Don’t just praise Israeli women — invest in them

Beautiful flowering trees, an iridescent blue sky and a cheerfully bright sun greeted us as we entered Kfar Aza, one of the first kibbutzim attacked by Hamas terrorists on Oct 7. 

Our group of women, participating in a recent trip organized by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, was already feeling the impact of being in the Gaza envelope. We had just visited the Nova music festival site, where in addition to being deeply moved by the posters of those kidnapped and killed there, we were also shaken from feeling the bombs detonating in Gaza a mere mile away. I say “feeling” the bombs because it was a visceral experience: Along with the loud booms, which we were warned we might hear, the vibrations of the bombs shook through our bodies and instilled fear. War was close.

A memorial to May Naim and other victims of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on the Nova music festival, near the site of the festival in Reim, Israel. Courtesy/Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

While touring the kibbutz, we were greeted by two women, Vered Libstein and Mazi Eilon, long-term residents who related their experiences on Oct 7. Both lost their husbands that day. Vered also lost her mother, son and a nephew. I was immediately struck by the strength of these women, their ability to speak to our group with clear compelling voices telling us about the worst day of their lives. 

Then they proceeded to show us the very spots where their loved ones were killed. Vered invited us into her 19-year-old son Nitzan’s house, to see the damage done to the structure where he died. I had been concerned that visiting the kibbutz was inappropriate, akin to “terrorism tourism,” but Vered disabused me of that notion. She wanted us to stand on this exact spot to experience the contrast between the beautiful flowers and burned-out homes. This land is now holy ground. Our group treated it with the respect it and the residents of Kfar Aza deserve.

Women serving on the Gaza border warned the Israeli military that Hamas was practicing for an attack before Oct 7. They were ignored. After the attack, Cochav Elkayam Levy, founder and head of the Dvora Institute for Gender and Sustainability Studies, started documenting the sexual violence perpetrated against Israeli women during the attack. She was shocked at how Hamas used rape as a premeditated weapon of war on such a mass scale. She shared her findings with the world. She was ignored, too. 

Today, only three out of 37 senior officers in the IDF are female, and women make up only 5% of brigadier generals. These positions are important not only for Israel’s security, but also as launching pads to political and other esteemed careers in Israel. Women are being shut out of pathways to leadership, keeping their voices from being heard. Tamar Zeira, founder of Forum 31, shared with us that women currently hold less than 6% of the mayoral positions in Israel, which is three times lower than the average in countries in the European Union. Fifteen women are mayors in Israeli cities and towns; her organization seeks to more than double that number, hence the name Forum 31. 

Our group met with several impressive female leaders who are working to raise women’s voices both in Israel and internationally. They are running organizations like HaOgen for Drafted Families, a vast volunteer network of over 200,000 people helping 20,000 families whose spouses or children have been called to serve in reserve duty. They are leading Bonot Alternativa, a women’s rights organization that turned its activities since Oct. 7 toward supporting the evacuees — primarily women and children — who are now spread across the country. These women-led organizations are currently holding up the backbone of Israel. They are tirelessly bringing resources and support to those most impacted by this war, and they are not letting women lose hope. 

Less than 2% of philanthropic dollars go to supporting women’s organizations and causes worldwide. At the same time, women are bearing the brunt of this war as much as men. Their wisdom has been silenced, their stories of rape and torture have been ignored and they are left to juggle children, work and survival on their own. 

A Forum 31 gathering in Israel in Dec. 2023. Forum 31/Facebook

Time and again on this trip I marveled at the strength of the women we met. How many of us could give tours of where our loved ones were murdered less than a year ago? How many of us would organize hundreds of volunteers to help others while we too were mourning losses and lacked income? How many of us could stand up and fight against military ineptness and governmental oppression in the midst of a war? Israeli women are doing all that and more. Philanthropic dollars are needed to support them. Two percent doesn’t even begin to make a dent. 

It’s time to shore up Israeli women. Listen to them, believe them, invest in them. The Jewish philanthropic community has vocally supported the telling of these women’s stories to the world, but we have been woefully slow to do the same financially. The Jewish Funders Network has a list of women’s organizations you can support, and we have a Gender Lens Giving Peer Group, open to all genders, that meets monthly to learn how to support women’s initiatives in Israel and North America. In the fall, we will also be releasing a new Gender Lens Giving Guidebook, which has been created in Israel with a focus on giving in Israel. 

When asked about the future, Vered expressed hope. She expects her kibbutz will be rebuilt and that the community will return. As for the war, she said: “We are not going anywhere, and the Palestinians are not going anywhere. We have to learn to live together.” Her faith in a peaceful future after all that she has suffered was profoundly moving. 

Israeli women’s strength is remarkable. Let’s give them the support they need to continue to stand strong.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network.