“For many years the women at JDC used to hang out in the ladies room and say we needed to do something for women,” Susan Stern a board member at the Jewish aid organization since 1994, said. “But it never really went anywhere.”
A women’s empowerment summit in New York City last week finally saw that dream, once envisioned in the hallowed walls of the ladies’ room, come to fruition.
Over the last 25 years Stern travelled around the world to witness the Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) field work in under-developed communities and was struck by how women, specifically, played an outsized role in providing that care.
“They are the caregivers, they are running the cheseds,” Stern said, referring to the name for the organization’s operations in the Former Soviet Union. “It’s also women who are the clients much of the time. You don’t really know this unless you go to Ukraine or these areas in the Former Soviet Union and see the work.”
Galvanized by the #MeToo movement, the organizers felt the time was ripe to finally share these stories with the intention of inspiring further change. “The idea was: We have these incredible stories, we have these incredible people, let’s try and bring them together and create a conference so that we can tell the story of JDC through the eyes of women,” Stern, who co-chaired the event, said.
More than 400 women, among them philanthropists, professionals and grassroots activists from over 25 states in North America and 15 countries globally attended the aptly titled “Imagine More” conference at the art-deco Ziegfeld Ballroom in Midtown on Sept. 18.
“Women are incredible resources for leadership and we want to make sure they have voices,” Elizabeth Fine, the executive vice president for board relations and New York development at JDC, said.
Like the voice of Nela Hasic, the regional director for Think Pink, a European non-profit that supports women with breast-cancer, who flew in from Bosnia to talk about how her organization helps women gain access to treatment and advocates for research in an country where breast-cancer is highly stigmatized. (Think Pink is partially funded by the JDC).
Eleonor Faur, a sociologist from Argentina and a JDC executive for the South America region spoke about her research into gender disparity in the Jewish professional workforce in Latin America. “What’s the way forward? It’s not going to happen from one day to another, but JDC is supporting institutional practice to bring in women to fix this gender gap,” she said.
Founded in 1914 to provide aid to Jews in the wake of World War I, the JDC has evolved over the years into a full-scale humanitarian relief organization that tailors its approach to the distinct needs of each population—both Jewish and not— that it assists in 68 countries globally.
In India it supports the local Jewish Community Center that services the 3500 Jews that live there; In Africa it promotes agricultural technology to aid farmers; In Israel it supports job training and employment programs for charedi and Arab women. Most recently, it provided assistance to people affected by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.
But while many of the programs and the initiatives on the ground service and are serviced-by women, this was the first flagship event of its kind to celebrate women’s essential role to the organization and empower other women to do the same. In their operational headquarters in New York City close to half of JDC’s 171 member board is female.
“It’s always been part of JDC strategy to empower women because we know through development theory that empowering women changes individuals, their families, their communities and then globally,” Fine said. “So it’s not a change in direction, it’s really more just featuring it and bringing it to the limelight.”
(The conference was put on with the assistance of The Schusterman Family Foundation, The Russell Berrie foundation and The Grant Thornton Foundation.)
Fine was previously a corporate attorney in Chicago but a trip to Bosnia where she heard Hasic speak about her work at the women’s health NGO inspired her to leave law and work for the JDC. She began as a service corps member in Moscow and now works on JDC’s senior executive team in New York City. “I think that’s just one example of how hearing someone’s story can completely change your life,” Fine said. “I think the power of storytelling and women’s storytelling in particular can really magnify change.”
One such story is Tzipi Zipper’s who was hit by a car while serving in the IDF at a roadside security checkpoint. The accident left her wheelchair-bound and with a chronic pain condition. She spent time living at JDC’s Center For Independent Living (CIL) in Tel Aviv where she regained confidence to adjust to her new life and found a strong network of support. It helped her pursue her dream of going to law school, from which she has recently graduated. In her spare time she now counsels others at CIL and advocates for disability rights.
“Empowerment means dignity and that is what is JDC is in the business of,” Zipper said at the event, ”Not giving handouts, but rather empowering people to take back their dignity, their lives, and to march forward, in my case quite stubbornly, in pursuit of their ambitions.”
Amanda Nguyen, activist and founder of social activist movement RISE, also shared her personal story of overcoming trauma to affect change. Nguyen was a student at Harvard when she was raped. After learning that rape-kits are destroyed after six months and the hurdles survivors have to go through to get an extension, she founded the nonprofit to assist other survivors of sexual assault and help social activists scale their strategy.
“I wrote the bill as a matter of survival and if that bill could speak it would scream. If yours could speak, what would it say?” she said at the event, referring to the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which passed unanimously in Congress in 2016.
RISE is now the most successful legislative organization in the U.S., with over 27 bills passed that affect over 70 million people.
“I urge everyone here that the most powerful tool that we have is our voice. We are all in a collective story and it’s a story of progress. I continue that story by penning my own rights,” Nguyen added, “No-one is invisible when we demand to be seen.”
A musical collaboration with Cantors Laurie Akers, Rachel Brook and Rachel Goldman from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles respectively ended the afternoon on a high-note with a song composed especially for the event: “Remember your voice without hesitation,” they sang, “Remember to honor the warrior inside you who has beauty and courage at the same time.”