The things we learned

The things we learned

Women — and, on our mission, this meant women attorneys, women therapists, women communal workers, women raising children, women teachers, women insurance agents, and a host of other women at work — bring a unique perspective to situations involving the real lives of other people. That sensibility notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, the trip included visits with women, and men, facing a variety of social and political challenges.

Participants met with a number of diverse groups that are seeking political, legal, and even human recognition. Aside from hearing the stories of new immigrants in Nahariya, Beit Shemesh, and Netanya, they spent time with an Israeli Arab working for inter-communal harmony and equality, a female Reform rabbi seeking full acceptance as the religious leader of her community, and representatives of a group working to bring more women into the political arena.

• Dr. Ghazal Abu-Raya, the director of the Givat Haviva Northern Branch in the town of Sakhnin and the coordinator of "Empowerment for the Arab Minority" projects, told mission members that he deals in "ideological education through narratives."

An Arab, he says that, while he grew up learning the narrative of the Jewish nation — studying Israeli and Jewish subjects in school — Jews don’t learn the Arab narrative. "Israel is multicultural, with 68 languages," he told the group, "I live within the community, I work with Israelis, and I want to be in — not at the margins of — Israeli society." "Just as you are Jews and Americans, I am Palestinian and Israeli," he said.

Abu-Raya talked about the importance of sports in unifying a community, noting that the Sokhnin football team, comprised of Jews and Arabs, had won a cup for the country, and in doing so won the admiration of both people. "My son now has a stake in Israeli football," he said. "But it’s more than just football."

Abu-Raya endorsed the two-state solution, saying that he wants Jewish and Palestinian states "to coexist, with no bloodshed. It’s in the best interests of both peoples," he said.

"Both nations are victims," he added. But Arabs tend to see Israel in terms of "large airplanes and American support," while missing "women and children crying. There is war and conflict between men," he said.

"Where are the voices of women?" "But we also want equality," he said. "There is a big gap between Jews and Arabs, with no strategy to close the gap…. We don’t want to be victims. We want to be proud of our achievements." Abu-Raya added that he has been a loyal and responsible resident of Israel, but "it’s hard to have your loyalty [constantly] questioned." Still, he noted that he, personally, would not move to a new Palestinian state, since "it took 30 years to build my house and I prefer to be in my town."

• Rabbi Miri Gold is a Reform rabbi from Michigan, who now lives in Israel and has a 70-member congregation in central Israel affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

Gold, who joined the New Jersey women for Shabbat dinner, said that she never sought the limelight, but she was thrust into it when the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of Israel’s Reform movement, asked her to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to gain formal recognition as the rabbi of her synagogue.

At the moment, the right to lead a congregation in Israel belongs only to Orthodox rabbis. Gold also wants to be paid a salary. She said she recently learned that there is an Orthodox rabbi being paid to serve as the rabbi of her community, even though no one there has ever seen him.

"What we want is recognition of the legitimacy of having a liberal rabbi in a community that wants it," said the rabbi, adding that the Israeli public needs to be educated about non-Orthodox Judaism in North America to see that the movements are "mainstream, rather than cults."

The Reform rabbi told the New Jersey group that, while she expected to be criticized by the Israeli right, she was taken aback by a statement in Ha’aretz from Avraham Ravitz, deputy minister of the Social Affairs Ministry, in which he called her a "clown."

• Over breakfast, representatives of WePower (Women’s Electoral Power) told the UJA-NNJ crew about inequities in Israel’s political system — where only 15 percent of Knesset members are women.

"We show [women] that politics is not a dirty word, but something with the power to change priorities and the level of allocations," said Michal Yudin, formerly the chair of WIZO Israel’s absorption arm, who founded the group in ‘000. WePower "empowers women into politics, ultimately bringing about social change," said Yudin.

An all-volunteer group, WePower has been very busy as Israeli elections approach. "While I’m hopeful we’ll have more women [in the Knesset]," said Yudin. "We’ll definitely have excellent women. But we need quantity to have an impact."

WePower wants to see an increase in women candidates in all parties, which has historically been a tough sell to the religious parties and Arab parties who have not put women on their lists of candidates.

Yudin said the group wants to "increase awareness of the importance of women in politics. Having more women will help change priorities. We also have to educate women about their power as the mathematical [voting] majority."

WePower is trying to introduce "affirmative action legislation" in the Knesset, and a bill the group wrote has received its first reading. "We’ve learned from other countries that you need legislation," she said. The bill will offer a financial incentive to parties with more than 30 percent of women candidates elected.

In addition, it offers workshops to train women as potential candidates and activists, focusing on debating skills, media and communications, and strategic political planning. The group also gives lectures on issues relating to the status of women.

"Women must represent themselves because men don’t [represent them]," said Yudin, who suggested that male legislators come from military backgrounds and display chauvinism in public life. "We have to balance it," she said.

According to Yudin, the Israeli public "speaks politics but doesn’t understand the political process." The group is working with schools to ensure that more "civics courses" are taught. "The children are our future candidates, and we hope they will be messengers to their parents and teachers," she said.

Einat Wilf, former foreign policy advisor to Shimon Peres, explained the Israeli electoral process to the New Jersey delegation. She said that Prime Minister Sharon "had adopted the idea of including more women" in his new Kadima party and noted that more than 10 women appear "in realistic slots" on the party’s list of candidates. Mission members also heard from Orit Lavi, a lecturer in political science, former member of the Herzliya City Council, and ‘003 mayoral candidate in that city. When she ran for mayor, friends chided her about opposing another woman candidate.

"They never say that about a man," she said.

• In Nahariya, the women of northern New Jersey spent several hours with residents of the Tapuz Absorption Center. Created by the Jewish Agency for Israel to gradually integrate immigrants into mainstream Israeli life, the center houses 106 families from Ethiopia and receives new families every week.

The Ethiopians, who generally stay for a period of about two years before buying their own apartments, are prepared to lead independent lives after they leave the facility by staff that includes teachers, social workers, volunteers, and translators. Despite the center’s best efforts, however, Ethiopian immigrants are not readily accepted into Israeli society, according to the center’s director.

Several young Ethiopians, including a young girl who was married at the age of 13, spoke to the group through translators about why they had come to Israel. Many stressed their strong Jewish identities and desire to live in a "holy" place.

While the New Jersey group was introduced to many initiatives launched to assist new immigrants, perhaps none captured their imagination as much as the Eshet Chayil program created by the Joint Distribution Commitee in Beit Shemesh.

The project, which prepares Ethiopian and Kavkazi women (women from the Muslim and Asian republics of the Former Soviet Union) to enter the workforce, has grown from an initial experimental group of ‘5 women to a multifaceted venture serving several hundred. The program is run in partnership with the local municipality as well as with local immigration and welfare agencies.

"We have helped 60% of the women find work, and they’re still working," said Ruti David Amir, the program’s national coordinator, who came to Israel from Ethiopia in the 1980s as an 11-year-old. She explained that entering the workforce can contribute greatly to a woman’s integration into Israeli society. The program has been so successful that a new course is being planned for Israeli women who have been out of the workforce for a long time.

"We are working with some men as well," said Amir. The presentation, which included a question and answer session with women served by the program, took place in three languages — Amharic, Hebrew, and English. The Ethiopian women who spoke were spirited and used their hands liberally as they answered questions. Amir said that research done after Operation Moses revealed that women needed training if they hoped to find jobs. The Eshet Chayil project has developed a "five- step model" addressing such issues as psychological readiness for work, family adjustment, employers’ expectations, and interview skills, she said.

The mentoring program helps the women find jobs, matching women with appropriate jobs and making sure they have their husbands’ agreement. It also provides support groups to address problems that arise at work and teaches women how to succeed at their jobs and upgrade their skills.

"We are very sensitive to cultural issues," said Amir. The Eshet Chayil national coordinator told the group that finding women jobs benefits entire families in more than just an economic way. "It helps provide a model for their children, and it teaches women how to talk to their children’s teachers," she said. "It also teaches them the Hebrew language."

• Yechiel Marcus, a former Teaneck resident who made aliyah nine years ago, told mission members about the Jaffa Institute, which was created in 198′ to help at-risk children growing up in the slums of Jaffa. Marcus, who heads the institute’s planned giving and development department, said the city suffers from "serious crime and poverty, with an unemployment rate of 40 to 50 percent."

The institute, which wants to become a beneficiary of UJA-NNJ, "gives the kids constructive things to do after school as well as hot meals, help with homework, and a pleasant environment," he said. "It provides safety, feeds 750 kids a day, and offers an anti-drug program and a food distribution center."

The institute’s residential center in Beit Shemesh, founded in 1985, serves 300 boys. "Without our help," he said, "they would never graduate from school. You’re working with some boys whose last job was being a shepherd."

"I learned about Israel’s absorption efforts in Hebrew school. [I see] now that the work has never stopped," said mission participant Melinda Maidens of Fort Lee, a former president of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County. "There’s so much to be done here, and in our own community."

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