Gail Reimer doesn’t use the word hero lightly. But then her mother’s example always stands to remind her of what true heroism is.
Natalia Twersky risked her life innumerable times during the Holocaust to save the lives of others. As a young mother of 26 she stole out of the Plashow labor camp in Poland to hide her one-year-old son with a Christian school friend. She was on Schindler’s list but when she couldn’t get her sister and others on it, she went with them to Auschwitz. She became a kapo to protect them and endured horrific punishment trying to secure food for them. One beating rendered her almost unrecognizable.
“My mother wanted me to know what she survived so I could appreciate the importance of investing my own life with purpose, of making a meaningful difference in our broken world,” says Reimer, 63, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which documents Jewish women’s stories both to understand the past as well as to empower women to be agents of change. “Her life inspired me to live by Hillel’s saying: `If I am only for myself who am I?’”
For Reimer, the risk factor is a critical aspect of heroism. “We are always in search of role models—people who do courageous, wonderful, important, visionary acts—but they are not necessarily heroic. I reserve the word for a particular kind of act that’s more demanding than bravery or doing what’s good and right.” Even when profiling women for two JWA exhibits, Reimer stayed away from the term. She dubbed the first group of activists (including Emma Lazarus and Bella Abzug), “women of valor,” and the second, contemporary group, “women who dared.”
The word hero means different things to different people. Today, it is overused, misused, trivialized and almost trite. Yet innumerable quiet, unheralded heroes live among us. They are people who could live simple and uncomplicated lives but do something out of the ordinary to strengthen their families, their communities and the world. They show us what’s possible and motivate our own capacity for heroism.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, 40, spiritual leader of IKAR, “a Jewish community of inspiration and experimentation” in Los Angeles, defines a hero as someone who can overcome challenges, both real and perceived, to fight for something she believes needs to change—regardless of the potential dangers. The risk could range from shattering an image (that others have of you) and losing a job to imprisonment or life endangerment. “A hero is able to listen to a call that comes from a deeper place—a call that too often we are trained to suppress because it’s unpopular or doomed to failure, so we don’t heed it.” Heroes, she adds, redefine what’s possible and do the unexpected. They can either be leaders of social movements or individuals who “break script” in their own lives to overcome what has been designated the “proper” role for them.
Jewish history—both ancient and modern—reverberates with many women who model heroism both larger than life and “ordinary.” The Passover story starts with two God-fearing midwives, Shifra and Puah, who defy Pharaoh and craft a clever strategy to save the Israelite babies. Unlike Moses, who is singled out, given a vision and supported with tools, miracles, magic tricks and divine communication, the midwives act on their own, points out Rabbi Jill Hammer, an author and director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. “While they are extraordinary and exemplary, the midwives are not distinguished from the people around them—except in their values,” says Hammer. “They save lives with their own gifts and with their own intentions. All of us have moments when we feel called and when we have the capacity to act in heroic ways.”
Yocheved, Moses’s mother, risked her life in giving birth and then hiding her son for three months. She enlisted her daughter Miriam’s help to watch him in a basket on the river. Though at the moment they were saving the life of only one person—Moses—Hammer notes that ultimately their actions led to the redemption of the entire Jewish people. “We don’t know the scale or outcome of our actions. No act of courage no matter how personal or small can be assumed to be insignificant.”
Brous points out that a biblical midrash gives Miriam a heroic role at the age of five when, according to the story, her parents responded to Pharaoh’s edict by separating so they would not have more children. “Little Miriam insisted her parents get back together. If she hadn’t, Moses would not have been born,” Brous says. “The rabbis put that strength in the voice of a five-year-old.”
Ironically, most people who act heroically don’t consider themselves heroes. Felicita Jakoel (pronounced ya-koh-el), 56, who helped open the doors for 300 Albanian Jews to leave the rigid, restrictive, Communist-controlled regime and emigrate to Israel in 1991, says she is frightened by the word because it calls to mind a person who does great things and changes people’s lives. “I did what I could but I’m a normal, average person that at a certain moment did something I was hoping to do all my life—leave Albania and go to the free world.”
Jakoel, who today lives in Tel Aviv, was raised in a Zionist home despite the danger of maintaining a Jewish identity. Though Albania saved all of its 200 Jews as well as 2000 refugees during the Holocaust, it became a strict dictatorship in 1945, “hermetically sealed” from the world until Communism began to fall at the end of the 20th century. When the government started issuing passports in 1990, Jakoel obtained one to visit her cousins in Athens. There, she met with the Israeli ambassador and took her first secret trip a few months later to Israel, portrayed at the time in the Albanian media as the “black beast of the world.” Upon returning home she contacted her fellow Jews, told them what she had seen and felt and encouraged them to make aliyah. They did so as a community in 1991.
Jakoel says that when she thinks of heroes, the Albanians who battled genocide during the Holocaust spring immediately to her mind. “The German killing machine came to halt in small Albania. Each story of rescue is more beautiful than the next.” She recounts an incident in a remote village where the Batinos, a Jewish family, were saved by the Albanian Mecaj family. When the Germans arrived, the Jews were terrified—but to ease their fear the Albanian owner put his son in the attic with them. The Albanians—70 percent of whom are Muslim and 30 percent Christian—follow an ancient code of honor called Besa that transcends religion, geography and socioeconomic status, she explains. “If a stranger comes to your house, even your enemy, you are obligated to help him. If you do not, you will be ostracized by the community. This kept the Albanians for thousands of years like the Torah kept the Jews. It was stronger than everything until Communism destroyed it.”
Today Jakoel works as a tour guide at Israel’s Independence Hall. “It’s like closing the circle,” she says, acknowledging that “you need certain amount of courage to do what I did. Others might have been afraid to go secretly to Israel.” A hero, she says, needs courage, persistence and an ideal to strive towards, even at the cost of life and family.
Martina Vandenberg, 45, also has a dossier full of heroes—the women she has represented pro bono during her two decades fighting human trafficking, forced labor, rape as a war crime, and violence against women. A former Human Rights Watch researcher, she spearheaded investigations into human rights violations in the Russian Federation, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Uzbekistan and the Ukraine; her work in Kosovo focused on war crimes. She is the president and Founder of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center and also authored for the Israel Women’s Network the first published report documenting human trafficking in Israel.
Vandenberg recounts the case of a village in which the Serbs locked all the women in a barn, pulled them out one by one to gang-rape them, then killed almost all of them—until one soldier unlocked the door and told the survivors to run. Months later, they testified in The Hague against Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president who was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including command responsibility for rape and genocide. “Imagine taking an experience so horrifying we can’t even imagine it and finding the courage to hold the individuals accountable.”
Most of Vandenberg’s cases today involve women who are “modern-day versions of house slaves.” They are brought to the U.S., held in homes, and forced to work around the clock without any pay. Some are sexually assaulted or abused. But their heroism grows over time, Vandenberg says. “Sometimes they are so afraid when I meet them that they won’t look up or make eye contact, but by time they take the stand it is as if they have grown two feet.” The consequences they must weigh if they testify are dire: they subject themselves to public scrutiny and endure retaliatory threats against their families from the ruthless traffickers.
“I’m a handmaid to heroism, a facilitator,” says Vandenberg, who has been in dangerous situations but downplays her own role in comparison to her clients. “We used to joke at Human Rights Watch that courage was being terrified of doing something and doing it anyway.” Two personal experiences set her on the human rights path: her best friend in high school was abused, and while in graduate school at Oxford University (her thesis was on the Soviet military) she traveled to the Russian Federation and met women who had been raped. Later, she co-founded one of Russia’s first rape crisis centers for women.
What is the stuff of heroism? Not everyone has it—and what motivates some and not others remains a mystery. Brous calls it heart strength, a spiritual response to complacency, stagnancy and status quo that allows us to assert our core values. “It’s the force compels a person to say, `just because it is this way doesn’t mean it has to be.’”
Judy Feld Carr, a “very middle-aged” Toronto musicologist who secretly brought 3,228 Syrian Jews to freedom over a period of 28 years, adds another ingredient: someone who becomes a hero often experiences injustice and then translates it into a duty to work towards justice for others.
The daughter of a fur trader and a Brooklyn-born mother, Carr was raised in Sudbury, a small Northern Ontario town with only 30 Jewish families. She experienced intense anti-Semitism as a child. “I was the only Jewish kid in school and was alone in my predicament. I was beaten up for killing Christ by students and taunted by teachers. My front teeth were knocked out when I was seven. I was hit with a rock before the first Seder on Good Friday.”
Her neighbor Sophie, a Holocaust survivor who had married a non-Jewish miner, became a surrogate mother to her. Once, when Carr was 12, Sophie was preparing hot chocolate and started to cry that it would’ve been her little girl’s birthday—the child, who was six weeks older than Carr, had died at Auschwitz. “She put her arm around me and started screaming, `You can’t let what happened to us ever happen again.’ I’ll never forget that. I sat outside in the snow later, crying and thinking, `What does she want from me?’ When I took the last Jew out of Syria I cried for the first time in 28 years and I thought, `Sophie, I did it for you.’ That was always in my mind. It gave me the impetus for what I started later in life. It was not heroism but my obligation.”
Carr, who is Ashkenazi, seems astounded herself by how events unfolded. She attended the University of Toronto, and then graduate school, married, had three children, became the first president of the largest synagogue in North America, and was involved in demonstrating for Soviet Jewry. “All that was normal,” she says. In 1972 she and her late husband, Ronald Feld, read about Syrian Jews who were not allowed to emigrate. They sent a telegram to a rabbi in Damascus asking if the community needed any religious books. He replied with a shopping list, and they began communicating through a code system: Carr would send biblical verses or lines from the prayer book, and the rabbi would respond with the next line. After a pogrom in Damascus, the rabbi sent a biblical verse about Rachel weeping for her children.
Carr didn’t realize the risks at the beginning—until the Syrian authorities cracked the code and she and her husband were threatened. He died of a heart attack the next day. (She later remarried.) But she did not halt her efforts. With backing from two synagogue funds and another set up in Feld’s name, she raised money for ransoms to obtain exit permits, to arrange the escapes, and to clandestinely smuggle out ancient articles of Jewish worship. She worked with smugglers and bribed government officials.
“There was a lot of stress, a lot of worry, a lot of fear and difficulty because I was dealing with people’s lives. Every person was a major problem. It tore me apart. Most people didn’t know it was me behind it and I kept it that way. I was going to quit all the time. I lost my husband; I had little babies to raise; I had to hold three jobs. But the telegrams were coming. We need tefillin, tallitot, books and medical care. A baby born in prison needs milk. We need to get our children out and our relatives out of prison.” Eventually Carr devoted herself to the rescue fulltime and began working with Israeli authorities, who were doing their own rescues.
Carr’s role was the one of the best-kept secrets in the Jewish world until late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly acclaimed her activities. She has since received numerous awards and accolades, including highest honors from Israel and Canada; she is also the subject of The Rescuer, by Harold Troper. Some of the rescued have even named their children after her. “The first girl I took out when she was 19 and brought to Toronto just became a grandmother. I’m seeing generations now, and that is astounding. If that’s considered a hero so be it.”
In contrast to Carr’s story of espionage worthy of a spy thriller, for some people it’s an act of heroism just to get out of bed in the morning, says Brous. A struggle with illness can elicit a previously unimaginable strength, a response to an inner cry to live. For her friend Carmen Taylor Jones, whose 15-year-old daughter was shot and killed on her 45th birthday, heroism is as much about reaffirming life as it is about becoming an outspoken advocate for gun prevention. Sometimes it’s hardest to fight for family and for oneself, Brous notes.
To Diane Berenbaum, senior vice president at Communico, a customer-service training and consulting organization, a hero is someone with a big heart. “Instead of focusing on herself, she thinks of others and makes a difference in such a way that others not only learn and grow, but also reach more of their potential than they ever thought possible.” Women are especially predisposed to doubt themselves, says Berenbaum, yet when they nurture their `inner hero,’ they can transform themselves and others. “It’s not necessarily easy to do, given the messages we may have heard all our lives, or expectations we were supposed to meet or exceed.”
Berenbaum volunteers once a month at the Federal Correctional Institution, an all-female Federal prison in Danbury, Conn. She and other Jewish women meet with the Jewish inmates for Friday night services and conversation. “We don’t go there to take the lead or teach them,” she says, “but to step back, listen and help them connect in new ways. That fosters personal growth, enriches relationships and motivates new perspectives. I’ve seen heroes appear, and the heroes within them grow. They’ve noticed it too, and they are stronger, prouder and more at peace with themselves, others, and their situation.”
Heroism is not only writ large, agrees Vandenberg. Nelson Mandela, a hero on the world stage, acknowledged that he fell short in his private life. “There are small acts we do that have an enormous ripple effect,” she says. “Can you be heroic in all parts of life, in small things as well as big ones? That’s a conversation every person has to face.”
How to Nurture Our Own Inner Hero
The women we spoke to offered these suggestions for cultivating our own – or our children’s – capacity for heroism.
“I try to raise my own children to respect as well as defy tradition. I try to raise little people who know how to ask big questions, who don’t take things for granted. I want them to see what’s beautiful and painful about the world so their hearts can be awakened to fight against what’s unfair instead of presuming they are powerless. Sometimes we give up and the moment requires the exact opposite. We have to find our outrage again. We have to figure out what has to happen to change the script.” – Rabbi Sharon Brous
“I’ve always enjoyed reading stories of the mythic hero’s journey, and particularly the female hero—Esther and Ruth in the Bible, Inanna and Persephone in world myth. Stories like that inspire me to find the hero’s journey in my own life, and work on the qualities that make heroes successful: courage, ingenuity, loyalty, and honesty. I read my daughter Bible stories and fairy tales for the same reason. She loves the character of Miriam in the story of Moses in the basket on the Nile, and she gets that Miriam’s quick thinking and bravery saved Moses’ life. I believe stories are one way to cultivate heroism in ourselves and others.” – Rabbi Jill Hammer
“Nurture heroism by learning about or providing others with models of ‘ordinary’ people who risked their lives to save or make a difference in the lives of others. Nurture heroism by cultivating your sense of moral responsibility for other human beings.” – Gail Riemer
“Commit to a mindset that you matter and you make an impact and a difference. Find a friend you can confide in and can serve as coach and cheerleader. Self-esteem leads to being proactive—almost like an inspiration to do more. Keep physical reminders of the impact you’ve had: small gifts from others that can help you exercise your inner hero and encourage it in others. – Diane Berenbaum
“To nurture heroism you need a counterbalance of joy. People who are most successful are those who have a well-developed sense of humor and are able to laugh at themselves. Remind yourself on a daily basis to be big in the moment when your instincts are to be small.” – Martina Vandenberg