The Jerusalem Post

Born in Ethiopia, this olah found her place in Israel

 ZEHAVA WARKENESH ADYA, 23 From Ethiopia to Tirat Carmel, 2007 (photo credit: Habtam Adya)
ZEHAVA WARKENESH ADYA, 23 From Ethiopia to Tirat Carmel, 2007
(photo credit: Habtam Adya)

Zehava wants to finish her degree and find meaningful work at a company in which she can use her potential and influence her environment.

Zehava Warkenesh Adya lived in a mountainous Ethiopian village near the city of Gondar until about age four. She does not remember much, but two things stand out: walking every Shabbat to a synagogue, and the feeling that she and her family were always different because they were Jewish. 

“My mother was a strong woman and very connected to Judaism,” says Zehava, now 23. “Our customs were so different from our fellow villagers, and they always made it known that we did not belong. I remember my mother telling me, my older sister, and two younger brothers, that one day we would go to our homeland, the land of Israel.”

It took a number of years, and endless documentation, for the family to make aliyah. First, in 2004, they went to Gondar, the closest city, to advance their chances. From there, they spent six months waiting in Addis Ababa. Zehava recalls living in a one-room apartment shared by two families. Her mother cleaned houses and made and sold pottery so that the family could eat and have a roof over their heads. 

When the day finally arrived for them to board the plane to Israel, Zehava was filled with childhood excitement, fighting with her brother to sit next to the window. She had no idea of the enormity of their situation and how her life was about to change drastically. 


“We went from the plane to an absorption center near Haifa,” recalls Zehava. “I was given the name Zehava [gold], as warkenesh means ‘gold’ in Amharic. I remember looking at the building and wondering how we would enter. I thought it must be through the windows.”

el al plane (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
el al plane (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Adjusting to life in Israel

In retrospect, Zehava is in awe of how her mother managed. Israel was a strange place, with completely different customs and a language that was difficult to learn. 

“My mother missed her family– her father and brothers and sisters – but she never complained,” Zehava recounts. “She always told us how lucky we were to belong finally.”

Zehava quickly learned Hebrew at the absorption center, and then jumped into school. She says her mother still has the Hebrew workbooks from that time. In addition to learning Hebrew, her mother also needed to learn Halacha (rabbinic law) and pass a test before they left the absorption center. Fortunately, her mother was well versed in Halacha and passed the test the first time she took it. 

The family moved to Tirat Carmel in 2007, where Zehava’s aunt lived. They resided in a working-class neighborhood, with her mother cleaning houses once again to support the family. Yet Zehava says that she never felt that they lacked anything. Her mother was always involved in her children’s lives and their education, continually volunteering to be on the PTA.


Zehava loved school and excelled from the time she was in elementary school. Her mother told the children that in order to advance, they must invest in their education. And that is what they did. 

“I knew that it was important to get good grades in order to succeed,” Zehava says. “In many of my honors classes and other activities I was involved in, I was the only Ethiopian-Israeli.”

However, Zehava says that she never felt different or discriminated against. She did not feel as if she had to prove herself because she was Ethiopian, although she knows that many of her peers had a much different experience growing up. 

“When I met people who never encountered or spoke with an Ethiopian, I would try to explain and share our culture and customs. I am proud of my capabilities and identity as an Ethiopian-Israeli Jew,” she says.

During high school, she was chosen to participate in the Pre-Atidim program that advances outstanding students from the periphery. Through tutoring and mentoring, she was in honors classes in physics, math, and English, and scored very high on her matriculation exams. In addition to her schoolwork, she volunteered at a local soup kitchen. 

PRE-ATIDIM opened her eyes to the opportunities that were available to her, especially in higher education. Serving in the IDF was the next step on her journey, and it was a very significant time for her. 

She was a lookout for the Navy, working long hours to ensure that Israel’s maritime borders were safe. She and her fellow soldiers worked 24/7, with shifts varying from six hours on, to six or 12 hours off. 

“I learned so much self-control and discipline during this time, as well as what it means to be responsible for so many others,” she says. “If we did not catch suspicious movement during our shift, it could mean the difference between terrorist infiltration or capturing the infiltrator. These are matters of life and death.”

After two years of mandatory service, Zehava was determined to attend university. Given her love for working with people and her talent in the sciences, she vacillated on what major to pursue. After seeking academic counseling from the youth center in her city, she chose industrial engineering and management, which integrates the two. 

She was accepted to the Engineering Faculty at Ariel University. She returned to Atidim, and applied for their all-encompassing support through their new Step-UP program, which gives young women the opportunity to obtain a degrees in engineering and enter the workforce during their junior year. 

“This program supports me one hundred percent,” she says. “From tuition, to living expenses, to tutoring and academic counseling, to navigating the challenges of college. I always feel that someone has my back, and I do not take this for granted.”

Looking forward, Zehava wants to finish her degree and find meaningful work at a company in which she can use her potential and influence her environment. She also wants to give her mother a more financially secure life. 

“My mother did everything for us to ensure that we were able to advance,” Zehava says. “She is such an inspirational role model, and when I graduate I want to make her life easier.” ■

ZEHAVA WARKENESH ADYA, 23 From Ethiopia to Tirat Carmel, 2007