Ethiopian-Israeli smashes barriers at the Jewish Agency

No. 43 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Sigal Kanotopsky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel for the northeast US.

 Sigal Kanotopsky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel for the northeast US. (photo credit: THE BRUCE AND RUTH RAPPAPORT FOUNDATION)
Sigal Kanotopsky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel for the northeast US.
(photo credit: THE BRUCE AND RUTH RAPPAPORT FOUNDATION)

Throughout her 46 years, Sigal Kanotopsky has called three countries home. There was her native Ethiopia, where her family had a good life in a small rural village. But, as she says, “coming to Israel, to Jerusalem, wasn’t an option; it was our life’s mission.” 

At age five, she arrived in Israel with her family, who were among the first Ethiopian immigrants to make aliyah from an African country.

Now Kanotopsky has resettled with her husband and three of her four children in a Philadelphia suburb, where she is the director of the Jewish Agency for Israel for the northeast US – the first Ethiopian immigrant to hold a regional role.

The Jewish Agency role is far from the first time Kanotopsky has broken barriers. When drafted into the IDF, she was told that no Ethiopian immigrant had ever become a communications officer and that she should attempt something “easier.” She proved them wrong, excelling as a communications officer. She went on to become an activist, empowering Ethiopian women and creating reform in Israel.

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Empowering Ethiopian women and creating reform in Israel

Prior to her Jewish Agency position, Kanotopsky worked to change perceptions of Ethiopian Israelis, who were often viewed as “the other” in Israeli communities by employers and the media.

Trips back to Ethiopia with her brother, and later, her daughter, helped her understand that although her birthplace is special, Israel was always the dreamed-of destination for her family and for tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who aspire to live in Jerusalem. However, she credits her birthplace for instilling values that have equipped her to become a leader in the Jewish community. 

Kanotopsky said her passion for tikkun olam, repairing the world, didn’t start at university in Israel but rather from the village in Ethiopia and the journey of her parents.