By Andrea Jaron | Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta trustee
We sat in a circle in a brightly lighted room in Jerusalem. We were 14 women from Atlanta and four from Israel.
Each of us took a turn to stand up, say her name and tell the group something that she is good at.
“I’m Andrea, and I’m good at problem solving,” I said. In a rousing chorus, the group responded, “Yes, you are!”
Welcome to Alma Preparatory Academy for Female Leadership. Alma’s founder, Michal Barkai Brody, led us in this exercise to give us some insight into how she approaches empowering at-risk Jewish girls to become leaders.
You see, when Michal joined the Israel Defense Forces after high school, she realized that she would have more opportunities for leadership positions in the army than a girl who comes from a less privileged background. In Israel, your position in the IDF dictates your future trajectory. Girls who are officers or commanders go on to have bright futures, whereas girls who drive trucks, make coffee or type letters don’t have the same opportunities after their army service.
Michal founded Alma to give those girls a chance for a brighter future. When we met her students, it was apparent that Michal is making a difference that will change the course of many, many lives.
So how did I end up at Alma?
The last time I visited Israel was in 1988. I was a college student, had finished a semester studying in London, and flew to Tel Aviv for a month of travel throughout Israel and Egypt. I celebrated my 21st birthday there.
But this visit, 28 years later, was with 13 other women representing the 100-plus trustees of the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta.
We were on a mission, but this was not your typical community trip. You see, JWFA isn’t your typical Jewish community organization.
Our mission is to support partners committed to making social change for Jewish women and girls, both locally and in Israel. We look at our prospective grantee partners and the work they do through a gender lens, and our priority is to focus on the root causes of societal problems.
Over the course of seven days, our group visited with 11 grantee partners and additional nongovernmental organizations working in this field. Each was so impressive and committed to its mission of change. Michal and Alma are just one example.
Susan Weiss, the founder and director of the Center for Women’s Justice, is a powerhouse. She started this public interest law organization because she realized that women in Israel were not being treated equally under Jewish law.
The most glaring example was get refusal, in which a woman was denied a writ of divorce by the religious courts. Susan has successfully petitioned civil courts to intervene, compelling recalcitrant husbands to pay damages when they refuse to grant gets.
Susan and her team at CWJ are using litigation and educational outreach to bring public awareness to the inequality that persists because of Israel’s merger between religion and state. This is social change unfolding, and Susan and CWJ are shifting policy in Israel, one case at a time.
We met Sabine at Women’s Spirit, an organization that not only helps women get out of violent situations, but also gives them the tools to become financially independent so they can sustain themselves and their families.
Sabine is a survivor of domestic violence, but the abuse didn’t end when the beating stopped. Her husband left her with a debt of 2 million shekels ($520,000). Women’s Spirit provided training and mentorship to help Sabine become an ambulance driver so she could gain economic freedom — services that were crucial to Sabine’s survival.
As a result of legislation that Women’s Spirit helped draft and enact, Sabine was recognized as a victim of economic violence, a legal status that comes with rights and compensation. She was able to lift herself out of a terrible situation because of Women’s Spirit, and she had legal protection at the same time.
As she concluded her story, Sabine talked about the pride her children felt in seeing their mother change the family’s situation. She’s confident that she altered the course of her children’s future as well.
We met Levi Lauer of ATZUM, who passionately spoke about the Task Force on Human Trafficking and the work it is doing in the Knesset to have an impact on the 12,500 women who are forced into prostitution in Israel, over 10,000 of whom are Jewish, and 2,000 of whom are under age 18.
As Levi said: “Until you deal with this issue systemically, you cannot help women individually. … What’s at stake is worth the struggle.”
This is just a taste of the work we do and how we spent our week in Israel. While our primary focus is supporting nonprofits that change the world for Jewish women and girls, members of our fund are change agents themselves.
We empower our trustees to be leaders and decision-makers and to help determine how donations are invested. Every trustee has the opportunity to serve on each committee of the fund, and every trustee has the same opportunity to vote on which grantee partners to support.
“We are the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta, and we are good at embracing social change philanthropy and empowering ourselves in the process.”
Yes, we are!
Michal would be proud.
To learn more about the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta, visit www.jwfatlanta.org, or contact Executive Director Rachel Wasserman at 678-222-3716. You can read the full trip blog at www.jwfatlanta.org/israeltrip.