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Miss Israel Visits Solomon Schechter Day School: On US Trip to Raise Funds for Netanya Community Center

The eyes of 100 hundred sixth and seventh grade middle school students were glued on Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, Miss Israel 2013, as she walked into the assembly hall at the Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS) in New Milford on Friday, June 14th. With her regal bearing and stunning blue dress, she looked every inch a queen. And at 6’2”, that’s a lot of inches.

Aynaw was invited to the school to talk to students about her odyssey from Ethiopian orphan to ambassador for Israel. As part of the Israel education curriculum in the middle school, dignitaries from all facets of society come to speak to the students, including politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists; the grande finale is an 8th grade trip to Israel at the end of the school year. The students prepare for these visits by learning about the speakers and writing down questions to ask them in Hebrew and English. When Aynaw ascended to the podium, they were ready.

Speaking in Hebrew, with translation by Ruth Gafni, SSDS Head of School, Aynaw told the SSDS students that she grew up in a Zionist family. Her father died shortly after she was born and her mother died suddenly in 2010. Her grandparents had made aliyah in 2000 and arranged for her and her brother to live with them in Netanya. They were immediately thrust into a new culture with a new language.

One student asked why it is difficult for Ethiopian Jews to integrate into Israeli culture. Aynawanswered, “It is a challenge to come from a village and be replanted in modern society.”

Another student asked her what she wanted to do first when she got to Israel. “Study Hebrew and learn the language,” Aynaw responded. And she did. Quickly.

After school, Aynaw joined the army, an experience she recommends for everyone. She said that in addition to serving the homeland, it’s a great opportunity and enables you to overcome many challenges. Now she can tackle anything; she’s much stronger, she said.

It’s hard to imagine the young woman with chiseled features, a megawatt smile and shiny long hair as an officer in the army, where she trained and supervised army police responsible for checkpoints in and out of Jerusalem. “It was a huge undertaking,” she explained. “Our safety is dependent on young people looking for what’s dangerous.”

How did she transition from army officer to model? A friend nominated her for Miss Israel—and she won. It’s a big responsibility, she told the students. She goes to community events, acts as an ambassador for Israel, tours the country and the world and is now a top model.

Aynaw said she was enjoying her first trip to the U.S., visiting Long Island and Manhattan before coming to New Jersey. She loved the excitement of New York and marveled at streets that were laid out in order.

When asked her favorite place to go in Israel she didn’t hesitate. “You must go to Jerusalem; it’s the heart and soul of every Jew,” she said. She also mentioned the north country, with its beautiful mountains to climb.

Later, in a small press gathering, Aynaw was asked how she responds when she hears people saying negative things about Israel. She is grateful for Israel, she said. She was loved and offered every opportunity to succeed. Now she wants to give back by helping others who may not be meeting the challenge as successfully as she did. She is visiting the States with the CEO of the Netanya Foundation, raising money for a community center to offer activities for children so they are not wandering the streets after school. Netanya has the largest Ethiopian population in Israel.

Aynaw has been back to Ethiopia twice in the last decade to visit family and see the places where she spent her childhood. Two weeks ago, an Israeli TV crew went along with her and helped her bring her aunt back with them. “Jews belong in Israel,” Aynaw said.

Head of School Ruth Gafni said that after an Israeli guest speaker visits the school, students engage in a “take away” with Israel educator Mashi Kapelowitz, to discuss the connections they made with the speaker and what they learned. Gafni said the students were most impressed by Aynaw’s story of coming to Israel without parents, her experience as an army officer and by her presence and beauty. They connected with her desire to help children and are eager to undertake activities to raise money for the Netanya Foundation’s community center; it is being added to the list of charities that SSDS supports.

The seventh graders are looking forward to visiting Netanya when they go to Israel next year. Maybe they’ll get to play in a new community center they helped to build.

By Bracha Schwartz Photos: Maxine Dovere

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