JAFI Regional Director Encourages Aliyot With a Personal Touch

Sigal Kanotopsky is a Black woman with long, black braids. She is standing in front of an office space, with her arms crossed, looking at the camera.
Sigal Kanotopsky took on the role of Northeast regional director of the Jewish Agency for Israel in August, becoming the first Ethiopian immigrant to hold a regional director position at the organization. | Courtesy of Dylan Thomas

When Sigal Kanotopsky was growing up, her parents told her that Jerusalem was made from golden walls, with a river of honey flowing through the city.

Arriving in Israel after emigrating from Ethiopia at age 5, Kanotopsky was met with a different reality, one of immersing herself in a new culture while her parents struggled to adjust to a new life.

“Israel was​, in one way, the end of one journey but the beginning of another journey,” she said. 

When Kanotopsky left Israel in August for the Philadelphia suburbs — hardly known as the land of milk and honey — she began yet another journey. She is the Northeast regional director for the Jewish Agency for Israel and the first Ethiopian immigrant to hold the regional director position.

As regional director, the Lower Merion resident is tasked with managing and working with Israeli shlichim, emissaries, to maximize their potential to liaise between the Northeast American Jewish community and Israel. Her work connecting JAFI with Jewish Federations also works to tighten bonds between the two countries.

Underlying all of her work, though, is the desire to bring Ethiopian Jews deeper into the folds of Israeli culture and American Jewry.

“I have always had the ambition and motivation to be proactive in fixing my environment … something I inherited from my parents,” Kanotopsky said. My current role, is in a way, the next level of that, by representing the beauty but also the complexity of Israel and world Jewry.

Today there are about 160,000 Ethiopians in Israel, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Kanotopsky said that 50% of that population was born in Israel, and 70% would not be considered “newcomers.”

However, the representation of Ethiopians in Israeli life and government is trailing, despite progress. Kanotopsky experienced this firsthand during her time in the Israel Defense Forces, where she was the first Ethiopian communications officer, despite pessimism from her superiors.

Kanotopsky’s path to firsts was not always so clear.

Her family left Ethiopia in 1983, the year before Operation Moses, in which the Sudanese government, with pressure from the U.S., allowed for the entry of thousands of Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Sudan. Kanotopsky’s family followed a similar path, staying in Gedaref, a Sudanese refugee camp, for six months before arriving in north Nazareth, a town in lower Galilee.

Kanotopsky is wearing a white turtleneck and black jacket. She is standing in front of a large projector, speaking into a microphone.
Sigal Kanotopsky speaks at a JAFI – North American Council program.

During the family’s travels, one of Kanotopsky’s five siblings died. Her father died a year-and-a-half after arriving in Israel.

Experiencing being othered as an Ethiopian in Israel and watching her mother struggle to assimilate to Israeli culture — especially in contrast to the ease with which her children acculturated — Kanotopsky was confused by her family’s choice to leave home in Ethiopia.

It wasn’t until Kanotopsky’s daughter Shachar’s bat mitzvah in 2016, when the two traveled to Kanotopsky’s parents’ village in Ethiopia, that Kanotopsky more fully understood her parents’ desire to make aliyah.

Upon their return, Kanotopsky asked her mother why the family had departed their home to endure death and hardships.

“She looked at me and said, ‘We didn’t leave Ethiopia to have a more satisfied life, to be rich. It wasn’t our dream or our vision when we were in Ethiopia,’” Kanotopsky said. “‘We had one destiny in our life, and it was Jerusalem.’”

By 2016, Kanotopsky was already deeply steeped in improving the life of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. She was CEO of NGO Olim Be’yachad, where she created a mentor network and leadership training for Ethiopian-Israeli young professionals. The organization worked with the Israeli CEOs and human resource departments to address and dismantle racism and hiring discrimination within the business sector.

In 2019, Kanotopsky was honored by the Bruce and Ruth Rappaport Foundation with the Rappaport Prize for Women Generating Change.

Her commitment to aliyot for Ethiopian Jews is part of what made Kanotopsky an appealing candidate for JAFI regional director, JAFI Head of North America Daniel Elbaum said.

“She’s able to speak with unique credibility externally about the issue of Ethiopian aliyah, how important it is to her, her own family’s story, her own story that’s incredibly impactful, and personalize an issue which is an incredibly high priority to us,” Elbaum said.

However, JAFI has not been primarily concerned with Ethiopian aliyot in the past month. The organization has set up assistance in Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Dnipro, Ukraine, and is helping to process 15,000 Ukrainian olim over the next six months. JAFI’s North American Council has helped raise the funds to make this possible.

“It’s helping people make aliyah when they wish to make aliyah; it’s helping to raise money for Ukraine,” Elbaum said. “And she’s incredibly impactful and dedicated to all those.”

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