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November 25, 2019 by

Fridays with Women: Shishi Nashim

by Diana Bletter

As a muezzin called worshippers to prayer from the minaret of the main mosque on Friday morning, November 15 in the old city of Akko, in Israel’s Western Galilee, at a small theatre space within the city’s ancient stone walls psychologist Dr. Fatina Khazen was speaking to a group of about 50 women – Jewish, Muslim, Christians and Druze – about creativity.

Shishi Nashim–“Friday Women”–is the joint initiative of two grassroots organizations in Akko: the Educators Kibbutz and Akko Women’s Vision. The project is also supported by the United Jewish Israel Appeal of the United Kingdom. The two organizations have been working to spark increased community involvement and a new creativity among the city’s 50,000 residents, who are one-third Arab and two-thirds Jewish.

Mirit Sulema, a member of the Educators Kibbutz, an urban kibbutz that is part of the Dror Israel Educational Movement, said the kibbutz members, who live within the city, sponsor events for residents so that they “don’t only exist side by side in a ‘mixed city’ but feel a part of a ‘shared city’ with a sense of community.”

Akko Women’s Vision was founded in 2003 by Dr. Janan Faraj Falah, the first Druze woman to receive her Ph.D. in Israel (if not in the entire Middle East). Faraj Falah is also the 2017 winner of the Jerusalem Unity Prize, its first non-Jewish recipient. She’s a senior lecturer at the Academic College of Education in Haifa and a researcher at the University of Haifa.

Both groups have joined forces in the city to create a model of co-existence, especially after misunderstandings and underlying tensions set off riots in the city on Yom Kippur 2008. Since then, the Akko Mayor Shimon Lankri has engaged leaders in all religious and civil sectors to build bridges among residents. Ever year since then, including in 2014, when the solemn day of Yom Kippur fell on the festive Muslim day of Id Adha, Akko has been calm.

At the first “Friday Women” event, Dr. Khazen, who has worked as a psychologist in both Arab and Jewish communities, began her talk by asking the audience who thought she was creative. Most of the women raised their hands.

“I’m surprised,” said Dr. Khazen, who spoke in both Hebrew and Arabic. “Usually, only a few men in the audience raise their hands when I ask that question.” She went on to explain that “creativity is born inside each of us but it needs time to develop.” She said that each woman can find a unique way to be creative.

Naama Burstein, a religious Jewish woman and mother of three, said she had been active in Akko’s mixed Arab-Jewish groups since she moved to the city two years ago. She said she appreciates the way Akko residents try to initiate activities, even if “there’s no money but there’s a willingness.”

Burstein admitted that she’s not the typical religious woman. “It’s sad that more religious women don’t try to engage with their Arab neighbors,” Burstein said. She cites her open-mindedness with the fact that she didn’t graduate high school and start a family right away, but first lived in Russia and Germany, where she gained first-hand knowledge of getting along with a variety of different people.

“She’s always been special,” added her mother, Shoshana Giat, with a smile, as she and her daughter sat talking with two Arab women before the start of the event.

Dr. Faraj Falah said that Akko Women’s Vision has sponsored a variety of programs in the city, including women’s language courses in both Arabic and Hebrew, lectures on diabetes and health issues for older women, women-only art exhibits, writing contests for children, and building a community playground in downtown Akko. She hopes that the group encourages women to take leadership roles and help bring about peace.

The two groups plan to have five more cultural events through June, said Yam Urbach, one of the event organizers. The theater space, also known as JAM, is used in the evening for improvisation musical and theater performances to bring Arab and Jewish residents together.

Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah said that she is optimistic women will continue to attend the cultural events but Friday is challenging because “Jewish women are cooking for Shabbat and Muslim women are praying.”

Nafisa Shtawey, a member of the Akko Vision Group, said that she moved into a Jewish neighborhood of Akko in 1988, and at first the neighbors “closed the door in my face.” But with time, she showed them that she respected them and earned their respect. We live hand in hand and I showed them there’s no difference between us.

“After a while,” said Shtawey, while covering her tracheotomy tube, “I was teaching them how to make pitas.”

Burstein’s mother, Giat, who was born en route as her parents traveled from Yemen to Israel, said that because she lives in Ramat Gan, a large, predominantly Jewish city in the center of the country, she has less interaction with different groups. She was impressed by the unique relations between Arab and Jewish women and the special atmosphere of Akko.

“I found all this interesting and inspiring,” she said.


Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including a novel, A Remarkable Kindness (HarperCollins) and The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, which was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. Since 1991, she has lived with her family in Shavei Zion, a small beach village in the Western Galilee, writing for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Tabletmag, Times of Israel, and a wide variety of publications.