In Hod Hasharon, Anglo Women Find Force in Numbers

After a small group of English-speaking mothers in Hod Hasharon raised enough funds to initiate an English wing in their municipal library in 2005, members of the group realized they had the power to make positive change in their community.

The experience forged relationships that led to the 2007 formation of an English-speakers women's group for Hod Hasharon residents. The group has since grown to some 50 active members and has become a local Anglo touch point for social support, business networking opportunities and philanthropic initiatives.

hod hasharon - Nir Keidar - October 22 2010
Nir Keidar

When Hod Hasharon was transformed from agricultural fields to a densely built suburb during the last two decades, the city attracted many English-speakers who might otherwise have chosen to live in nearby Ra'anana, says Julie Shafiki, an American who moved to the city in 2001 and is one of the group's founders. "I would hear more and more English in the supermarket, at the pool, in the mall," she recalls. "The group began to gel as we struck up conversations in those places and we were simply happy to make friends."

The group began with social breakfast meetings every Sunday morning, swapping ideas about the best day care centers, private English tutors, after-school activities, reliable plumbers, and fun spots for weekend picnics. Its earliest members - Shafiki, Sigahl Silvera and Laurie Erlich - created an e-mail list to share this information and named the group ESHH for English Speakers of Hod Hasharon.

The sudden death in 2008 of a 33-year-old South African man in town, Jason Bernstein, rallied the nascent group around a cause: assisting his wife Leanne and their newborn baby girl. Jason Bernstein had succumbed to a rare, fatal bacterial infection that took his life within days of his first symptoms. Leanne, today a loyal group member, recalls ESHH women "dropping by my house with generous amounts of food and offering support and friendship even though they didn't know me. They just wanted to help."

Before her husband's death, the couple, who were actively involved in the South African Zionist Federation Telfed, had bought land in another town and were planning to move their after their daughter's birth. "But after Jason died, I just couldn't move-I couldn't move into a home we had planned together," she says. "Moreover, I realized, thanks in large part to this group of women, that I already had a community in Hod Hasharon, so there was no reason to go anywhere."

When Leanne decided to create a library in Jason's memory at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, the growing ESHH group rallied again, collecting hundreds of books, raising money and writing their own checks for the cause. The library opened in early 2009 with 1,000 books.

The group hosts free monthly speakers' events at members' homes on topics ranging from women's health to creating environmentally sustainable communities. Shafiki's mother, a family psychologist who lives in Maryland, has spoken three times during visits to Israel. A yoga teacher led one session; member Lisa Brink, an immigrant from South Africa who runs a thriving cooking class business for English speakers, ran a free class last week which 35 members attended; and every year, the group hosts a private sale of high-end bras at discounted rates for members only.

Members hail from the full gamut of English-speaking countries, includingScotland and Zimbabwe. Silvera is responsible for bringing into the fold many members, often after overhearing them speak English in a local store or at a park. She's also started several mom-baby groups with other ESHH women, and mothers have formed English book clubs for their older children.

Longer-term immigrants also serve as a source of knowledge and information about Israel for their peers. "The group is important to me because I want to preserve the mentality and culture from where I came even though I've chosen to live in Israel," says Shafiki. "In addition, I've been in Israel for 19 years, my entire adult life, and I feel that it is my responsibility to help people who are newcomers integrate into the culture and feel at home here."

A political voice

As the group grew, it took on local issues close to members' hearts. When the Education Ministry announced in 2007 that it would cut classes for native English speakers in the schools, ESHH members engaged in the national grass-roots protest, gathering hundreds of signatures across the city in a petition to keep the program afloat in Hod Hasharon. The protest resulted in the ministry's cancellation of its plan, though the ministry instead placed the budget burden for the English program on municipalities.

When municipal elections were held in 2009, ESHH co-founder Erlich invited representatives of every party, plus the mayoral candidates, to present their platforms in English to the group. ESHH members' husbands were invited. Representatives from most of the parties and all four mayoral candidates showed up for the evening event. "It was a tremendous success and as a result, close to 60 families were able to vote in an informed way," says Erlich, who is also president of Hod Hasharon's Reform synagogue, Kehilat Yonatan.

The city's recently formed women's council recently asked ESHH to join forces, according to Erlich, and ESHH has developed collaborative relationships with Hebrew-speaking women's groups in the town.

Philanthropy continues to be at ESHH's core, always involving a personal connection to a member, as in that case of the Jason Bernstein Library. ESHH women have also donated money so that when Simone Labe returns for a visit to her native Zimbabwe, she can bring suitcases filled with school supplies, clothes and other items for charities there.

When an ESHH member's friend lost her 38-year-old husband, Jeremy Coleman, to cancer, the group raised funds for the organization started in his name, Jeremy's Circle, which provides services for children in families with cancer. ESHH holds periodic clothing drives in which members swap used clothes and give the remainder to charity.

Amy Givati credits the group for her decision to stay in Israel despite a difficult absorption process. Upon moving to Israel seven years ago from New York, her husband began working 15-hour days; she knew virtually no one and was alone at home with their first baby.

"I was lonely and my only source of contact with the outside world was the woman behind the counter at the local organic grocery store," says Givati. "I used to ask her every question imaginable until one day she just said to me, 'You should meet Sigahl Silvera.' I called up Sigahl and that opened up this whole wonderful community to me. And now, I'm really happy in Israel."

Brink, the cooking expert, says the group helped her tremendously in the wake of her divorce three years ago, which occurred a year after she and her husband arrived here from South Africa. He returned to South Africa and she became a single mother of two children with no support system to speak of until group members reached out to her.

For Dara Pincas, ESHH "has been a great support group-a real lifesaver for me because I felt like a real outsider [in Israel] and they brought me in," she says. Pincas, an African American from New York who is married to an Israeli, is a lawyer for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant. Pfizer relocated her to Israel two years ago when it opened a new legal department.

With about 50 members, the group "is as big as it can get," says Shafiki. "We're at our upper limit if we want to fit us all into each other's living rooms for events," but she says the group won't turn away any English-speaking woman in Hod Hasharon. While the group does not admit new members from outside the city "to keep it small and local," she says ESHH members advise interested women on how to start their own local group. She adds one such group recently formed in Kfar Saba and now numbers 15 people.