"Strong Bananas"

 

By Eliza Croen, Israel Service Corps (ie Oranim Community Involvement)
 
Living and volunteering in Ramla as Israel Service Corps’ pioneer group has been a challenging and rewarding 5-month experience.  We have had the opportunity to design our own projects while immersing ourselves within this welcoming Israeli community.  Koach Bananot started just like any other project: as an idea.  It was a thought shared between my roommate, Gabi, and myself about how we could incorporate our passions for women’s empowerment while we were here in Ramla. Gabi’s work with the Vagina Monologues and her strong background in theatre coupled with my work in Women’s Studies and women’s rights activism in college prepared us for our empowerment project.  
 
We wanted to create a space for girls to speak their minds and discuss women’s issues in a safe and welcoming environment.  We would use Gabi’s skills in theatre to help them speak in front of the group, present their ideas, and ultimately become informed, empowered, enthusiastic, leaders as citizens of Ramla and of the world. We had all the right ideas and together we made a great team, but we had no idea where to start.  How would we be able to get people’s attention with such a large language barrier before us? 
 
Many people in Israel speak English as they are required to study it in school.  Nevertheless, not many high school students are familiar with the English words “women’s empowerment” or “feminism.”  So we set off to garner interest armed with the few Hebrew words we knew and the hope that we could break through the barrier.  We met with a variety of women from the city to get a better sense of how women’s interest organizations function in Israel.  We sat in on meetings and met individually with leaders of different women’s groups. Then came the time to begin recruiting.  
 
We went to Ramla-Lod High School and spoke with the school’s Principal.  We presented our ideas and explained our past experiences working with women’s groups.  She loved the idea of an empowerment group for girls, and we immediately set a date for Gabi and myself to come back and recruit.  Initially, the plan was to talk to 10th, 11th and 12th graders.  However, our plans were quickly changed once we received overwhelming enthusiasm.  On that day when we returned to Ramla-Lod to recruit, we went into about 6 or 7 classrooms of 10th graders and spoke briefly (in English) about our plans to start a group for girls.  After only speaking with the 10th grade, so many girls were so eager to sign up that we could not possibly take on more.  It felt incredible to see so much enthusiasm from these young girls.
 
For the week leading up to our first meeting, Gabi and I continuously bounced ideas off of each other.  We mapped out our goals for the girls, coming to a mutual understanding of what we wanted to accomplish with the group. Gabi and I decided to spend the first meeting getting to know them and establishing a safe environment built on trust and respect.  We played ice-breaker games and listened to each other as we took turns introducing ourselves to the group.  Many of the girls were friends from school, but not all of them knew each other.  By the end of the first day, they were all kissing and hugging each other goodbye, looking forward to seeing each other the next day in school.  The group was ready to begin talking.
 
We spent the next couple of weeks bringing some pressing women’s issues to the floor, such as women’s roles in the household and in society, gender and cultural stereotypes, body image and the media, mother- daughter relationships, women around the world, and sexual harassment and abuse.  Each session began with a game or an interactive presentation of some kind, involving the girls from the on-set in the day’s material.  
 
We would then open up the floor to discussion, giving the girls an opportunity to express their feelings or share past experiences.  Every session was wrapped-up with 10 or 15 minutes dedicated to writing.  We wanted the girls to reflect on what they had heard and discussed, further processing the day’s topic.  With each passing session, the girls opened themselves more as the relationships grew with deepening trust.  They would divulge more about themselves to Gabi and me and were more willing to share personal anecdotes within group conversations.
 
For our final meeting we invited the girls over to our house to meet the rest of our roommates, meet the director of our program and eat some delicious sufganiyote.  We talked about what the girls had gained from this experience and whether or not they would be willing to continue the work they had only just begun.  We decided to keep the group going as best we can.  With me living in Tel Aviv and Gabi coordinating temporarily from Los Angeles, we hope that we will be able to keep this group alive.
 
The press in Israel caught wind of our Koach Bananot (it’s a play on the words for “strong girls”) and became intrigued.  Some of the girls have been interviewed on the radio, by journalists and soon will be recorded for a television broadcast.  At first we were concerned that so much attention might cause the girls to shut down and retreat back into themselves, a risk Gabi and I were hesitant to take.  However, the girls were thrilled to be interviewed and to discuss all they had learned while being members of this passionate group of young women.
 
I have learned so much from watching these girls grow as informed and independent young women.  Their new-found passion feeds my own and I know we can expect great things from these vibrant and enthusiastic "Strong Bananas."
 

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