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Everything I learn at Schechter somehow makes its way back to Ofakim

Linda Price | 19/10/2021

Jewish Activism in Ofakim

Yahaloma Zechut, an activist who founded the Community Resilience Center in Ofakim, is a Schechter MA student in the Ofakim Leadership MA program

There is nothing ordinary about Yahaloma Zechut. Even her name. At birth, she was named after her maternal grandmother, “Diana,” or “diamond” in French. But the local authorities in the northern Negev town of Ofakim urged the young immigrant parents from Egypt to give their “sabra” a Hebrew name. Hence, Yahaloma – from the Hebrew word “Yahalom,” meaning “diamond.” It’s as if Yahaloma’s struggle to be recognized as a woman of Sephardic background began at birth.

“I always had to work harder to fit in, to be better at what I did,” remembers Yahaloma. At 18, unlike most of her peers in Ofakim, Yahaloma enlisted in the army and was accepted to the first professional course – electrical mechanics – opened to women in the IDF. She was an officer in the Israeli Air Force for 30 years, reaching the rank of Commander. “Our generation paved the way for our children. While we were mechanics, our children today are engineers,” she says.

In 2012, during a Hamas rocket attack targeting southern Israel, a huge missile landed in front of Yahaloma’s home. “In any crisis, physical casualties are dealt with, but the emotional scars are left to fester.” At that moment, at age 50, Yahaloma decided to leave the army, turning her full attention to working with trauma patients in Ofakim and augmenting her education. “My agenda was to build a strong community that functions well in peacetime, so that in times of crisis, a healthy structure is in place,” she explains.

In ten short years, Yahaloma earned both BA and MA degrees in Public Policy, while at the same time initiating a long list of social and cultural projects in Ofakim, including: the Ḥosen Center for Community Resilience with a pool of over 130 volunteers; a community Bet Midrash where over 100 residents study weekly; Young Leadership and university incentive programs for the youth of Ofakim.

Most recently, Yahaloma partnered with Schechter to create a tailor-made MA program in Jewish Studies for educators in Ofakim. Today, ten residents study in the program. “My goal has always been to broaden knowledge, ask questions and push for answers; not to be simple volunteers, but to be activists,” she explains.

A highlight for Yahaloma has been uncovering her family history through a course offered by Schechter. Paying it forward, Yahaloma has initiated a “Roots Project” for her cadre of volunteers in Ofakim. Based on taped interviews, their poignant family stories will be published for future generations. “Everything I learn at Schechter somehow makes its way back to Ofakim.”

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