At the center of this week’s upcoming Torah portion are two inspiring women. Sarah and Hagar are not only the mothers of two nations or sidebars to Abraham’s journey; they are outstanding models of perseverance by resilient women in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
That unique strength – as leaders and change-makers – is top of mind for me this week. Because in so many different ways, JDC is empowering women and girls around the world to better their own lives and strengthen their families and communities.
We have long marveled at what JDC does in this region or that country, for this or that group, and for needy Jews in general. However, when we take a look at how we empower women – especially in the areas of healthcare, employment, and international development – we really see JDC's unique impact and how our support ensures the long-term success of future generations of women in dozens of countries worldwide.
Nela Hasic, Nareman Sleiman, and Danielle Butin are three revolutionary women in JDC’s orbit who are changing lives every day. And their stories speak to the heart of what we do and care about as an organization.
Nela is the Bosnia and Herzegovina director of JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), a multination initiative dedicated to the battle against breast cancer. Nela was born into Sarajevo’s historic Jewish community and was rescued by JDC during the 1992 siege of the city. After many years in Israel, Nela returned with her family to a deeply divided country, struggled to find work, and was hired by JDC to launch WHEP and run the program in Bosnia. Under Nela’s formidable leadership, in less than a decade WHEP has expanded to save hundreds of women’s lives every year; run nationwide support groups for breast cancer survivors of every faith; and champion an issue that has united a land fraught with ethnic and political conflict.
Just this past weekend, that cooperation was on display as thousands of women and their families participated in WHEP’s sixth annual Race for the Cure in Sarajevo, part of our global partnership with Susan G. Komen®. At the center of these extraordinary achievements is Nela and her unrelenting passion and masterful diplomacy. As one of her country’s leading breast cancer advocates and a representative of her local Jewish community, Nela is not just a role model, she is an unstoppable force for change.
In Israel, such determination can be found in Nareman Sleiman, an Israeli Arab woman who has worked with JDC to encourage Israeli Arab women to join the workforce, help provide for their families, and become more deeply engaged with Israeli society. Nareman is the director of a program called Rahadiya that successfully helps Israeli Arab women gain the skills and confidence they need to find jobs and change traditional attitudes toward working women that exist in their communities. This is especially important as 70% of working-age Israeli Arab women are part of Israel’s long-term jobless population. And Nareman leads by example: she did at one point stay at home to care for her husband and four children. But she kept alive her hopes for a career, found a job, and demonstrated to her family the importance of independence through work. And today her husband is her biggest supporter.
JDC supported Nareman and Rahadiya’s work in 13 traditional Israeli Arab communities, offering Hebrew and computer training courses to interested women. We were able to help because of our successful retooling of Women of Valor, an employment program for jobless women that has extended well beyond the Ethiopian-Israeli women it was originally designed to serve. In a coup for Nareman and for all Israeli Arab women seeking job opportunities outside the home, the Israeli government is expanding her project to 36 locations throughout Israel. This remarkable feat is directly associated with Nareman’s trailblazing work and her brave leadership.
That pioneering spirit can be found a world away in Haiti in the work of Danielle Butin, a dynamic American Jewish NGO leader and founder of the AFYA Foundation, an organization that provides critically needed medical supplies and care to victims of natural disasters. Danielle’s journey, which later resulted in a partnership with JDC after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, began in Tanzania, where she saw a crisis in medical care: limited medical resources for healthcare workers and a deluge of inappropriate medical supplies in clinics that did not match the needs or the capacity. Today, under Danielle’s visionary leadership, AFYA has sent 6 million pounds of site-appropriate medical and humanitarian supplies the world over, including 1.2 million pounds to Haiti and Japan, among other locations.
Such a triumph, especially in Haiti and Japan, has been achieved with JDC’s support, and Danielle is now a leading member of our international network of prominent female NGO and civil society leaders, whom we have proactively gathered together in each of the past two years. These women are experts in their fields, founders of organizations involved in global development and disaster relief activities, and our unique confab offers an intimate and concentrated space for education, networking, and international cooperation. Participants come from a variety of places, including Argentina, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and the U.S. Describing this group of women as “a room of sages,” Danielle not only imparts to them her vast experience building a successful NGO, she enthusiastically inspires action and carries a bold message of Jewish responsibility.
Nela, Nareman, and Danielle – and the JDC support behind each of their transformative projects – are just three examples of what is possible when individuals are empowered to lead and serve. Just look around the JDC world and you will find extraordinary women central to the success of our Hesed system, the JCCs we support, youth clubs, leadership training programs, and thousands of other initiatives that aid Jews in need or those embracing their Jewish identity through innovative programming.
My great aunt Chaya left Poland more than 80 years ago to drain the swamps in the Hula Valley and help build a new Jewish state. It was a decision made with inspired conviction, one that would motivate my family and me when we made aliyah in the 1990s. For us, and for so many whose lives have been impacted by women like Nela, Nareman, and Danielle, the first step to a new and better life was easier because of the groundbreaking work done by the women who came before us. They give new and personal meaning to the Jewish concept of the eshet chayil (woman of valor). And, above all, they remind us that our continued empowerment of women around the world opens the door to endless possibilities now and in the future.
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