Q&A With Lea Tbol : A Jewish Agency Emissary in the Brazilian Periphery

“What led me to want to become an Jewish Agency shlicha (emissary) is my connection to Judaism and Israel. Here, I am discovering diverse ways of Jewish life. Here, I find the power of working with the community and a new culture, these revelations connect me even further to Judaism and allow me to create a safe space of interaction with members of the community.”

For the 26-year-old Lea, the "fresh" presence of The Jewish Agency in the Recife and Natal communities in Brazil is actually bringing her back to "the childhood of her youth." At the age of six, she immigrated with her parents from Sao Paulo to Israel. Her father, originally from Israel, and her mother, a native Brazilian, moved to Israel with Lea’s whole family for ideological Zionist reasons. They were careful to teach their children the Portuguese language, which has become an asset for Lea in her work as a shlicha to the Jewish communities in Brazil.

Apart from that, from her family’s home in Poriyah Ilit, overlooking the Sea of ​​Galilee, Lea grew up in the most Israeli atmosphere possible, and if it wasn’t for the Portuguese flowing easily from her lips, she could be suspected of being a Sabra (native Israeli) for all intents and purposes.

Being Israeli and Jewish, involved in community work and education, and activities with young people are an integral part of who she is. After a challenging military service as a teacher focused on working with youth at risk, Lea selected at the beginning of her university studies to join the prestigious "Rothschild Ambassadors" program. Participants in this program, with Lea among them, are young people who want to become the future generation of social leadership and business in Israel. Program participants are carefully chosen from thousands of applicants, and must pass successfully through several stages of screening and sorting, in order to best promote the vision of the Rothschild Caesarea Foundation of a just Israeli society and flourishing businesses dedicated to reducing social inequalities throughout higher education and the development of social responsibility.

It’s no wonder that when The Jewish Agency faced a trailblazing challenge of sending a shlicha to the small communities of northeastern Brazil, Lea was chosen as the right woman at the right time.

Recife, a two and a half hour flight away from the focal point of the Jewish community living in Sao Paulo, and Natal — which is even further, are both known for their beautiful beaches and are microcosms of themselves in different ways, and are very different from the main focal areas for Jews in Brazil. But it was there, in communities struggling every day to maintain their character of Jewish life and a relationship with Israel, and for the activities of a youth movement in Recife, and the existence of a Jewish school (the first of its kind established in Brazil nearly 100 years ago) that Lea deals everyday with bringing an Israeli spirit and agenda into this delicate fabric of life.

How do you create change in your communities under the difficult circumstances there?

I started my job as an emissary about 4 months ago and the changes I’ve made are reflected accordingly. I am in the position of an open-ended agenda and my job title changes between the two different communities. This is a very interesting role that is both empowering and challenging. My function as a shlicha in the community allows me to examine the situation on a macro level and create maximum integration between organizations, to strive for full cooperation and strengthen the communities’ sense of belonging and connection to Judaism and the State of Israel. Personally, I have discovered new strengths and openness to a different culture and lifestyle than I’ve ever known.

How do you see, from your point of view in Brazil, the status of women there compared to that of women in Israel?

The Western world has undergone massive changes in recent decades — one of the most important of which is, without a doubt, the status of women.

In Israel, many women hold key positions that in the past were only held by men. This is definitely one of the most important steps towards equality. The head of The Jewish Agency in Brazil is a woman (Revital Poleg), and in the Jewish community of Recife, most of the key communal positions are held by women. We have a community president (Sonia Shechtman Sty), a president of the Jewish school (Bella Ludmir), a school principal (Jovanna Charpack), and the head of the youth movement (Habonim Dror) is a young woman (Gabriela Turban). Ida Katz, a woman in the community where I work, was chosen as one of only two Brazilian representatives at the World Women's Conference on Judaism, which is being held in Great Britain this April.

These women, and many more, show great leadership and determination, sensitivity and faith — each unique in their own way. The female voice is being heard in our local communities and Brazilian society. There are places where the walls have not fallen completely, such as certain jokes, satires, advertisements and TV shows that are still full of chauvinism and stereotypes about the role of women at home and in society. But, like all changes, it’s a matter of time.

To what extent does being a Jewish woman influence your work?

Generally speaking, women have high communication capabilities and attentiveness. One of the most important keys to effective action is being attentive to the needs of the community and therefore, the connection of the shlicha with the community is based first and foremost on personal connections.

What led me to want to become a Jewish Agency shlicha (emissary) is my connection to Judaism and Israel. Here, I am discovering diverse ways of Jewish life. Here, I find the power of working with the community and a new culture; these revelations connect me even further to Judaism and allow me to create a safe space of interaction with members of the community.

If you were the Prime Minister of Israel, what steps would you take to promote women not by their female identity but by their skills?

Wow, that’s an ‘easy’ question.

I believe these changes often start at the bottom. We are very strong and we have the ability to set goals and achieve them. We deserve to receive roles for which we have the right skills and I can’t say whether or not setting laws deliberately requiring gender equality could create precisely the opposite of “through merit, not charity” in the workplace.

Creating equal pay between men and women in identical positions is certainly a line of thinking that I would undertake. That would lead to an understanding that salary comes equally after a lot of hard work to different people.

Today, the world has changed and women are leaders in the Western world, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, so why is it important to celebrate Women's Day?

First of all, the job isn’t yet over. Women's Day celebration is an opportunity to see the beautiful places we have brought ourselves, to celebrate women generating small changes and big revolutions, to encourage women to recognize their own strengths and power and fulfill their potential. I enjoy working with women and being in their company — there is something powerful and productive there that grows with grace, friendship, sensitivity, growth, learning and cooperation. Everyone is welcome to enjoy and celebrate with us the uniqueness, strength, beauty and wisdom of every woman.


Read more about inspring women at The Jewish Agency for Israel

Nili Surkis: Social Justice Pioneer in Arad 

Pnina Agenyahu: A Leading Woman in The Jewish Agency


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08 Mar 2016 / 28 Adar 5776 0
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