Purim and International Women’s Day: Empowering Women to Transform Communities

Georgina Bye lights a candle at the inauguration of the first community centre in the remote rural villages in Palghar, India

Okay, so I love Purim, and not just because it espouses the traditional Jewish festival model of “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”* (and in this case, drink).

One of the reasons that the Purim story inspires me is because in this story, G-d’s hand is hidden and is working via the characters – in particular, one powerful woman. It is Esther who is in a position of power: she is totally running the show whilst being supported and encouraged by the male characters in her life, as her cousin Mordechai empowers her to take action, and Achashverosh encourages her to utilise the means at her disposal. Without Esther taking the lead, the Jewish people would not have been saved.

Not only is Esther inspirational in her actions, but I also feel we can learn a lot from her approach. She doesn’t go in all guns blazing, shouting at Achashverosh how Haman is trying to kill her and her people. She approaches the situation using a diplomatic approach, employing her skills to build trust and create an environment in which she can exert influence. Not only does Esther use strategy and diplomacy but she engages and empowers her community to garner their support in this endeavour. The Jewish community must come together and fast, not just Esther alone.

Now this story appeals to the feminist in me, but also ties beautifully into a recent experience I had leading the Ben Azzai Programme, a collaborative programme under the auspices of the Office of the Chief Rabbi together with JDC Entwine, OLAM and Tzedek. During our 8-day trip to India, we spent time with the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) and Sundara, as well as other social enterprises, where we learnt firsthand about the work being done in the Kalwa slums and rural village of Ashte.

One of the integral pieces of many of the projects we visited was the emphasis on women’s empowerment and the concept of community development. Current research shows that women’s empowerment and gender diversity are essential elements in building stronger economies and communities. Both GPM and Sundara were empowering local women by creating opportunities for them, whether by cooking nutritious meals for children in the slums or recycling soap to give to children and teaching about hygiene. Not only could you see that these women were thriving from their employment, but their communities were benefiting too.

These women were front and centre of creating change, using their skills and knowledge to benefit their communities, lifting them out of poverty via education, healthcare and nutrition. Although the women we met and the Biblical Esther were using very different methods, both were able to make huge impact upon the community by responding to urgent needs.

Now to my mind it’s no coincidence that Purim is falling so close to International Women’s Day. The theme of #IWD17 is #BeBoldForChange. Change doesn’t come easily, it takes courage and vision. Most notably change doesn’t happen through the efforts of a single individual. If we want to create change, we, like Esther, need to bring people along with us, and often we need the support of those around us. Whether they are physically near or far, we as a Jewish community have a responsibility to help “the stranger, the widow and the orphan” – those less fortunate than ourselves. This Purim, let’s seek out modern-day Esthers, and support them so that they can raise up their communities and enable them to thrive.

*I also really love hamentashen. If you’re looking for some fun recipes, check these out. https://www.buzzfeed.com/marcelle/crazy-hamantaschen-flavors-for-purim I can personally vouch for the deliciousness of  number 27!

Georgina Bye is the UK Coordinator at OLAM and UK Community Manager at JDC Entwine.

Inspired to get involved? Check out OLAM‘s Take Action page for opportunities to study, travel, volunteer, and more…