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Still dreaming of freedom 3500 hundred year after the Exodus from Egypt: Meet Women of the Wall Director and Shatil fan Lesley Sachs

Still dreaming of freedom 3500 hundred year after the Exodus from Egypt: Meet Women of the Wall Director and Shatil fan Lesley Sachs

Lesley Sachs is one of those lucky people who have a mission in life.

“I believe I was put on earth to try to better society for future generations,” says the 58-year-old Israeli with the English accent. “I feel lucky that I can pursue this mission.”

These days, Lesley is using her tremendous energies, motivation and abilities to direct Women of the Wall (WOW,) an NGO that fights to secure women’s right to pray at the Western Wall as they please. (They often are confronted with ultra-Orthodox protesters spitting, throwing chairs and cursing them.) As part of upgrading the way WOW communicates with the world, Lesley and 15 WOW staff and board members attended a Shatil training, Photographing Protests and Demonstrations.

“Our self-photography and the videos we take on our phones are more effective since the workshop,” says Sachs. “Just today (Rosh Chodesh Nisan,) a guard at the Wall asked one of our board members to take off her coat. The judge had ruled the guards are not permitted to treat WOW in a way different from others. She knew just what to do. She took out her smart phone, knew how to hold it correctly, started videotaping and said to the guard, ‘Are you saying I should take off my coat? So we have this on video and can use it in our court appeal.” (The court ruled against humiliating body searches at the entrance to the Wall as well as police protection and the right to pray without violent disturbance.)

Sachs comes by her passion naturally. Rather than raise their daughters in an apartheid country, Lesley’s parents left South Africa for England and then, at her Zionist mother’s urging, to Israel. Sachs, who was five when she arrived says, “I loved Israel from the first moment!”

Sachs describes her army service as a crucible of machismo and sexism that helped shape who she is today.

“Each and every one of our commanders felt we were there to serve them in every way possible. It was degrading,” says Sachs. “But it was a wakeup call. I didn’t go into the army as a feminist but I came out as one.”

As a literature and philosophy student at Haifa University, Sachs helped to found Isha L’Isha, the Haifa Feminist Center, from her living room.

In 1990, the Israel Women’s Network (IWN) asked her to be its spokesperson – a rare position in a social change NGO at that time.

Says Sachs: “(Former NIF board member and IWN chair) Prof Alice Shalvi, who has always been a visionary, understood that in order to bring change you must work with the media. I had no idea how to do any of this but Shatil trained me. Four years later, IWN asked me to become executive director and Shatil taught me how to run the organization. Shatil also helped me when I founded “project Kesher”, an empowerment group for women from the FSU and guided me in revitalizing the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) when I became its chair.

“Shatil has been a real fertilizer for growth, helping social change organizations  flourish. Israeli social change NGOs have many financial restraints, so it’s critical to have an organization like Shatil that helps us maximize our resources. I always spread the word about Shatil trainings and send my staff. I’m a huge fan.”

Sachs believes Israel has made “tremendous progress” in the area of women’s rights – from the IDF (she worked at IWN when it brought the precedent-setting Alice Miller case) to government support for rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters to gender studies programs at universities to progressive legislation.

“I very much feel a sense of accomplishment,” she says. “But there’s still a long way to go. The whole arena of state and religion, including marriage and divorce, is a huge challenge.”

But Sachs remains hopeful.  “Women should have the right to pray their way and liberal Jews should be treated with respect, dignity and love. If I weren’t an optimist I couldn’t keep doing this. I believe in change. The world is moving all the time to a better place.”

Posted in: Religious Pluralism

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