Austin Female Philanthropists Empower and Rebuild Community at Home and in Israel
Left to right: Michal Uziyahu, speaker, Kim Kotzin, Desert States, Past Board President; Chayla Furlong, JNF-USA Director, Central Texas; Heilla Lain, Event Chair. Photo credit: David Finkel Photography.
By Robyn Schwartz
The city of Austin welcomed 50,000 new residents between July 2020 and July 2021, and behind each arrival is the story of a person seeking community in their thriving new locale.
When Samantha Schwab arrived in town as a young professional, years prior to the pandemic, she was eager to meet other like-minded women in the same stage of life. She initially had difficulty finding the friendship and fellowship she was accustomed to in Chicago’s big and bustling Jewish community. Schwab was, however, familiar with and when she discovered the organization had an upcoming event in Austin, she jumped at the opportunity to expand her social network. As Schwab began to attend more events, she quickly felt a natural connection between women’s community-building and philanthropic giving.
According to the University of Indiana’s Women’s Philanthropy Institute, women like to give collectively, and their giving is driven by empathy and feelings of connection. In addition to raising funds for their chosen causes, women-driven giving groups provide members with social support in the form of intra- and intergenerational mentorship, friendship, and camaraderie through such challenges as navigating the workplace and mothering.
Furthermore, women control 40 percent of global wealth and are increasingly likely to be the primary decision-makers when it comes to household giving. “Learning about that really spoke to me,” said Schwab. “We need to band together because we have so much power.”
Jewish National Fund-USA began harnessing that power when it launched its giving society, Women for Israel (WFI), which has local chapters across the U.S., in 1999. In just two decades, nationally, it now accounts for over a third of the organization’s annual donations.
Two years after the last Austin Women for Israel gathering was moved online at the onset of the pandemic, Austin’s new JNF-USA Women for Israel Committee is now poised to take off once again with the community’s own philanthropic group of “wonder women” being championed by Schwab—Committee Chair—and Chayla Furlong, who joined JNF-USA as Southwest Director, Central Texas, in March 2021.
“Women for Israel is a unique collective of like-minded female philanthropists,” said Furlong. She notes that Women for Israel’s activities will afford Austin’s Jewish women an opportunity to cultivate knowledge, tools, and inspiration to share positive developments in Israel while also empowering them in the face of rising antisemitism.
“It’s hard to talk about Israel unless you have stories and narratives directly from Israelis,” added Furlong. “Jewish National Fund-USA fosters one-on-one connections with Israelis like no one else. Women living in Israel are thriving because of the work Women for Israel are doing here at home, and we have to create opportunities for women in Austin to hear about their impact.”
On Wednesday, May 11 at the Austin Public Library, more than 150 women gathered for the Austin Women for Israel Luncheon. The event was one of the first WFI events to be held since the committee’s official formation. Modern-day pioneer and community leader Michal Uziyahu, director of the Eshkol Community Center in Israel, was the keynote speaker. Uziyahu shared her experiences raising her children in this challenging location, which borders Gaza and Egypt. She shared how life there is measured in 15 seconds. “Whatever you are doing, you have 15 seconds to run from a rocket into shelter and save your life,” Uziyahu said. Noting that to many in America, this may seem like a difficult way to live, Uziyahu shared examples of Jewish optimism and how they still raise happy children, even in a time of war. “We take madness and turn it into beauty,” she said.
A table at the Austin Women for Israel Luncheon. Photo credit: Allison Teegardin
Event Chair Heilla Lain has lived in Austin for nearly two decades. As the product of an Israeli mother and an American father, she has had one foot in the U.S. and another in Israel since her childhood in Houston, ensconced in a multicultural Hebrew-speaking Israeli community.
Lain is passionate about women’s philanthropy and Austin’s Jewish community. She believes that women’s events are critical to growing women’s engagement, from having a female speaker to having women be the ones to check the box on the donor card.
With the luncheon arriving on the heels of Mother’s Day, Lain acknowledges the important element of l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) that runs through women’s giving. “My mom did the work to keep me connected—having me attend day school, speaking Hebrew at home, sending me on trips to Israel. I want my 18-year-old daughter to see my involvement and understand that I’m doing this because Israel is important to our family and the Jewish people. I want my daughter to continue in our footsteps as a passionate advocate for Israel.”
Schwab and Lain both said they hope that Austin’s Women for Israel committee and the luncheon will be avenues for women’s community building; Schwab, remembering her early days in Austin, is especially mindful of creating a welcoming space for recent newcomers. Their goal was accomplished.
One attendee, Arielle Levy, Shalom Austin’s Women’s Philanthropy and Missions Director, said, “Being in a room filled with women in support of Israel was nothing short of inspirational. We heard stories of connection to Israel from impressive women leaders who are committed to a thriving Israel and also to the growing Jewish community in Austin. No matter how far apart we may be, from each other or Israel, it’s comforting to know that we really are stronger together.”
“The magic of connecting to a mission happens in person. Women have missed each other and are eager to gather and rally around a cause they support,” said Furlong.
To learn more about Women for Israel contact Chayla Furlong, Director, Central Texas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (512) 410-1438 x948.
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