Lisa Cohen 370.
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Lisa Cohen, a mother of three, was 38 when her mother and sister both died of
breast cancer six years ago. Before she died, her sister, who still lived in
Britain, urged her to do a genetic test to find out whether she carried the BRCA
gene which causes breast cancer in one in 40 Jewish women.
“I did the
test and found I was positive as well,” says Cohen, who made aliya in 1992. “I
was sure I was under a death sentence.”
The doctors she consulted at the
time were not particularly helpful. The revolutionary idea of total mastectomy
as prevention was not yet being widely recommended.
“Then I found a
doctor in Jerusalem, Dr. Diane Fletcher, who sat with me for many hours,
explaining all the implications of being a carrier of the gene. I was petrified
and felt the clock ticking. I did the operation and also another to remove the
In those days there was little support or understanding for
these prophylactic procedures carried out on healthy women. But Cohen found an
organization in the US called “Force,” which was set up to help women in her
“I wrote to them and straight away they phoned me and arranged
sponsorship for me to attend their annual conference. When I got there I saw two
things – first, a high level of medical knowledge on the subject, and two, an
incredible community of women who had lost mothers, sisters, aunts. I felt I had
to set it up in Israel.”
She spent a year taking some time off from her
job as director of the regional branch of the Council for a Beautiful Israel in
Kfar Saba, volunteering with genetic oncologist Prof. Eitan Freedman in Sheba
Medical Center in Tel Hashomer and listening to him give genetic counseling to
“In the United States 70 percent of women [with the BRCA gene]
were doing mastectomies, but in Israel there was no encouragement,” she
In 2008 she felt ready to create her non-profit
organization. She called it “Bracha,” which means “blessing” in
“I felt that knowing we have a mutation in our genes allows us to
save life by our actions – and that is a true blessing,” she says.
Bracha is well-established, with several highly respected medical professionals
supporting its activities that include meetings, support groups, availability of
advice at all times and an Internet site (www.bracha.org.il
). Cohen goes to the
conference every year and updates the doctors on the latest
“It was a big decision to go public with my story because
I’m a very private person, but once I started it there was no going
In the meetings with Force she met many women who had not even
known they were Jewish until they discovered the gene. The occurrence of the
faulty gene is 1 in 400 in non-Jewish women. She is hoping to build here what
she saw in the US – a remarkable sisterhood of women united with a common
While Cohen started something completely new with Bracha, she is
also at the forefront of environmental awareness which has only lately taken
Israel by storm.
In Britain she had worked for Groundwork Trust after
studying geography for her first degree and environmental management for her
second at Manchester University.
“When I came to Israel I was shocked –
you couldn’t even get unleaded petrol, there was no recycling and it was very
hard for me to live here after having led a ‘green’ life in Britain,” she says.
“I’d been at the start of environmental awareness in England and here it was all
over again, a deja vu.”
Soon after leaving the absorption center, she
began writing on environmental issues in a local English paper and teaching
English to support herself. Once she got the job she still holds today, she
began her first campaign – to change the emphasis from aesthetics and
beautifying Israel to creating an awareness of sustainability and
“I’ve got some lovely cities to take care of” as director of
the Sharon and Samaria regions, she smiles. These include all the villages in
the Arab “triangle” and the West Bank settlements. She works in close
cooperation with the municipalities and local councils to carry out community
projects, whether it’s having murals painted on walls, cleaning up neglected
areas or persuading schools to teach children to grow their own organic
“I especially love the hands-on work with the children,” she
She recently organized a glittering fund-raising evening in her
home town and persuaded rocker Si Hi- Man, among others, to perform. Whatever
money is raised goes straight back to educational projects “so people can
understand what I never understood” about breast cancer she says.
future is, to say the least, unclear.
“We are basically just guinea
pigs,” she says. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen in 10 years’ time. We try
our best to prevent what our mothers had.”
She also points out that 95%
of the women she counsels don’t have mothers.
“I’ve become like a mother
figure to them,” she says with a smile.