Even though she was far from home, Israeli Hannah Soltz-Aharony still focused on a heart-healthy diet, enjoying a tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread at Stone Oven on Lee Road, while she discussed the recent health care initiatives she is involved with for underserved women in Israel.
Since 2006 Soltz-Aharony has served as director of ISHA, the Hebrew word for “woman” and an acronym for the Israel Health Advancement for Women. ISHA, launched in 2001 by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Agency, coordinates an international team of health care professionals, women’s health advocates, academics, lay leaders and researchers to advance women’s health in Israel. She was in Cleveland on April 22 to speak at The Reel Israel Film program, sponsored by Siegal College.
ISHA assists marginalized and underserved women in specific, peripheral Israeli communities such as the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian Israelis, women from the former Soviet Union, Bedouins and Arab Israeli women.
Before ISHA professionals and volunteers can offer assistance, they identify and partner with well-known and respected female leaders, or “change agents,” within each community, Soltz-Aharony said.
“To effect the most positive change, we realize women will only listen to and trust people who share their same heritage, lifestyle, religious beliefs and background,” she explained.
In the case of the ultra-Orthodox, it is necessary for ISHA representatives to get the blessings of a community’s rabbi before programs can be initiated.
“When rabbis are approached by Orthodox women in the community who are working in partnership with ISHA and learn about our programs to improve women’s health, they almost always agree with our objectives and grant rabbinical approval,” said Soltz-Aharony. “This is especially important so that rabbis encourage women within their community to take advantage of free mammography.”
Statistically, women in peripheral communities, like the ultra-Orthodox and the Bedouin, have higher morbidity rates from breast cancer than the general Israeli population. This is often because of their lack of understanding about the significance of mammography as well as cultural issues, Soltz-Aharony said. “ISHA programs are designed to educate these women about the importance of mammography. We provide regular mobile mammogram units to these neighborhoods to encourage regular screenings to increase the odds for successful treatment and recovery.”
Teaching proper nutrition techniques and exercise programs to women who are often uneducated or undereducated is also a key to promoting healthier lifestyles, said Soltz-Aharony. “Once a woman understands the importance of changing her cooking habits to include less junk food, the use of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and olive oil instead of unhealthy fats, she feeds herself and her family a healthier diet.”
Other ISHA projects include promoting the well-being of disadvantaged female soldiers in the IDF, improving the self-image of women with physical handicaps, and the ongoing training of health professionals and women’s health advocates.
A recent ISHA pilot program engaged 160 wellness nurses in educational programs and socialization for new mothers in Jerusalem. It has expanded to Northern Israeli cities in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Health and now employs 340 nurses.
“These workshops teach young mothers how to cook healthier; read food labels; do exercises at home that fit into their lifestyles, like walking more often instead of taking the bus,” said Soltz-Aharony.
Funding for ISHA, which has touched more than 300,000 Israeli women, comes mainly from Federation. Massachusetts-based nonprofit Healing Across the Divides also provides some funding for this program. It is a private foundation that assists Israeli and Palestinian health care organizations in bridge-building programs that improve the health of both Palestinians and Israelis.
“We hope to have additional foundations and federations join us in our work,” said Soltz-Aharony. “Health care for the poor should be an important priority for everyone.”