As director of Partnership2Gether of the Jewish Agency for Israel, it’s Pnina Agenyahu’s job to bring together disparate Jewish communities from around the world and celebrate their diversity. It’s a role for which Agenyahu has spent a lifetime preparing — ever since she made aliyah at the age of 3 on the back of her mother, who had walked for two weeks from Ethiopia. Agenyahu was among the early wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel back in 1984 and, from a young age, found that she had a gift for being a leader and spokesperson for her community.
In this interview, she discusses the challenges and promises that come with a diverse Israel and wider Jewish community.
Tell us about your childhood and how you adjusted to life in Israel.
I grew up in Israel, but I was born in Ethiopia. And I came in Operation Moses when I was 3 years old. My experience is a bit different from the current aliyah because in our aliyah, in the ’80s, we were quite new to society as a Jewish group. It was the first time that black Jews had arrived in Israel. I was the first Ethiopian—the only one—in my elementary school. I grew up in Haifa, and then I moved to Jerusalem for high school. In Israel, as an Orthodox girl, you don’t go into the army; you go to national service. But I really, really wanted to wear a uniform and wanted the army experience as well. They asked me to move to Rehovot because there was a neighborhood that was 95 percent Ethiopian Jews, and they needed a role model. I accepted the challenge because it really kind of blew my bubble to see the entire community living in a ghetto. It was miserable. Parents didn’t know how to communicate with their kids and couldn’t figure out how to integrate into society. And it really broke my heart. So, I was really into that challenge. That experience defined where I am today.
Because you were the first Ethiopian Jew in many situations in your life, did you feel that you were representing something more than just yourself?
Sometimes it feels like a burden. I’m not saying that I’m famous, but the minute that you become present in some places, you are automatically the representative of the community—especially with our skin color. So, I always felt responsible to not shame my own community and be proud of representing who we are. But at the end of the day, I also feel like it’s kind of a secret mission that I have in my life—to educate about us and challenge us to be more diverse. You will not find so many Ethiopian people, unfortunately, in senior positions in the government.
In 2019 you wrote a piece in Haaretz about police violence against the Ethiopian community. Have things improved since then?
I think it’s improved a lot. First of all, they’re hiring more and more Ethiopian people to serve in the police department, which is important. But I think it’s also about awareness. Before, it was our community’s issue. We knew about the data. We knew that there were around 10 or 11 teens that, unfortunately, had been shot by policemen in Israel. But the majority of Israeli society, I don’t think, had ever been exposed to police profiling or understood what it means. Today, people are more aware, more sensitive about it, and there’s more tolerance.
Do you feel like there’s a juggling act you need to perform when you point out what’s wrong in Israeli society because Israel’s enemies are always quick to pounce on imperfections?
I got that question a lot when I was in Washington. People reached out with questions like, “How can you be a pro-Israel because of what your government is doing to you people?” First of all, we put in a lot of effort as individuals to come to Israel. My mother walked 400 kilometers to come to Israel. Not everything is perfect. I mean, there are so many things that I would love my government to change, especially in education to learn more about diversity. If you ask random Ethiopians on the street here, they’ll tell you they feel solidarity with a black person that’s been profiled by the police in the States because we, as a minority of the same color, can feel the same thing. But you can’t judge using the same perspective, the same history. In the States, it was driven by slavery. In Israel, we’re here by choice. We are here because we are a part of the Jewish people.
You’re very strong and positive in your own identity. But in the United States, college kids are under pressure to denounce Israel or minimize their Jewishness. What advice would you give to college kids?
Oh, wow, good question. The moments that really excite me are when I think that every Jew can feel part of the Jewish people. And I think we are much more diverse today than ever and able to embrace this diversity. I mean, one of the things that I’m running today in the Jewish Agency is a global partnership for Jews of different ethnic backgrounds. And it’s fascinating to see individuals that come in from different countries — from Nigeria, South Africa, New York, India, Canada, U.K., and they’re all not Ashkenazi. And I think that’s what makes me proud, when you see how colorful we are and that each of us can bring his own voice to the table.
What do you plan to speak about at the Z3 conference?
We’re going to speak about the different voices in Israeli society and how these voices create more diversity and visibility for the people around us. The Torah doesn’t say, “hear the voices,” it says, “and all the people see the voices.” So, it’s a lot about visibility of the voices that we create and making that more familiar to all of us.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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