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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Guess what this picture is and I'll give you a prize," says Janice Wasser, showing a postcard of a friend's upcoming gallery exhibition to a cluster of women arranging tables on the patio of a Rehov Ibn Gvirol caf in Tel Aviv. Some hazard a guess.
"How could you know that was a belly-button?" asks Stephanie L. Fried, a writer, surprised when she suddenly recognizes the variegated lines as stretch marks setting the backdrop for two tiny plastic sunbathers lounging in the pool of blue dye collecting in a navel. "I would have had no idea."
Wasser had brought her friend Shira Richter's opening invite to the perfect forum - Professional Women Meet, an informal gathering of employed or employable women who meet once a week to talk shop over a cup of coffee. Membership to the group requires a few basic things: gender, membership on the group's e-list and at least one caf visit.
The meeting was made virtually on a newsgroup list, where 100 or so women use the Internet as the ultimate networking arena and forum for sharing knowledge about work and recreation in the greater Tel Aviv area.
Some women admit that they come to the meetings just for the fun of it.
Business cards and resumes are exchanged, as are creative ideas for celebrating holidays and making the most out of the group's accumulated talents. One woman has offered to teach martial arts, another has offered to bring in a sexologist.
The meeting venue can vary but tends to stay focused around north Tel Aviv. Sometimes the women meet at Tea Leaf and Coffee Bean, next to the Gan Ha'ir Park, where patrons can unleash their wirelessly enabled laptops free of charge. For the professional women, though, the computers were turned off so they could share some one-on-one.
Among the women at this meeting were an epidemiologist, an investment banker, a writer and an alternative therapist, ranging from secular to haredi. The atmosphere was encouraging and supportive.
Some of the women who come to meet are still getting their bearings in Israel, while others have been here for more than 10 years. Some were looking for new channels of employment; others were young mothers looking for a couple of adult hours out of the house.
"We are not a self-help group," says Mor Getz, who helps coordinate the venue and online discussion group. "If a woman wants to join, she needs to be able, healthy and willing."
Today, the Grinberg Method therapist is pretty much sorted out, though her first years in Israel were "dry and mission-oriented," recalls Getz, who tries to get to the meeting every Sunday rain or shine. "Nobody knows what we will talk about at each meeting."
Getz says she even enjoys nights when only one or two women make it, and encourages all the women to organize social events outside the weekly meet. She points to Rachel Weber, who organized a successful Thanksgiving dinner a few months ago.
Weber, doing her PhD in epidemiology, found herself in Israel because "that's where the research money was." Her impression about making Israeli friends is that Israelis didn't want to make an investment in her when they knew she was in the country for a limited time. "This is an interesting, engaged group," she says. "There are women with many different specialties."
Another woman, Laura Goldman, is an investment banker in Tel Aviv who is also looking for a social outlet. "I work only with men, and sometimes I like to spend time with women too," she says. The former Jerusalem resident moved to Tel Aviv because she thought the Holy City too heavy.
She is careful not to express any stereotypes about being American or being Israeli and is thrilled to learn about cultures that she didn't know about when she was in the US, "like Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, or Algiers."
An idea pops into her head, and suddenly Goldman has grabbed the attention of the other ladies (some single) for administering dating advice. In the position to meet lots of men, many of whom are married, she suggests that the single women ask them, "So what does your wife do?"
It surprises them every time, says Goldman.
Judy Neger is one of the women not looking for dating tricks. The married Toronto native moved to Israel in August and goes to Professional Women Meet partly because she is looking for more work in her profession as a mediator.
"The outcome of a dispute is in the hands of the client when working with a mediator," explains Neger, who lives in Ramat Aviv and can work with couples seeking to divorce and deals with all aspects of small claims. Her professional world meets her religious obligations - she works under Jewish halachic directives in helping people come to decisions.
This was her third time at the meeting. She had found the group through the English-language Yahoo newsgroup, Taanglo.
And thus went the evening. Women from different countries (though mainly Anglo-Saxon ones) talked about everything from men and rocky relationships to Excel spreadsheets and Jewish spirituality. Closet smokers were given their fix, and no one was reproached for the small cloud of smoke forming around the table. The age gap between some of the women gave the younger girls a feeling of being mothered and nurtured.
Susie Kaufman came to Israel from Australia via New York six months ago. She talked about how people in New York work so hard but don't seem to ever get to enjoy it.
"I came to Israel for my soul," says Kaufman, who is an expert in building databases.
Kaufman, who once worked for Credit Suisse and several Fortune 500 companies without ever showing her academic documents, was shocked to learn that Israeli employers wanted copies of her diplomas.
Paulette Schuster, on the other hand, carries a stack of documents to show the group. Originally from Mexico, Schuster is a new mother to a two-month old and lives in Rishon Lezion. She has an MBA and was seeking a circle of women who fit her needs.
"I'm not very mobile as a new mother and don't feel much like going out," she says. "I can't really relate to my friends anymore and simply wanted a mix of professional friends."
What is a professional woman in Schuster's eyes? "Someone who can stand on her own two feet. She can be an academic or even someone who walks dogs."
To join PWM, visit: groups.yahoo.com/group/professional_women_meet