The Isha Koach Story

Who says there is a lack of Jewish women leaders…

“Jewish Women Social Entrepreneurs”…we googled that twelve months ago and to our frustration, just like the little carrot seed, nothing came up. But we knew that there were Jewish women out there who had founded and were leading non-profit organizations having huge impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable women and children in the world. We had just found Laura Stachel, making childbirth safer by solar powering maternity clinics in Africa and Asia so that women didn’t have to give birth in the dark. We had met Melissa Kushner, helping communities in Malawi start their own businesses so they could support local children orphaned by AIDS. We were inspired by Sivan Borowich, introducing Israeli technology to African villages to power schools, medical clinics and provide clean water. We met Catherine Lieber Shimony, paying living wages to women artisans in Africa, Asia and Central America and selling their crafts online. And we listened in awe as Jessica Beckerman shared the early results of her work in Mali – a massive reduction in child deaths after just two years of work. The sad fact was that these women, despite being inspired by their Jewish faith to do this work, were almost invisible to the Jewish philanthropic community. Not one of them was funded by an established Jewish organization or recognized as a Jewish leader.

So a small group of women donors set out to change all of that. In early 2012, ten of us formed a giving circle supported by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and called ourselves, “Isha Koach” (Woman of Strength). This was a testament to the Jewish women leaders we intended to support; to the extraordinary women they served; and a little bit to ourselves because we knew we were forging a new path. We also enjoyed the play on the Hebrew expression, “Yasher Koach” (more power to you), because we certainly intended to give more power and acknowledgement to the Jewish women doing this work. In the early months of 2012 we discovered more than twenty Jewish women social entrepreneurs running their own non-profits. We made contact with most of them; interviewed a lot of them, and finally granted five of them a total of $103,000. 

We gave to Laura Stachel who founded We Care Solar so she could power up more maternity clinics in Uganda and Sierra Leone – two African countries where all too often women die in childbirth. One of the great things about Laura’s work is she trains local women to install and maintain the solar power units, which fit into a bright yellow suitcase and are portable! We gave to Melissa Kushner at Goods for Good so the community she works with in Malawi could build a local business and use the profits to take care of their own children orphaned by AIDS. Melissa is all about building self-sufficient communities that can provide paid jobs to women. We gave to Catherine Lieber Shimony at Global Goods Partners so she could buy more products from women artisans in India, Nepal, Bolivia and Guatemala to sell online. These women are paid a living wage for their work and the women’s work often sustains entire communities. We gave to Sivan Borowich so she could build a water pump in a village in either Uganda or Tanzania – we will work with her and the Jewish Heart for Africa team to document the impact on local women who can spend up to 3 hours each day getting water from remote locations outside of their villages.  Sivan is a great ambassador for Israel and uses Israeli solar and water technology in her African projects whenever she can. And we gave to Jessica Beckerman at Project Muso so that 20 women in the slums outside Bamako, the capital of Mali, could become Community Health Workers and earn a wage at the same time improving the health of their community. The way Jessica and her team train these local women and support them to do their jobs is having a huge impact on the health of local children – many, many fewer children are dying thanks to Project Muso’s special approach, which is grounded in Jewish values.

To our amazement, when we added up how many women and children would benefit from our investment we found that we were directly helping 7500 women, 8,000 children and thousands of families spread across the globe. All of the Jewish women we granted told us how honored they were to be recognized as Jewish women leaders for their work, and how unusual that was. Laura Stachel said, “WE CARE Solar was founded by Jews, and we promote Jewish values. One of my favorite moments in Nigeria was when I spent Chanukah with a Muslim family. I taught them the Chanukah blessings and we made a menorah out of a metal tray one night, and out of a watermelon on another. We used the candles that are truly needed for light each night – there was no electricity in these homes. They sang my songs and then I learned their songs.”

Investing in women is good for future economic and human development – the world knows that now. Healthier women have healthier children. More educated mothers have more educated children. Give more income to women and they spend it on their families creating a ripple effect that benefits entire communities. All over the world, donors are investing in women as the way to break the cycles of poverty, violence and sickness that hold so many countries back. We are excited that a group of Jewish women donors can make a contribution to this global movement to advance women and do so in a way that shines a light on Jewish women leaders. But we also need to light a spark – a spark that ignites other Jewish donors to invest in Jewish women social entrepreneurs and the work they are doing all over the world. Because at Isha Koach we believe that the destiny of Jewish women is entwined with the destiny of women everywhere.

If you google “Jewish Women Social Entrepreneurs” today, we are delighted to report you will find Isha Koach and the Jewish women leaders we have supported to date. These women, like the carrot seed, are finally coming up! But there are many more out there and just imagine the thousands of women and children whose lives could be transformed if the wider Jewish philanthropic community got behind the Jewish women social entrepreneurs who are driving the transformation.

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