Women to Women: UJA Program Creates International Mentors

During the four-year civil war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, Ana Lebl tried to hold things together in the Croatian city of Split.

As refugees from Sarajevo and Zagreb flocked to Split, on the Dalmatian coast, Lebl worked hard to keep the tiny Jewish community in touch with Jewish traditions.

“I organized cultural activities and held holiday celebrations,” said Lebl, who was in Israel recently to attend the International Lion of Judah Conference.

The Lion of Judah program represents women around the world who give large donations to the United Jewish Appeal.

“Since the war began,” Lebl said, “the community has grown from 150 to 200, but we don’t have a rabbi, so it’s been very difficult to conduct regular services. A rabbi from Jerusalem usually comes during the holidays, but this year he went to Sarajevo.”

Although she refused to take any credit for her activities, saying that she decided to remain in Croatia because it is her home, Lebl’s courage was a clear inspiration for the 500 conference participants, most of them from North America.

Convened by the UJA National Women’s Campaign and its’ international equivalent, the Keren Hayesod Women’s Division, the conference proved to be an inspiration in many ways.

While the fund-raisers were sometimes moved to tears during meetings with representatives from the far-flung communities they fund but have never visited, Lebl and participants from such locales as Greece, Morocco, Bulgaria and Romania — who were guests of the conference — were clearly overwhelmed by the genuine goodwill of the fund-raisers.

True to the conference’s theme, “Beyond Boundaries,” the participants overcame cultural and linguistic hurdles to discuss issues of common concern to Jewish communities worldwide.

“The geographic, spiritual and cultural boundaries that separate us are really artificial ones. We have far more that binds us as Jewish women than separates us,” said Carole Solomon, a conference chairwoman and president of UJA’s National Women’s Campaign.

For the women from small, often endangered Jewish communities, the high point of the conference was the time they spent with their fund-raising “mentors.”

Paired off in groups of two or three, the women exchanged information and formed friendships.

“Before I arrived, I had no idea of what the conference was all about,” Lebl said. “Of course I knew that Jews give money, but I didn’t know how the system functions, and the fact that women raise so much money.

“In Croatia, women are the pillar of the community, but I didn’t realize this was true elsewhere.”

Having met some of the people whose efforts keep her community afloat, Lebl said, “I feel grateful but not uncomfortable about people supporting us. I realize now that the money isn’t charity, that there are thousands of Jews around the world who really care.”

This sentiment was shared by Larissa Reichsluder, president of the Women’s Jewish Organization of Azerbaijan, a group in the former Soviet republic’s capital of Baku.

“I’ve been so impressed by what I’ve seen,” said Reichsluder, whose community shrunk from 700,000 Jews in 1989 to 45,000 in 1996.

“I never knew that there were so many young Jewish women from all over the world who are active in Jewish life and fund raising. In our community, the activists are middle-aged.”

Without help from Diaspora Jewry, Reichsluder said, her community might perish.

Reichsluder thanked the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which channels the funds raised by UJA to communities abroad and which helped bring the women from smaller communities to the conference.

With monies provided by JDC and two local sponsors, she said, “our women’s organization is able to provide free Shabbat dinners to sick and poor people, as well as free medical care.

“The people of Azerbaijan are so poor, they might not survive without the loaves of bread we provide twice a week.”

Reichsluder lauded Barbara Glitzer and Irene Greenbaum, two of her mentors, saying that they “provided moral support and taught me that people who raise money receive something important in return.”

Indeed, Glitzer, from Middlesex County, N.J., said she was tremendously inspired by Reichsluder and the other women from struggling communities.

“For me and the other fund-raisers, the best part has been putting a face to the people we’re helping.

“After getting to know Larissa, I have a better sense of what the community’s needs are. The other woman I’m mentoring, from Bulgaria, told me that people are living on a pension of just $20 a month, and that without the $16 the [JDC] provides every month, they wouldn’t have shelter.”

Glitzer, who serves on the executive board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, added that she plans to maintain contact with the women she mentored.

“One way or another, by fax or letters, we will stay in touch. I hope to be able to help them with projects in their communities.”

Mentoring, she said, “has recharged my batteries. When I go home and fund raise, I know I will be more successful because I have a story to tell. Nothing can take the place of a one-on-one relationship.”

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