She stood in front of the crowd wearing a bright red sweatshirt, billowing steel-gray culottes, and knee-length high-heeled boots. Her posture was erect, her hair tied back in a messy ponytail that left wisps peeking out from behind her ears and falling over her shoulders. Her name was Yityish Aynaw, though everyone calls her Titi, and Johns Hopkins University was the 73rd college she has visited over the past six years since winning the title of Miss Israel.
Aynaw was born in the village of Gondar, in Ethiopia. Throughout her youth, Aynaw was reminded that she was Jewish and the greatest mitzvah and biggest goal in her life should be to move to Israel, the Jewish Promised Land.
Raised on stories of the “land of milk and honey” and confused by pictures of tanks and negative images of Israel on the television when they moved to Addis Ababa, Aynaw didn’t know what to imagine Israel would be like.
When she arrived, Aynaw said, “the first thing I saw was all these monster buildings.” She and her brother, recently orphaned, arrived in Israel when Aynaw was 12 to live with their grandparents, who had made Aliyah a few years earlier. She tried on her first pair of shoes and “to today, I’m addicted to shoes.”
Aynaw was sent to a school for immigrant children, where she learned to speak Hebrew in about three months, but took much longer to master reading and writing the language. After graduating high school, she entered the military and was soon sent to a class training commanders.
She returned from the course to command 60 soldiers before being offered a chance to attend officer school. Upon finishing officer school, Aynaw had 300 soldiers under her command.
One of the things she loved about the army, Aynaw said, was that “we are all green, there is no woman or man.”
After she finished her term in the army, Aynaw returned to civilian life and prepared to attend college, but her best friend since boarding school, Noa, had different ideas: enrolling her in the Miss Israel competition.
When Aynaw received a call inviting her to the Miss Israel auditions, she called Noa demanding, “What are you doing? This is my life.” Noa, who had been mentioning to Aynaw that she should enter the national beauty pageant since they had first met when they were 12, responded, “This is our life, and we need the free car.”
Aynaw attended the first audition reluctantly, appearing in flip-flops and a loose t-shirt. Noa had to rush around borrowing necessary items such as a swimsuit from other entrants, since Aynaw hadn’t cared enough about the audition to prepare.
Four months of auditions passed quickly and soon, Aynaw found herself in the top five contestants. When the judges asked why she had entered the contest, she replied that first, her friend Noa needed a car, and second, Israel is a diverse country and it was about time they chose a black, Ethiopian Jew as the iconic Miss Israel.
To her amazement, Aynaw won.
Soon, she was modeling for advertisements and was the first black Israeli to appear on billboards in Israel.
She received a call from the White House and was invited to dine with President Obama during his visit to Israel at President Shimon Peres’ house. Disbelieving that the White House would call her and assuming it was a prank call from a friend, Aynaw hung up on the press person, saying, “I don’t have time for this.”
The event was awe- inspiring, Aynaw said. There were “120 world leaders and Titi.” She was most excited to meet Benny Gantz, the then Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who is now running for prime minister.
After her win and the start of her modeling career, Aynaw started an initiative called Project Titi, which funds extracurricular activities for 60 at-risk children in Netanya.
After her modeling career is over, Aynaw plans to become a politician and focus on social issues.
As for the car, while Aynaw and Noa did indeed win it, neither of them had given any thought to obtaining a driver’s license. Because in Israel it is a lengthy and costly project to get a license, Aynaw said, they gave the car to her brother.