Nancy Strichman
Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society

Staying in the game

The Rackman Center staff and supporting team at a Supreme Court hearing on access to family court rulings, included Adv. Keren Horowitz, Adv. Shay Zilberberg, Adv. Avishag Uzrad, Prof. Sylvie Fogel Bijaoui, Dr. Sharon Shakargy, Prof. Zvi Triger and Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari. Fall, 2020. Courtesy of Rackman Center.

Growing a bit wary of feeling hopeful? We don’t seem to get through many days without hearing the word ‘burnout.’ In our still wobbly world, it is even harder to get recharged when things seem so fragile. But there is so much to do! And so for better or worse, in order stave off burnout, we have to keep creating meaning in our own lives.

One piece of advice we often hear when we are feeling overwhelmed is to ‘climb up on the balcony.’ The higher vantage point can give us a broader perspective. It reminds us of the need to keep adjusting our lens, zooming out as well as zooming in. We are better able to make sense of the chaos. We are more apt to see the opportunities open up to us.

After all, we still have big ideas of how this game of life can be more fair, more just. And like we try to do in our own lives, there are many civil society efforts that seek to strike a balance between the macro and micro. Often these efforts work to address the bigger picture – the systems, legislation and policies – while also caring for all the individuals caught up in these wider social forces.

Adv. Keren Horowitz, CEO of the Rackman Center, at a conference discussing Rackman’s recent legal achievement on property law. The precedent-setting decision handed down by the Supreme Court will better help to protect women’s rights in Israeli family law and their economic stability after divorce. Summer, 2021.Courtesy of the Rackman Center.

Over the past few years, and certainly during the pandemic, I have had many conversations with Keren Horowitz of the Rackman Center about how to consider all the angles involved in advancing women’s status, particularly as it relates to family law in Israel and beyond. Keren and the team at Rackman Center help women at a crossroads, many of whom may be considering a separation or divorce and need to understand their options. As the CEO of the Center, Keren sees each piece of the puzzle – tracking the individual cases, the legal precedents and the legislative changes, as well as keeping tabs on the wellbeing of both the women in the midst of court proceedings and her own team members who accompany them through the process.

In Israel, and for women in particular, family crises that require legal intervention are especially fraught with difficulty. The resolution of personal status issues such as divorce, inheritance and child custody is fully entangled with the religious courts. And so it is a space that does not make it easy for women to find equal footing, especially in divorce cases involving domestic violence. This is a game that is definitely rigged. Relying on ancient Jewish law, for instance, it is the husband who grants a divorce. So even before any divorce proceedings begin at the rabbinical courts, the balance of power is clearly stacked against the wife.

While the shifting political landscape in Israel may offer some hope for change, the work of advancing women’s status within the context of family law is still an extreme sport. To be a player in this arena requires a particular set of skills, including endurance. Determination counts. And being able to see above the fray, with a bird’s eye view, is essential, especially when the rules of the game need such an overhaul.

Panel participants at the Rackman Center’s 18th Annual Conference, led by Adv. Keren Horowitz and Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, on role of the Guardian ad Litem in custody disputes in Israeli Family Law. Spring, 2021. Courtesy of Rackman Center.

Keren knows this well, and she also knows that staying engaged in meaningful action helps keep her own burnout at bay. With all the opportunities available to her – she has a stellar computer science pedigree and years at a prestigious law firm – she still chose a path to advance causes that matter most deeply to her. And at the Rackman Center, she is surrounded by a powerhouse of women who see each dimension of the work from a personal, national, and even international angle.

A Rackman Center conference in 2017 on the subject of topic of “mamzerim” (translated as ‘illegitimate’ children under Jewish law). Featured in the photograph: Former MK Dr. Aliza Lavie, Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Rivkah Lubitch ,MK Merav Michaeli, Dr. Galit Shaul, Nurit Jacobs Yinon. Courtesy of the Rackman Center.

One of those women is the Rackman Center’s founding director, Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari. An international expert on women’s status and humanitarian law, Ruth has advanced these causes around the world, especially by serving as a longtime member of the UN Committee for Elimination of Discrimination against Woman (CEDWA). And she has advanced them at home by establishing the Rackman Center, which has evolved over the past two decades into a research institution, think tank and legal aid center. Rackman has helped to achieve legislative victories such as more equitable spousal property laws and the raising of the legal age of marriage, and its work has also led to more women representatives in the rabbinical courts and more transparency in its decision-making processes.

The Rackman Center’s Mock Court program, supported by the U.S. Embassy Grants Program, trains law students from Bar Ilan University about critical issues in Israeli Family Law. Spring, 2017. Courtesy of the Rackman Center.

So while winning streaks do come, steadfastness gets lots of points too. You can see the importance of this at the Rackman Center’s Legal Aid Unit, which offers pro bono legal advice and representation for women in family disputes and divorce proceedings. The legal maze requires its own navigation system, with each component of a divorce often falling into a separate case under the religious or civil court. A woman can easily find herself enduring four individual legal proceedings – the divorce itself, the division of marital property, child custody, and child support. Burnout and exhaustion can be constant companions.

And then there is the emotional toll. In such a family-oriented society as Israel, the possibility of separation or divorce can be especially difficult. And so psycho-social support has become another essential piece of the Rackman Center’s work. The center provides support groups, counseling and a volunteer network, all of which can keep women afloat in a process that can be particularly isolating and full of stressors.

Participants in one of the Rackman Center’s emotional support groups for women in the process of divorce or separation, which is offered together with legal aid services. Fall, 2019. Courtesy of the Rackman Center.

We can keep learning from the team at the Rackman Center. They stay aware of all angles – zooming out and in as needed – marking progress along the way and showing us how change does happen over time. We need these reminders. With a backlog of stress and social issues waiting for us to address, we have to keep figuring out how to take all that fatigue, exhaustion and discontent and transform it into purpose.

In doing so, we must also watch out for burnout. For starters, as you know by now, you can step away as needed, in order to gear up for another round. Pause. Go up to the balcony. Observe. Pick your own metaphorical view – a dance floor, a chess set, a court room…Adjust your lens as you try to find a sense of coherence to the mess below.

Take a big sigh – maybe two or three – and then jump back into the arena.

About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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