Three Women You Should Know

An occasional series highlighting women you should know.
January, 18 2019

Gal Lusky
Israeli Flying Aid

Gal Lusky, founder of Israeli Flying Aid (IFA), has brought humanitarian help into some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. Lusky was born on Kibbutz Hokok in northern Israel, and she says her upbringing provided her with independence, while her Jewish values taught her to help others in need. She never thought of a career in international aid until 1992, when her brother was seriously wounded during his army service. She sat by his bedside for nearly a year and came to understand “how blessed I was to be born in Israel with its amazing medical infrastructure,” she says. “I wanted to bring this to others in the world.”

Lusky, now 50, founded IFA in 2005, and today the organization has more than 200 volunteers and operates around the world, including in countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. The organization supplies tents, food, medical supplies, baby formula and hygiene products and trains locals in search and rescue operations and firefighting. Whether Lusky and her volunteers reveal that they are Israeli depends on the country’s attitude toward Israel and Israelis. In friendly countries, they work openly with a visible Israeli logo, in some cases even receiving logistical aid from official Israeli sources, such as El Al. In more hostile countries, they work undercover as Europeans.

In Syria, where IFA has been working since the outbreak of the civil war, volunteers work completely undercover, and almost all of them are native Arabic speakers. Lusky estimates that she and her team have brought millions of dollars’ worth of medical equipment and supplies into Syria, including 15 tons of baby formula and more than a million dry-meal boxes, each of which can feed a family for about two weeks. IFA has also helped establish more than a dozen hospitals and clinics and trained “the White Helmets,” a group of Syrian volunteers who provided search and rescue and other aid to civilians until they were evacuated by Israel in July.

Lusky is critical of the United Nations, which requires that humanitarian aid be channeled through the host governments. In Syria, she observes, that approach is pointless, since the government is killing its own people. She works with Syrian opposition groups, she says, because the government tries to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching civilians who are allied with—or forced to be allied with—rebel forces. Her credo: “Nobody asks permission to kill; we don’t ask permission to save lives.”

—Eetta Prince-Gibson

Rebecca Heller
International Refugee Assistance Project

When President Trump signed an executive order on January 27, 2017, temporarily refusing entry to the United States to people from seven majority Muslim countries, 4,000 lawyers descended on airports around the country to offer assistance. Many of them came through a network created by Rebecca Heller—the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal services to refugees in the processes of application, appeal and resettlement under U.S. and international law.

Heller began her work during a summer internship in Israel in 2008, when she was still a law student at Yale. While there, she visited Jordan and heard heart-rending stories of persecution, discrimination and poverty from Iraqis who had fled their homes—and who were now in dire need of international protection and resettlement. Upon returning to Yale, Heller cofounded IRAP (originally the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project) to mobilize law students who wanted to help. Not yet admitted to the bar, the students were unable to represent people themselves, so they recruited private lawyers to take on their legal cases pro bono.

After graduating in 2010, Heller became IRAP’s executive director. Under her leadership, the organization has successfully lobbied for broad reforms in the U.S. and abroad, including the enactment of nine U.S. laws. In addition to New York, IRAP now has offices in Jordan and Lebanon. It also has 29 law school-affiliated chapters, whose members work with 120 law firms and multinational corporations offering their services, at present handling nearly 3,000 cases. To date, 194,146 individuals from 73 countries have been helped through IRAP’s direct legal assistance and legal help hotline, and the organization has managed to resettle 4,149 people in 18 countries.

Heller, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant this past October and is the youngest recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize, says Judaism is central to her vocation. “My personal sense of the importance of being Jewish was, ultimately, what led to my work with refugees,” she says. “We are a people who have been in the diaspora for 5,000 years and are really still trying to figure out what home means and where home is.” She adds, “If home was really chained to a specific geography, Judaism would have ceased to exist in Babylonian times.”

With 68.5 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide, according to the UN’s refugee agency, Heller’s work will be in demand for many years to come. But she is pessimistic about the immediate future for those seeking refuge in the U.S. “We have an administration that is obviously anti-refugee, and I think Jews should be especially concerned. It looks a lot like World War II, when we knew that terrible atrocities were happening to people, but we turned a blind eye and pretended they weren’t happening, refused to take them in, and the results were catastrophic. I think the insistence on looking inward and being isolationist is going to have really dire consequences—humanitarian, but also for the U.S.’s perceived role as a global leader.”—Dina Gold

Alma Hernandez
Arizona House of Representatives

In January, Alma Hernandez became the first Mexican-American Jewish woman ever to hold public office in the United States. As a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, the 25-year-old community organizer is also the youngest member of Arizona’s state legislature. Her age is one of the many barriers Hernandez has successfully overcome on her way to victory. “I know a lot of the time there’s hesitation on the part of community members who say, ‘Oh, they’re too young to run’ or ‘They’ll never be able to understand and represent us because they’re too young,’” she says. But Hernandez is far from a political newbie. She has worked as a campaign volunteer for 11 years, and she served as an official Arizona delegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic convention.

The Arizona native describes herself as a progressive, and she currently serves on the Health and Human Services Committee. “I think health care is a right, not a privilege,” she says. “Everybody should have access to quality health care regardless of their status.” Hernandez, who holds a bachelor’s degree in health care and a master’s in public health from the University of Arizona, says traveling abroad to learn how governments with fewer resources provide health care to their citizens galvanized her to change the way the industry operates in the United States.

Her agenda is also influenced by her upbringing—in particular, her family’s emphasis on tikkun olam. “It’s really how we were raised,” she says. “Just because you’re doing well doesn’t mean everybody else around you is. Every time there’s a need, everyone comes together, and that’s something beautiful about who we are as people.”

Hernandez’s Jewish roots run deep. Her mother’s father, originally from Cananea, a small mining town in Northern Mexico, was Jewish, and she was always aware of her heritage. She says that, in many ways, hers was the typical Jewish-American story: She worked with adults with special needs at the JCC, held positions at the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council and cofounded Tucson Jews for Justice.When she told her parents that she wanted to find her spiritual path through Judaism, they emphasized that she’d have to make a serious commitment. She did just that: At 16, she started taking Hebrew classes. She then went through the conversion process with a local rabbi and had a naming ceremony, where she chose the name Malka Librada, in honor of her great-grandmothers, Mercedes and Librada. To celebrate the conversion and the new name, “I had a huge party for both,” Hernandez recalls. “In Mexican families, like Jewish families, it’s really hard to keep events small.”

Politics also runs in the family: Hernandez’s brother serves in the Arizona state legislature for a different district, and her younger sister, Consuelo, won a seat on the Sunnyside Unified School District—making the trio the first three siblings elected to public office in Arizona at the same time. Hernandez’s response when she heard the news? “Baruch Hashem.”—Anis Modi

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