When an optimistic lawyer knocked on countless school doors in Israel’s periphery, telling them about her idea for a leadership program for girls, most teachers and administrators slammed the door, proclaiming, “There are no leaders here”. But these administrators were wrong — just as in the high-performing Israeli schools, among their schools were many girls with leadership potential that simply needed to be unlocked.

Most girls from Israel’s periphery grow up with extremely difficult cycles of poverty, abuse, and lack of hope for the future. When taught the self-confidence and self-awareness needed to thrive in leadership roles, they become lighthouses to their families, communities, country, and to the world. Here are just some of their stories from ALMA, a six-month leadership academy for young Israeli women from Israel’s periphery that teaches the self-confidence and self-awareness needed to thrive in leadership roles:

  • 1. Hannah: Pride in Giving
  • Every Hanukkah, ALMA asks the cohort of girls to think of a campaign they can lead that will give back to the community. One year, the girls chose to make food packages for the under-served in their community. When packing food baskets for needy families, Hannah began to cry.

    As she finished packing the gift bags, she explained that her tears were tears of joy. “When I was growing up”, she explained, “my family was always on the receiving end of these packages. I am just thrilled to be the one packing and delivering them now.”

    Hannah’s journey began when she was reprimanded for drug dealing by Israeli courts, and was ordered to live in a residential youth village for high-risk children. She had always been particularly quick and smart, and yet these positive qualities were not picked up until she was recruited for the ALMA program. Now, she is the first ALMA officer at the Gazan border- a role considered both prestigious and important to Israeli security.

    1. Keren: From Shyness to U.N. Foreign Relations Unit

    When Keren graduated from high school, she was slated to serve in an army warehouse, sorting supplies. She was a shy girl, displayed low self-esteem, and had low scores on her placement exams.

    In an attempt to bring out Keren’s personality, ALMA assigned her to a position in community relations and speaking. She was put in charge of teaching classes to the other girls in ALMA and finding lecturers for the group. Slowly, she became more confident.

    Even after the program, the army maintained that she would serve in the IDF warehouse. The director of ALMA convinced the IDF that Keren was too talented to be put in this job, that she is a different Keren now compared to six months ago. The director pushed Keren’s communication skills and fluent French. “Today, instead of working in a warehouse” Keren explains, “I’m serving with the Foreign Relations branch together with UN forces in the Golan”.

    In addition, Keren was asked by the army to stay a few more months to be a commander for the course that trains recruits who work with UN forces.

    1. Miri: Finding One’s Strength and Independence 

    Miri lived in a two-bedroom apartment with 7 of her siblings. Her mother had cancer and did not receive any support from the children’s father, who had divorced her.

    One night in ALMA, the girls were given a lecture about sexual assault.

    That night, Miri cried for hours, and finally wrote on a note to her counselor saying that her brother had been raping her and both of her sisters for 10 years now. Miri was sent to an advocacy center for sexual assault victims and learned about the process that might come if she decided to press charges.

    Miri chose to stand up for herself despite the pain she knew would ensue for herself and for the rest of the family.

    The night Miri went to the police, her brother was arrested and her mother called on the phone, claiming “You’re not my daughter anymore! How could you do this to your brother? You are lying! What are these feminists teaching you?”

    After a long process with the district attorney, counselors, and friends, the day came where Miri was to give her evidence alongside her mother and sisters. When it came time for her mother to speak, she said, still conflicted, “Miri is telling the truth.”

    Miri said that if it weren’t for the ALMA academy, she would have never gotten her secret off of her chest. At the end of Alma, Miri said “Most of all I realized the fact that we are women. Women think, know, evaluate, are independent, and free!”

    The next year, Miri’s sister enrolled into the next cohort of ALMA.

    1. Rachelli and Tamar: Religious and Secular Come Together

    In the world we live in, societies are often divided between “us” and “them.” In Israel, one of the biggest divisions is between the religious and secular.

    In the first Alma cohort, Rachelli and Tamar were placed next to each other in the sleeping arrangements. But the girls couldn’t have been more different. One used to live on the street as a drug addict. The other was religious, had overprotective parents, and had never been taught about sex, even at age 18.

    Each of the girls went to the director of Alma claiming they couldn’t sleep next to the other. The Director listened to them, but did not change the sleeping arrangements. In unlikely circumstances, the girls became best friends. Each of them came to the Director of the program, concerned about how the other would do after the program.

    Today, the girls still disagree fundamentally about many things, but they are best friends, tied in a bond of love deeper than boundaries of difference.

    1. Michal: The Do-gooder CEO

    When Michal joined the army, she found a disturbing trend. Her friends who were from the “good parts” of Tel Aviv got good jobs in the army, and those from the periphery got lesser jobs as truck drivers, secretaries, cleaning weapons, selling m&ms at an army store. Michal realized that this problem was not just a problem in Israel, but everywhere in the world. She made it her mission to ensure that all Israeli girls knows that they can be anything and do whatever they want, not just those who grew up privileged.

    So Michal quit her job in law, gathered four of her female friends, and began recruiting girls with nothing but a vision and a dream. They knocked on school doors, began talking to girls without approval or invitations, made phone calls, and were constantly told “no”. But with enough persistence (and self-proclaimed craziness), the women received $12,000 for a program that would begin in just 6 months. Then, The Jewish Agency of Israel got word of their project and agreed to give ALMA full funding and partner on the venture.

    In its first year, the five friends-turned-social-entrepreneurs educated the girls in leadership, self-esteem, setting and chasing goals, and finding partners. Before the program, 17 out of 18 of the first cohort were slated for lower positions in the army, but in six months, they gained the leadership skills necessary to become medics, educators, and commanders. In the end, they all graduated from the army with honors and 10 out of 18 with even further excellency distinctions.

    For Passover 2016, ALMA is raising funds to support its work through a “Personal Freedom Scholarship Campaign,” echoing a major theme of the holiday.