November 7, 2002
By CHERYL WIKAS Special to the CJN - Ramla, Israel
Here we were, a group of Americans, sitting down for a kosher lunch with Arab leaders near Tel Aviv.
A small group of us from the Solidarity Mission had come to see for ourselves the impact of ISHA - the Israel Health Advancement for Women project.
ISHA, Hebrew for woman, is a program of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and its partners in Israel. This women's health initiative seeks to improve the health and lives of
women in Israel. Programs bring together and train physicians, health professionals and community activists. In fact, several Israelis are in Cleveland this October and November to study as part of the program. (See
CJN, Nov. 1
We visit a health center, have tea with Israeli women activists, and eat lunch with an Arab woman named Salwah and other Arab group leaders she has trained in Ramla. The entire day is remarkable, but meeting with the Arab women has special impact.
Salwah has trained the women we meet to provide instruction on women's and sexual health, nutrition and exercise. At the conclusion of the intensive course, each woman must create a project to bring her new knowledge back to her own community and peers. The ISHA Leadership and Empowerment project has held over 20 courses in cities throughout Israel for Jewish, Druze and Arab women.
We learn that health topics are taboo in the Arab Muslim culture, that girls in Ramla and elsewhere are not taught how to swim and that sneakers are frowned upon. Girls, however, marry at 16, their mothers checking them regularly from puberty to ensure their virgin status. Girls know nothing of sexually transmitted diseases, although their betrothed have likely had several partners before marriage. When we ask about domestic abuse, the room is silent.
One member of the Ramla group owns a bridal shop with her sister. She is dressed in a
, the traditional head covering which suggests conservative religious practice. She has four sons. I estimate her age at 45, but learn she is closer to 30. She looks tired. She describes to the Clevelanders how she uses her newfound knowledge from ISHA to talk about "women's" issues to the young brides as she fits their wedding gowns. Their mothers are never part of the conversation.
Another trainer is fashionably dressed in slacks and a printed blouse. She is in her early 20s, a housewife and the mother of one. She says that when she became a trainer her husband was embarrassed. She has managed to convince him that her work with ISHA is not to be scorned. We fear she is in the minority.
Too soon, the session is over. I come over to where Salwah is standing for our group picture. The scarf that covers Salwah's head and neck suggests that she adheres to traditional Muslim beliefs. Her work, however, is very modern. And it's clear that ISHA is making a difference in her life.
© Copyright 2002 Cleveland Jewish News.