Monday, July 9, 2012

“Dare to dream…and when you dream, dream big.”

"Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." 

Charlotte Whitton


On my 11-year old daughter’s first day of day-camp this summer, she came home with the news that her group is called ‘Chana Senesh’, and she was the only one who knew who Chana Senesh actually was. She read about it in the Israeli ‘Time Tunnel’ series, which tell the stories of different episodes of Jewish and Israeli history through the eyes of two children who travel through time by walking through a magic tunnel. (The series, aimed at children age 6-10, is quite excellent and fills in lots gaps created in school history lessons.)

The overall topic of my daughter’s day-camp is Jewish Women Heroines, and those covered are the usual crew. Aside from Chana Senesh, all the other women are Biblical: Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel, Queen Esther, and maybe Devorah the Judge. I don’t remember. These characters are, without question, heroic, Jewish, and women. But the girls in G’s summer-camp already know all about them. They learn the lessons of these great women during school hours.
I would like to think that these girls learn that heroes don’t live only in the Bible and that you don’t have to be related to a great man to be a great woman.

There is no lack of contemporary Jewish women heroines that the girls could learn about and from.

Here are three: (and I’ve kept it down to three because if I named all the women heroes, there wouldn’t be enough cyberspace….)

1. I did a quick Google search on Jewish Israeli Heroines and the first name that came up was Chaya Hammer, known far and wide as the Chicken Lady. I had heard of Chaya some years ago, and am pleased to put her first on my list.
More than two decades ago, Chaya visited her local Jerusalem butcher to buy chicken for Shabbat. She saw one of the clerks put a large bag of bones and skin on the counter and a young girl say thank you, take the bag, and quietly leave the shop.
“How many cats and dogs does that family have to get such a large bag of bones,” she wondered.
Of course, it turned out that the family had no pets, no income, a sick father, and seven hungry children. From that day on, Chaya paid for the family’s Shabbat meat. Over the next 20 years, Chaya came to help hundreds of Jerusalem families, at a cost of over $1000 a week. In addition, she sent checks to more hundreds of families across the country every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) with cards she designed herself. Her great-granddaughter addressed the envelopes.

She received donations from around the world to help her expand her ‘business’. She adopted families impoverished by disease, victims of terrorist attacks, and holocaust survivors.
Chaya herself was a survivor of Russian pogroms. She knew what it was to be hungry. Yet, when asked why she worked so hard to help feed others, she would simply answer, “It’s the Jewish way.”

Chaya Hammer passed away in May, 2010 at the age of 100. May her memory be for a blessing.

2. Unlike Chaya Hammer, my next heroine is already well-known, with hundreds of streets throughout Israel named after her. There might even be a Time Tunnel book about her (but I don’t think so). However, her life and her activities are not a part of any school curriculum. Yet, her actions have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Muslims, and Christians over the last 100 years.
Henrietta Szold was born to a rabbinic family in 1860 in Baltimore. Working as a teacher, she established the first night-school for immigrants in the USA. This enabled working immigrants to learn English and, eventually, gain a wide education.
A great Zionist, Szold first visited Palestine in 1909. She was already 49 years old, but it was only then that she found her life’s passion. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, she noticed the flies and the filth. She realized that she could do something to eradicate the germs and disease that was rampant at the time in the city. Szold returned to the US, and in 1912 she founded what would eventually become known as “Hadassah”.
Hadassah’s first program was the establishment of a visiting nurse system in Jerusalem in 1913. Starting with two nurses, the organization, which funded the American Zionist Medical Unit, brought American personnel, equipment, and know-how to the Holy Land. Eventually, Hadassah, under Szold’s leadership, established a nursing school, clinics, x-ray labs, infant welfare stations, and more. All this eventually morphed into the world renowned Hadassah Medical Center, comprising two hospitals with over 1000 beds and outpatient clinics all over the country, giving quality healthcare to everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality. From its website:  More than a million people are treated each year in over 120 outpatient clinics and one of more than 70 departments and specialized units. A complete range of diagnostic laboratories as well as the most-up-to-date imaging machines and other state-of-the-art equipment backs these clinical arms. Hadassah provides practically every possible medical service available in the most advanced medical centers in the world. Some departments are the only facilities of their kind in the Jerusalem area; others are unique in Israel, which has led the government to designate Hadassah as a National Center in a number of medical specialties.

Today, 100 years after its founding, Hadassah is the world’s largest Jewish organization, and the largest volunteer women’s organization.
Profoundly Zionistic, Szold moved to Palestine in 1920 to take charge of the medical unit. But other challenges awaited her here. In the 30s, she became active in the administration of the Youth Aliyah, an organization set up to bring youngsters from Europe to Palestine. She was instrumental in saving 1000s of young lives from the Nazi death camps.
All this, because Henrietta Szold dared to dream of making life in the Holy Land better for all its people.
Her achievements came at a price. Szold never married, never had a child of her own and lived far from her family in America.
She died in her apartment in Jerusalem, in February, 1945. May her memory be for a blessing.

3. My third hero is as obvious as she is common. Nevertheless, the girls in my daughter’s summer-camp should learn what their older sisters, their mothers, their aunts, and grandmothers have done and how they have contributed to Israeli life, and what they sacrificed to do it.

The young women who give two years of their lives to either the IDF or to National Service are my personal heroes. And they should be recognized as such.

Israel is the only Western country that has a mandatory military requirement for girls.
In pre-Israel days, women made up of 20% of the units (Hagana, Palmach, Irgun) that would eventually make up the IDF. Today, they make up 33% of all IDF soldiers, and 51% of its officers (!!!). There are women in all ground, air, and navy units of the IDF. 1500 female combat soldiers are drafted each year and serve the same 36 months as the male soldiers. There are female combat pilots, tank drivers, navigators, and infantry soldiers. They work in intelligence units, engineering units, and computer analysis. There is no sphere in the army that women are not a part of.


Religious girls are exempt from the IDF and instead volunteer for two years performing National Service. These girls work in hospitals, assisted living centers, special education facilities, museums, immigrant organizations, and many more places. Though required to work 30-40 hours a week, many of these girls work up to 100 hours a week, all on a voluntary basis. Established in 1971 with 60 girls, Sherut Leumi (National Service in Hebrew) today has thousands of women working in various institutions around the country that would not be able to function without them. 

Whereas their American counterparts are choosing colleges, dating, and planning for their future, 18-year-old Israeli girls are putting their personal lives on hold, giving their time and energy to their country and helping their fellow citizens. How many women around the world are willing to sacrifice these years, and perhaps their lives for their country, and for their people, because it's 'the Jewish way'.  
These Israeli girls, despite the uniforms, despite the hard work, and the fatigue, and the dirt – or maybe because of them – are the most beautiful in the world. Ask any Jewish mother.

May the merits of these women protect and bless us all.

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