Pnina Gaday, a graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been involved with Hillel since enrolling at the school in 2003. As the daughter of Ethiopian Jews, Pnina made aliyah with her family at the age of 3. The arduous trek across the wilderness of her homeland and Sudan nearly killed her and the family’s arrival in Israel was not the warm homecoming they had anticipated.
“It was a terrible shock to my mother to see what a secular country we had arrived in,” says Pnina “Then add to that, in the beginning of Ethiopian aliyot to Israel, when we arrived, people even questioned whether we were actually Jewish! It was very, very difficult.”
In 2003, shortly after completing mandatory service in the Israeli Army where she worked with Ethiopian youth, Pnina enrolled at Hebrew University. Eager to explore her unique Jewish identity and bond with fellow Ethiopian Jews, Pnina quickly became involved with the campus Hillel. She took on a leadership role and conceptualized Ethiopian Night, a celebration of her native culture. The festive evening of food, art, music and speakers drew 300 people and has become an annual event at Hebrew University’s Hillel.
For Pnina, the deeply personal event inspired her to return to Ethiopia – the homeland she abandoned for the Holy Land two decades earlier. Pnina’s emotional visit instilled in her a new sense of pride and she returned to Israel eager to make an impression on her college peers.
“In Beit Hillel, I quickly realized that my background is one of many in the social fabric of Israel,” says Pnina “Every part of which is unique and vital to the whole.”
Pnina traveled to Australia, England, Belgium and the former Soviet Union where she led Passover seders in several different cities and towns. In each new place, she made it her mission to educate and inspire Hillel students of various backgrounds.
“Meeting Jewish people all over the world has strengthened my desire and ability to give back,” says Pnina “I continue to pursue meaningful ways to connect my life to Judaism.”
Now 26 years old, Pnina literally brings a world of experience to her new position at Hillel. This year, she was named as Director of Beit Hillel at Tel Aviv University where she is the first Ethiopian Jew to lead a Hillel. Pnina will speak at the final GA plenary session on Tuesday, November 13.