week to give students a different point of view of the Jewish state — one from a woman who grew up sometimes hiding her Jewish identity in Ethiopia and who later was able to fully embrace her Judaism in Israel.
“The goal of my tour is to talk about my life story and about Israel from my point of view,” said Aynaw, 25. “The idea is to bring students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, together to learn about Israel from a point of view that they do not know.”
She spoke at the University of Maryland, College Park on Nov. 9 and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on Nov. 10 as part of a collaboration with the Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International.
Aynaw was born in a small village in Ethiopia. As a child, her family had no electricity, and she walked around barefoot. Her father died before she was old enough to remember, and her mother passed away before she became a teenager. At the age of 12, she moved to Israel to live with her grandfather in Netanya.
“I grew up always knowing that I was Jewish,” said Aynaw, “but in Ethiopia, being Jewish was only OK part of the time. Sometimes, you had to be sure to hide it, but it was nothing like in Europe during the Holocaust.”
Aynaw, who was crowned Miss Israel in 2013, had to learn everything all over again when she moved to Israel. It took time for her to adapt to the culture. “Coming from the third world to the first world is such a change,” she said. “You know, I had to wear shoes every day in Israel, I had to get used to even these small things. The first time I was in a classroom was when I was 12.”
However, Aynaw learned Hebrew quickly and began to adapt. “To be Jewish in Ethiopia is not something that you yell on the streets; you keep it in your home. Coming to Israel, I became 100 percent Jewish. When we have holidays, the entire country celebrates, not just the Jews. There are synagogues everywhere. I do not need to hide the fact that I am a Jew, I feel confident and protected.”
In her time in the Israel Defense Forces, Aynaw became an officer, commanding 300 men and women.
“You need to keep dreaming and do your best,” Aynaw told students. “My life has not been easy at all. It is not easy growing up without parents, without support, without someone to tell you what to do. Sometimes, it is really lonely, but this is life, and you need to continue to chase your dreams.”
“My story is not about ‘to be Miss Israel, a black Miss Israel,’ it is about to dream and to take every chance that you get in your life, to take life into your own hands. This is my message,” she concluded.
These days, Aynaw is supporting her own project in Netanya. The Titi Project provides extracurricular activities and enrichment to 66 Ethiopian kids residing in Netanya who come from from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Aynaw wants to expand the project and help give other kids the educational opportunities that she lacked growing up. She hopes that her tour will help fundraise for her cause.
“In my community and my neighborhood, the project keeps these kids away from trouble,” she said. “They have too much free time — these children’s families work a lot so that they have enough money, leaving these kids unattended. The idea is to keep them busy. My kids have new skills now. If they were bad at math or the computer three years ago, today they are the best in their class. It is something that I am really proud of.”
For more information on The Titi Project, visit netanyafoundation.org/the-project.