As we stand on the cusp of a new year, I search for inspiration, and I think of Esther Eillam.
I want to share that inspiration with you.
Esther was a woman of words. A prolific writer, she produced groundbreaking academic works that were quoted in the Israeli Supreme Court and got her appointed by the Prime Minister to Knesset committees.
However, for me, her powerful intellectual insights were all the more meaningful because Esther always coupled her beliefs with actions.
She didn’t just write about social justice. She lived it. She made it happen.
In 1977, a young woman had been walking home after her evening classes at Tel Aviv University, when she was brutally raped. Following the assault, she turned to the police for help only to be shamed, victim-blamed, and dismissed. She left a suicide note, which was later released to the press. In it, she stated that she felt as if she had been raped twice: first by the perpetrator and then by the system that was supposed to aid her.
Many people shook their heads in sorrow reading these tragic words in the newspaper.
Esther did something about it.
She and her friend Joanne Yaron came together with a group of other women and helped to found Israel’s first-ever sexual assault crisis hotline in 1978. She served as the hotline coordinator for the first four years of its existence.
When she passed away a little less than two months ago, she had been volunteering on that same hotline for 45 years.
Just three days before she died, Esther had showed up for her weekly Saturday night shift. Can you imagine what it takes to listen to whispered suffering and shadowed secrets from survivors of sexual violence for four and a half decades? When I think of the heavy mental load she carried in order to ensure that survivors know that they are not alone, I am humbled. That type of commitment — to being there for others on the ground, when she could have easily justified moving on after having ‘done her part’ – is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
While this service alone was beyond incredible, for Esther it wasn’t enough. She saw other needs, other injustices that needed to be fixed. So, she put herself out there to fix them.
She stood in solidarity at hundreds of social justice demonstrations, many of which she had a hand in organizing – from Israel’s first “Take Back the Night” marches, to the nation’s first demonstration against rape in 1985 and in response to the notorious Kibbutz Shomrat gang rape case 1988. Esther was still out demonstrating for causes that she believed in at the age of 84.
Women were unable to find a safe, therapeutic space that understood the broader issues that they faced. So, Esther helped to found The Counseling Center for Women in Ramat Gan and Jerusalem.
The growing sex trafficking rates disturbed her, so Esther got involved in activism with Israel’s Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the Tamar Organization for women in prostitution, and the We Are Worthy Organization, to aid women to leave prostitution and change public discourse around the issue of prostitution.
She was a founding mother of Israel’s movement for the advancement of the status of women, and was heavily involved in crucial organizations such as The Feminist Movement in Israel, The Women’s Organizations Forum, and The Israel Women’s Network. Yet, even within this progressive movement, she was attuned to the needs of vulnerable or marginalized populations and ready to push the boundaries forward with them. Recognizing that the majority of the feminist organizations were coming from a middle-class, Ashkenazi perspective and based in the central region of the country, she understood that the issues facing women of Mizrachi heritage were being left under-addressed. As a Mizrachi woman herself, Esther knew how critical it was that women of all backgrounds have a movement that echoes their voices, so she got involved and helped to establish the Ahoti/My Sister movement.
Whenever Esther saw people in need, she put her actions where her mouth was and tried to help. It wasn’t just women’s issues. She got involved in peace dialogue, in human rights advocacy, in educational initiatives…the list of broadscale impact and quiet, seemingly small acts of kindness is endless.
Esther was a unique blend of brilliance, compassion, courage, fortitude and moxie. She was an ideological compass that always pointed towards building a more just world.
I am deeply grateful that I had the privilege of witnessing Esther at work. She inspired me and continues to inspire me. May we all be blessed in this coming year to fulfill our own unique potential to make this world a better place. May we find the inspiration that we need to point us to where we are needed.