Four days before Mother’s Day, the Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation of Monmouth County honored 26 volunteers from congregations and Jewish organizations throughout the county.
The ceremony was a highlight of the group’s Main Event annual dinner, which drew more than 500 guests — a record number — to the ballroom of Congregation Magen David in Ocean Township.
The evening featured an address by an Ethiopian-born Israeli educator and announcement of a new federation “micro-campaign” designed to raise $1 million by Aug. 15 (see related story, page 11).
Speaking for the first time in New Jersey was Pnina Agenyahu, the first Ethiopian-born member of Israel’s Council for Higher Education. Shortly before the Main Event, she was named by Ha’aretz to a list of 66 high-level, high-powered Israeli women.
“Growing up in Israel as a black woman, an immigrant from Ethiopia, I had to prove I was an authentic Jew,” she said.
The challenges she faced every day, she said, helped make her “stronger, more determined, and more focused.”
Today, at 32 and married with one child, she is recognized as a leading educator who has blazed many trails. A graduate of both The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and a veteran of the IDF, she served as director of TAU’s Hillel Center.
She is currently on a three-year assignment to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which serves communities in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Agenyahu is Israel’s only senior shliha, or emissary, of Ethiopian descent. In this role, she said, she is responsible for “bringing Israel to the United States — and not just its tourist attractions, but its cultural values, social structure, and even its politics.”
Agenyahu paid tribute to her mother, saying she was just two when her mother “scooped up my sister and me from the mat on the floor and carried us out into the night.” The family walked across the Sudan desert, spent eight months in a Red Cross refugee camp, and eventually, in November 1984, reached Israel. Her mother moved the family to Haifa, where, despite being the only black family in the neighborhood, they would be exposed to more opportunities.
“Thirty years ago, my mother made a big decision: to follow a dream of her forefathers and go to the land of milk and honey, to Jerusalem,” she continued. “She left everything she had behind, including her parents, her home, her friends, and even her husband.”
The speaker praised the work of federation’s national partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel, for helping new immigrants adjust to life in modern Israeli society.
In the awards segment of the evening, each of the 26 honorees was featured in a brief video clip explaining why she volunteers for Jewish causes.
Seven honorees were designated Volunteers of the Year, and each received a check for $180, which they donated to the following organizations: Susan Belfer, Hand in Hand; Sue Beller, Red Bank Hadassah; Helene Cohen, Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County; Doris Dwek, Deal Sephardic Network; Randi Goldberg, Friendship Circle; Ellen Grossman, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Monmouth County; and Nancy Rubinstein, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College.
The Volunteers of Distinction were Marnee Bloomfield, Eveline Brownstein, Joan Fischer, Roz Fisher, Barbara Fleischer, Ruth Goldfarb, Laurie Gross, Andrea Kazin, Rhonda Levy, Danielle Mason, Marilyn Michaels, Beverle Richelson, Nancy Roberts, Fran Semaya, Lila Singer, Dolores Thaw, Jodi Woolley, Barbara Zagha, and ClaraGee Stamaty Ziment.