One of the main ways WIZO promotes the status of women in Israeli society is by developing women’s leadership via programs that educate women and girls for political, social and community leadership roles. These programs also include special leadership courses for Druze and ultra-Orthodox women.
Ha’nivcheret (The First Team) is WIZO’s first of its kind leadership training program for ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) women. A joint venture between WIZO and ”Nivcharot – Haredi Women’s Movement”, the program began last year and opened its second course this week with 25 partiticipants coming together for four months of training (12 weekly meetings at WIZO’s Tel Aviv Headquarters), to prepare and encourage them to take on public leadership roles in civil society, local and national politics, and in their communities. The Ha’nivcheret program is made possible thanks to the generous support and encouragement of the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
Left to right: Hila Hassan Lefkowitz, Sheli Rapaport, Esty Shushan, Tamar Peer, Rivka Nuemann
”While Israeli women are slowly but surely making strides in leadership roles both nationally and locally, some sectors of Israel’s public, including ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) women, have yet to break through the glass ceiling,” said Rivka Neumann, Director of WIZO’s Division for the Advancement of Women. ”Women’s rights and roles in Israel’s large Jewish ultra-Orthodox sector are of tremendous importance to Israeli society. The Ha’Nivcheret program promotes involvement in decision-making and influence centers in the social, public and political spheres. The participants deal with the conflicts, barriers, and unique challenges and opportunities of ultra-Orthodox women.”
”The program’s participants acquire theoretical knowledge along with practical tools and experience, said Sheli Rapaport, WIZO’s Director of Development and Guidance for Gender Equality Programs. ”They also meet influential women in Israel’s local and national authorities who inspire them to become activists themselves at the social, public and political levels.”
Finding Her Voice: Hila’s Story
Hila Hassan Lefkowitz grew up in a Haredi family in the center of Israel. Her father, who represented the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party, sat on the local regional council. Although she was exposed to politics at an early age through her father, Hila never imagined that one day she would run for public office.
“Growing up in a Haredi family, I never had the same opportunities as my brothers,” Lefkowitz said. “I felt it was unfair, but I never said anything about it. I just accepted it. I also grew up believing that being called a ‘feminist’ was a bad thing.”
Hila Hassan Lefkowitz
Everything changed for Lefkowitz just over a year ago when she first saw an online ad for WIZO’s “Ha’nivcheret” leadership training program for ultra-Orthodox women.
“It truly opened my eyes,” she said. “First of all, I realized I was not alone. Through the WIZO program, I met other Haredi women just like me who also had the desire to lead and make a difference in the public sphere. Secondly, I learned that being a ‘feminist’ is not a dirty word. I am a Haredi woman who is also a feminist and I am proud of that.”
From Campaigner to Candidate
In last year’s local elections, Israelis were witness to the sweeping support of the Haredi public for the candidacy of secular women in places such as Haifa, where for the first time a woman was elected mayor, and in Beit Shemesh where a national-religious woman defeated the incumbent Haredi mayor.
Inspired by her participation in the WIZO leadership program, Lefkowitz sought to get involved in the local elections in Kfar Yonah, the city where she lives. After meeting all the candidates, she decided to throw her support behind one of the female candidates for mayor, who immediately added her to the candidate list of her party. “I only intended to help with the campaign,” Lefkowitz said, “and suddenly I was on the party’s list as a candidate for the local council.”
Though her candidate did not win the election and Lefkowitz did not win a seat on the council, she intends to continue to pursue leadership roles in public office.
“I never would have dreamed of getting to where I am today if it were not for the guidance and inspiration WIZO’s leadership program for Haredi women gave me,” she said. “Yes, I faced some opposition to my getting involved in politics from some elements in the Haredi community, but overall I got a lot of support – especially from Haredi women who privately told me how proud they were of me. I encourage every Haredi woman who wants to lead a social change to take part in the WIZO leadership program.”
“This program allows ultra-Orthodox women to reach the places where all the decisions about the daily lives of all of us are made,” Etti Burkin, Chairperson of WIZO Israel’s Advancement of Women Division said. “We expose them to all the ways in which politics touches their lives, and how passive avoidance and active exclusion from decision-making affect the daily life of ultra-Orthodox women.”
”Change is very important,” says Esty Shushan, the Haredi woman who founded Ha’nivcheret. ”We are all very excited to begin this journey of empowerment, leadership and independence, a journey so different, and in many cases at serious odds, with the particiapants’ own worlds at home and in their communities. But we must do this together.”