by Daena Silverman
I had been to Israel only once before, on a first timers’ temple trip – a “let’s see everything possible in 10 days” kind of trip. I had wanted to go back for long time. Over the summer, while planning for my older daughter to go off to college, I saw the itinerary for the NCJW Israel Mission and I knew a trip relating to women’s empowerment was exactly what I was looking for. I immediately signed up-not realizing ahead all the details and planning that would go into leaving my husband and younger daughter, a competitive synchronized ice skater, at home for eight days. I started to panic as the departure date grew closer. I would be traveling with 29 women that I had never met before, and learning about topics that I knew nothing about. Who knew that this trip would exceed all of my expectations for knowledge, intellectual thought, women’s empowerment, and deep friendships?
I had not been actively involved in NCJW before the trip. I had participated in small isolated, activities like Mitzvah Days with my children, volunteered at the Back to School Store, and helped hostess workshops in the evening.
This trip was very special because we had Dahlia Lithwick, a political journalist from Slate magazine, traveling with us as a scholar-in-residence. Over the course of the trip, she offered her insights into each topic we discussed. She proved not only to be brilliant speaker and analyst, but also a warm, funny, personable Jewish woman, who each one of us was able to connect with. The first night we heard from Dahlia along with Jodi Rudoron, the New York Times Israel Bureau Chief and another thought provoking Jewish woman. Two days later, their perspectives resonated even more deeply when we learned about the same issues from retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner. Justice Dorner joked about how she was so comfortable in our informal discussion because of course we were “all women and all Jewish”.
I didn’t know anything about NCJW’s Israel Granting Program (IGP) before attending the Israel Mission. I just knew that NCJW was helping women in Israel the way we were helping women at home in the United States, and it was something I wanted to learn about. Now I know that IGP emphasizes empowerment and leadership programs for women and girls as well as programs that promote gender equality. Over the course of the trip I was able to see first-hand that the things that we grant money for in Israel are things that have actually made a difference for Israeli women. We were able to see how we can actually effect change in Israel.
Each day brought new insights and knowledge about topics I had never contemplated. On our first of many long full days we met with Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and learned about the Women of the Wall activism and her efforts to desegregate buses. It is unbelievable that Jewish women were forced to the back of the bus! We met with Susan Weiss, executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice and discussed the issue of marriage and divorce-specifically the ongoing struggle with halacha, religious law, and the lack of a civil marriage and divorce option in Israel.. Later on in the week, we also were able to hear the opinions of current members of the Knesset on this topic, as well as those of local Israelis, during a town hall meeting. I am looking forward to hearing further discussion about this important topic when Susan Weiss speaks to our Essex County Chapter in December.
Later on in the week we traveled to Ramallah. We passed the security gates and left our Israeli tour guides, director, and friends behind so that we could hear from Palestinian women. Only our group, as Americans, was allowed into these prohibited parts of the West Bank. We had gone from having a peaceful Shabbat dinner in the homes of generous Israelis only a few nights before, to seeing first-hand the concerns that Palestinian women face every day. We listened to the women speak about how they are standing up to their own families and friends in order to advocate for peace-obviously no easy task. Hearing the Arab perspective alongside our own left us feeling overwhelmed with emotions and questions.
We also spent some time with the director and legal advisor for the Turning the Tables Initiative, anel Granting Program grantee which was featured in a January 2013 New York Times article. The conversations we had were incredibly moving and emotional. We heard the personal story of Tamar, a former prostitute, who described her childhood of abuse, lifetime of prostitution, and how Turning the Tables gave her a path to a new career. The initiative has had unbelievable success in getting women off the street, stopping a vicious cycle for them, and “turning” them in a new direction-into the fashion industry. Later that day, we met Ofra Strauss of the Strauss Group, to learn about what powerful business women are doing to change the role of women in Israel, specifically about their efforts to increase governmental and political power of women in Israel.
I was especially excited to learn about the IGP signature grant to Yedid and WePower for an initiative titled “Promote Women’s Vote” meant to encourage women’s civic engagement and participation in the election process. We were left feeling charged and motivated to continue their efforts to affect social change both at home and especially in Israel. As we learned, “we need political power to effect social change.” Therefore, getting more women involved in advocacy in Israel and at home in support of women’s empowerment is crucial to being able to help as many women as possible.
I have to thank the women who chaired and planned this incredible experience of the NCJW Mission – The Road to Tomorrow, Women Leading Change, because not only was it an incredible learning experience, but it was also an emotional charge toward social action.