A ‘Room of Sages’ at JDC Women’s Workshop

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Click photo to download. Caption: Maryse Penette Kedar (Haiti) and Mirai Chatterjee (India) meet during JDC's first-ever women’s leadership workshop in Jerusalem. Credit: Danielle Butin.

.JERUSALEM—As Mirai Chatterjee—director of social security at the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India—recounts her experience walking through the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, she cannot hold back the tears.

“Such crimes against humanity must never be committed on any soil. Even if we’re not Jewish we feel extremely strongly about it,” she says to a group of female social change leaders from around the world, as her eyes well up. “The Jewish people and all people must be protected.”

Chatterjee’s trade union organizes “undercounted and invisible” self-employed female workers in India to gain full-employment, which means income, food and job security, self-reliance and financial independence. Chatterjee says the tragedy of the Holocaust and the compelling lessons it teaches humankind inspire her, and she looks forward to sharing the history back in her home country.

“Certainly I’ll be talking about it, and hopefully it will influence the way we deal with our people and oppressed minorities,” she says.   

Chatterjee joined five other select civil society leaders from Haiti, the U.S., Sri Lanka and Ethiopia in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) first-ever International Women’s Leadership Workshop Dec. 4-9 in Jerusalem. JDC’s International Development Program (IDP), which provides disaster relief and development assistance in countries such as Rwanda, Japan and Pakistan, funds and partners with local social change groups. JDC invited a handful of women who run such organizations to Jerusalem to provide professional development and colleague support. 

Click photo to download. Caption: A meeting in Akko with Kazkavi Women, who have entered the workplace due to the efforts of JDC Eshet Chayil program. Credit: Danielle Butin.

Judy Amit, global director of the IDP, says it’s no coincidence the intimate gathering focused on women. According to Amit, women run most of the organizations that work with IDP.

“We heard repeatedly from these women that there was a clear need,” Amit tells JointMedia News Service. “They’re trying to change their societies but [they] lack peer support and an international peer support system to help them manage the challenges they face.”

Each day of the workshop, one woman presented her organization’s mission and activities to the group.  She also described challenges she is facing professionally before receiving advice from the group.

One presenter was Danielle Butin, founder and executive director of Afya Foundation (from the Kiswahili meaning “good health”), a medical supply recovery organization in New York that asks hospitals in Haiti and Africa for their “wish list” and tries to match as many items as possible through donations from individuals, synagogues and businesses. No item is too big or too small for Butin, who says a nurse may be desperate for a pen to take notes on a patient’s condition, making the item just as important as an operating table.

When Butin presents a challenge to the group, her colleagues listen and then offer suggestions from their experience. After a hospital in Harlem recently closed and donated its contents to Afya, Butin is now wondering how she can get on the radar of other hospitals shutting down around the country.

“I would love ideas,” she says, later adding, “I feel like I’m in a room of sages.”

The women agreed that at times they feel alone in their work, and meeting this group of women with similar visions and difficulties gives them strength.

Tegest Heruy Belayneh, who directs the clinic, pharmacy, cafeteria and girls’ education program at Unity University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says the peer support reminds her she is doing this work with other committed individuals around the world.

“As you see, we are women from different corners of the world, but the moment we met we are connected,” she says.

In peer learning workshops, the women presented to each other on issues such as: Does charitable giving for Karma lead to social change? How does one do asset-based community development in low-resource Haiti? How can Ethiopian women move from illiteracy to university?

The women visited social change organizations in Israel that JDC funds, to learn about their program models and consider how they could apply them to their work. 

One day spent in the North took the women to Akko-based Eshet Chayil, a program that helps women integrate into the job market, and Afula-based Better Together, which empowers local governments, parents and educators to address children’s needs in the community.  

Amit says the women also made site visits tailor-made to their specific fields. Sharadha de Saram, a social entrepreneur, communications specialist and writer from Sri Lanka, visited the Echad program in Lakiya, which works to improve the quality of early childhood services for Arab-Israeli youth.

Maryse Penette Kedar, president of the ProDev (Progress and Development) Foundation in Haiti, who is also in the process of starting a new organization, Partners in Education, says she was very impressed by Parents and Children Together, an early childhood program for Ethiopian children and their families in Beit Shemesh. She hopes to establish this model of community centers in Haiti.  

“I think this is something all countries should have,” Kedar says. “I am interested in education [and] I don’t see this as charity. I think education is what is most important. It’s why some countries do good and some countries don’t do good.”

The small size of the workshop and its relative informality allowed the participants to bond and form relationships they will maintain, Amit says. For this reason, she intends for the conference to remain on the small side in future years. The participants told Amit they would like to initiate a mentorship program with women in middle management positions, continue as a support group for one another, and bring in additional participants, including younger women in the field.

“We are not women who need courses for empowerment. We’re already empowered,” says Amit.

Posted on December 12, 2011 and filed under Features, Israel.