News / The Diaspora / The World

Israel’s first Ethiopian female PhD holder to share her story

By STAFF WRITER    MAY 26, 2015

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Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein (PhD) United Jewish Federation

Yarden Fanta-Vagenshtein, reputedly Israel’s first Ethiopian woman to earn a Doctorate degree, will be sharing her inspirational journey from Ethiopia to Israel on Tuesday, June 9, at Temple Beth Shalom, in Peabody, Massachusetts.

When Yarden moved to Israel with her family in 1985, she didn’t know how to read or write. She had spent the first dozen years of her life tending her family’s cows in their tiny Ethiopian village before they made a two-year journey to Israel via Sudan.

“It felt like being reborn,” said Fanta in an interview she gave two years ago. “Everything was new and different, but you still had to function and learn to do everything but it was tough to decide where to start.”

Yarden walked into a classroom for the first time when she was 14. “I figured if I could survive all the difficulties we encountered on the way to Israel, then I could handle this,” she told Eretz magazine back in 2006.

She pursued higher education and completed her first degree in Criminology and Sociology because, she wanted to understand “why people still commit crimes after terrible experiences in jail”. “After graduating and 3 years of working with criminals, I saw that educators and society didn’t present them many opportunities. I wanted to be a part of the education system in order to try to make a difference and prevent these people from preferring to be in jail over being in education and learning.”

In 2005, Yarden completed her PhD in Education at Tel Aviv University, and later on pursued her post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Her research focused on how illiterate immigrants adapt to modern societies, specifically Ethiopian assimilation in Israel.

She now serves as a Senior Associate Fellow at Brandies University, and is member of the World Computer Exchange in Boston — the city where she also runs her own Educational and Professional Counseling Company.

When asked if she feels more Ethiopian, Israeli or Amercian, Fanta says: “I am an Israeli. Here in America, people are sometimes confused about black people being in Israel. I have a combination of cultures; I have lots of Ethiopian décor, clothes, food and music, but my daily life, my husband, the newspapers I read are Israeli. When people ask where I am from, Israel is the first word that comes out, then in the longer conversation after additional questions it becomes clear that I am originally Ethiopian, but I feel that Israel gave me my life.”

The lecture series — to take place in two weeks time — is part of “Amazing Journey of Brave Jewish Women”, a free program sponsored by Lappin Foundation. The foundation, whose stated mission is to enhance Jewish identity across generations, regularly holds similar free Jewish programs in the North Shore area of Massachusetts.

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