Lots of young women book an Israel trip after university, but for most, it’s an arms-length experience: see the country, taste the food, indulge in the nightlife, then come back to start a career.
Torontonian Lauren Lyons did things differently. After graduating from OCAD University in 2005, she moved to the Holy Land for a volunteer internship with a feminist organization called Achoti. She found herself immersed, and “blown away by these women and their stories.”
Achoti, founded in the 1970s as a feminist organization of Jewish women from Arab countries, had been expanding its mandate to include other marginalized groups, such as Ethiopian, Bedouin and Palestinian women.
Lyons helped develop an economic initiative with a group of Ethiopian women from Kiryat Gat, which has one of Israel’s highest unemployment rates.
“Being in the peripheries in Israel can be a difficult thing,” says Lyons.
Through traditional handicrafts, such as sewing and embroidery, Achoti helped train women in business and professional sewing, with the co-operation of Comme il faut, a high-end women’s fashion company.
Soon, she says, “we realized something powerful was happening.”
More than just businesses, the women began building relationships. Achoti held seminars to bring women together from communities all over the country.
“We started to create networks, exchange ideas,” ostensibly about embroidery and sewing techniques, but also to “learn about each other,” Lyons says.
When Lyons met Safa Younes, an Arab-Israeli social worker who wanted to start an organization like Achoti for Arab women, Lyons came on board at the Arous El-bahar Association for Women in Jaffa, with which she’s still involved.
Arous El-bahar is the Arabic name for Jaffa and means “Bride of the Sea.”
Through these organizations, “we started to find a pattern. A lot of women were doing the same things, [but they] weren’t interconnected… Achoti is a leader in connecting all these women’s groups, inviting them to conferences where we’d get all these women together in one place, doing activities, sharing their embroidery and traditional handicrafts,” Lyons says.
“Underneath, it was very similar… Embroidery was connecting all these women together… stitching relationships back together. Some of these women had never met… They got to break down social barriers and prejudices.”
The women, who are seen as the “lowest” members of Israeli society, she said, arrive at conferences and events “with an identity and… skills” to show off proudly, “and have people who want to hear about it, and learn from each other’s experiences.”
One of the most popular endeavours of Arous El-bahar are its Jaffa Peace Dolls.
Using eclectic and colourful donated fabrics, Arab and Jewish women collaborate to create delightful, cuddly dolls. Each one is unique and proudly sports a fabric heart.
“They’re just adorable. All the kids really love them,” Lyons says, adding that adults find them irresistible because of what they represent.
“It’s just such a positive response.”
Younes told the Jerusalem Post that “65 to 70 per cent of the women who have taken courses through Arous El-bahar have been able to find work” following their experience.
In 2009, with the help of grants from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches, Achoti opened Israel’s first fair trade store in Tel Aviv featuring the handicrafts of Arous El-bahar and similar organizations.
Though Lyons moved back to Toronto in 2010 and works for a custom home-building company here, her ties to the economically disadvantaged, exploited and abused women of Israel are stronger than ever.
She is still involved through a network of women’s organizations that includes Arous El-bahar, Achoti, and the Rikmah Project, which promotes women’s embroidery from Palestinian villages around Jerusalem.
Hundreds have been touched by these organizations, Lyons says. Many were virtually housebound before, and these projects make them “a part of something.”
They’re not only making money, but also sharing “their culture with the mainstream Israeli society… [expressing] who they are and what a rich culture they come from, instead of being just in the periphery.”
Jewelry design, her major in university, is still a passion, and Lyons has recently collaborated on a line that incorporates Ethiopian embroidery with her own sterling silver designs.
But, fascinated by the often-overlooked lives and histories of these marginalized women, Lyons says her newest obsession is food – recipes and women’s stories from all sectors of Israeli society.
“I’m a bit of a collector,” she says. “I came back to Toronto and felt that I had discovered something, been given a gift.”
Now, she’s sharing these collected stories of “voiceless” women and weaving ever-larger networks.
Travelling back and forth multiple times each year, she’s working on a book to bring together Israeli women’s stories and recipes as part of what she appropriately calls a “tapestry.”
“It’s so important to share what’s happening in Israel, the creativity, the diversity… the beauty,” she says.
For more information about Achoti, visit achoti.com.