When speaking at college campuses across the United States, Yityish “Titi” Aynaw says she never experiences any backlash about being an Israeli, not even from protesters from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a model,” said Aynaw, who was crowned Miss Israel in 2013.
“I come to show people Israel. They don’t attack me. They’re so happy to see me.”
Yesterday, Nov. 10, Aynaw, a former officer in the Military Police Corps of the Israel Defense Forces, spoke about her life and experiences to an audience of more than 30 students and faculty members at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Most of the audience members were from the campus Hillel group and the Ethiopian and Eritrean Students Association.
Aynaw’s talk was presented by the Jewish National Fund as part of its “Positively Israel” campaign, which strives to bring positive dialogue and “real stories” about the Jewish state to college campuses.
The speakers’ tour is coordinated with the New York-based Media Watch International organization.
Aynaw’s audience in UMBC’s Commons Building was spellbound as Aynaw, 25, told her unique story. Born in a village in Gondar Province, she was the first black and first Ethiopian-born Jew to win the Miss Israel crown.
Aynaw recalled growing up poor, being orphaned at a young age and moving to Israel with her brother, Yellek, to live with their grandparents in the coastal city of Netanya when she was only 12.
“Israel gave me the chance to do good,” she said. “It hugged me.”
After graduating high school, Aynaw served in the IDF as a lieutenant and company commander overseeing 300 soldiers, most of them male and white. She said the experience taught her how to be a teacher, commander and surrogate parent.
“I was the scary one,” she said. “I never smiled.”
Meeting the President, Opening Doors
After the army, Aynaw went back to visit Ethiopia. On her return to Israel, she discovered a phone message from a friend who had registered Aynaw in the Miss Israel contest. The 6-foot-tall Aynaw, who had never modeled before, said she showed up to the audition wearing a t-shirt, no make-up and feeling quite short.
After winning the crown and participating in the Miss Universe pageant, Aynaw made international headlines.
Three weeks after winning Miss Israel, Aynaw said she received a call from the White House that President Obama wanted to meet her when he traveled to Israel. Not believing the call was real, she said she hung up.
But she met not only Obama but 120 other global leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“Everyone was coming up to me,” she said. “I never imagined coming to Israel and all these doors would open.”
As the first Israeli-Ethiopian to win the Miss Israel crown, Aynaw said she has worked hard at opening doors for other Israeli-Ethiopians and to bring pride to that community.
Students at the talk asked Aynaw a variety of questions, ranging from personal to cultural to political.
“Is Israeli food better than Ethiopian food?” one student asked, to which Aynaw replied “Hard to say.”
Another asked, “Did you face any prejudice in Israel?” Aynaw said, “I came in 2004, so not so much.” Yet another asked what it was like to serve in the IDF.
“It’s very tough,” said Aynaw, lightheartedly adding, “but I didn’t kill anyone.”
In an interview with Jmore after the talk, Aynaw was if asked if she ever felt any tension with contestants in the Miss Universe pageant from other countries.
“In my year, my best friends were Miss Indonesia, Miss Egypt and Miss Lebanon,” she said. But Aynaw noted that their governments requested that the contestants not be photographed with Miss Israel.
“They were my best friends,” she said, sadly.
Aynaw continues to be a celebrity in Israel. Last year, she spent two months in Honduras while competing in the Israeli version of the TV show “Survivor.” She placed second.
Most recently, Aynaw has been traveling around the United States. “Every place I go, I have something new to learn,” she said.
UMBC was the last college on Aynaw’s tour, which included New York University, the University of Maryland, College Park, and Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia
“[UMBC] got lucky,” said Rabbi Jeremy Fierstein, executive director of the campus Hillel. “Hillel got the call from JNF about 10 days ago that Titi was available to come, and after rearranging their schedule, it worked out really nicely.”
After her talk, Aynaw greeted and hugged some of the students and posed in a group photo. Some also took selfies with Aynaw and enjoyed conversation and laughter.
Abe Novick is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
(Top) Photo of Yityish “Titi” Aynaw at UMBC Daniel Kucin Jr.
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