Matters close to her heart

Rachel Azaria is the only young mother on the Jerusalem city council. Now a deputy mayor in charge of health-and education-related subjects, she aims at improving the lifestyles of capital residents.

When a new cabinet or city council member receives a portfolio as a minister or deputy mayor, they usually know little about the field, and may not even have an interest in it. But Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria – a young mother of four children aged 18 months to 10 years – ended up at City Hall because of her personal interest in health and education.
The 36-year-old Jerusalem-born activist from the city’s Katamonim quarter actually became involved in municipal politics because of her dissatisfaction with what she encountered in after-school facilities for young children, and due to other issues close to her heart, the social activist and head of the local Yerushalmim party told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in her modest Safra Square office.
Calling herself religiously observant, Azaria attended state religious schools and a child and was active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement. She served in the Israel Defense Forces as a soldier/teacher for the Society for the Protection of Nature at the Ofra field school.
Her English is as fluent as her Hebrew, as her mother was born in the US. Her father hails from Tunisia. At the age of five, she was taken to the US, but the family returned to Jerusalem some years later.
With a BA in psychology, she went on to complete a master’s degree in conflict management and, in 2009/2010 was selected to undergo training at the exclusive educational leadership school at the Mandel Leadership Institute.
Already in a student organization at HU, she became active on environmental issues and led public awareness campaigns in the field. Then, in 2007, she ran the Mavoi Satum (“Dead End”) organization of women denied a Jewish divorce, and fought with the rabbinical courts.
The following year, she ran for the city council, and paid for ads including her modest photo to be displayed on the sides of Egged buses. But her request was turned down by the company on the grounds that it feared haredi vandalism of the vehicles and the signs. She took her case to the High Court of Justice, which ordered Egged to place the signs as requested.
Azaria was elected one of 31 Jerusalem city council members and made responsible for the pre-school education portfolio, which had not existed before. She was also given responsibility by Mayor Nir Barkat for community centers. In this capacity, she initiated a unique program to extend classes through part of the summer in municipal kindergartens.
Almost three years ago, she was a leader of the tent-dwelling protest movement in Jerusalem and led a protest of parents pushing baby carriages to promote better conditions for child raising. When the Trajtenberg Committee was appointed to cope with the national protest movement, she testified before that body on free school education and the afternoon programs for children (tzaharonim).
Always a fighter, she again appealed to the High Court, demanding that the gender-separate sidewalks in the haredi Mea She’arim quarter during Jewish holidays be barred. She succeeded, and the extreme ultra-Orthodox did not try the tactic again.
Running for election again last fall, Azaria’s party won two seats in the city council (for herself and Tamir Nir) and was brought into the coalition, becoming the deputy holder of the education portfolio, holder of the status of women portfolio and being given responsibility for numerous health matters, including day care centers, tipot halav (well-baby) stations and after-hours facilities for young children.
“One has to set clear targets. There are four women on the city council, but I am the only young mother among them. I am interested in issues that don’t really interest the other members of the council,” she said.
Azaria was especially incensed when her older children came home from after-school activities with changed food preferences. “We always insisted at home that we sit down together for healthy family meals. After a while, at these facilities I found that they had been given everything that we did not permit at home – white bread and grains, French fries, fried falafel, soft drinks and food with monosodium glutamate, trans-fats and artificial colors.”
Her children were “happy” about the food they had been unaccustomed to at home. They started turning down what their mother served – home-cooked food with little salt and a lot of spices. “They felt that what I served was boring and flat,” she recalled. In Jerusalem, there are many thousands of young children in such facilities.
Many more mothers are pursuing careers that prevent them from being home when their children leave classes, so many are sent to after-school facilities where they are served meals. Some 300,000 Israeli children receive hot meals in schools and after-school facilities every day, making the generally low nutritional level a definite health hazard that presents itself year after year.
In small day-care centers, it is usually the staff who cook on their own, and there is a bit more control over what the children are eating and the quality is a bit better, but when caterers are hired by after-school facilities to bring in unsupervised food, it’s much worse, the deputy mayor said.
Because caterers bring food on plastic, aluminum or styrofoam trays to institutions that are not close by, much of the money goes to transportation and not to healthy foods.
“Two years ago, we set up a Facebook group of Jerusalem parents protesting against this situation. As many as 700 parents showed up at evening meetings, and we received calls for help from around the country. We found that the hygienic condition of the food was all right,” she said.
“The danger of getting a stomach-ache is minimal, but the chances of being healthy in 30 years after years of eating such a diet and getting into good habits is also small.”
In the long run, Azaria said, this poor diet can promote heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Already, one out of five first-graders is overweight, and nearly a quarter of children from first to ninth grade are overweight, with eight percent of those obese. The nutritional level of what they are given to eat in after-school facilities was terrible. It’s probably the only hot meal they get during a weekday.
In the end, she argued, the health system will pay years from now for the mistakes being made by the educational system. “No single parent is able to fight this alone,” Azaria said. “It takes a village,” she said, using the phrase made famous by Hillary Clinton.
As school classes end at 2 p.m. at the latest, children taken to after-school institutions are fed about an hour later, by which time they are famished and will eat anything, and too much of it.
She noted that haredi children are in worse shape that their national religious and secular counterparts, because with their mothers out working long hours and their fathers studying Talmud, the children eat institutional food throughout the week.
Azaria received complaints from many parents who said the food in the after-school facilities was much too salty.
Just one meal contained more sodium that the daily recommended amount.
The category of “vegetables” included canned cooked corn and baby carrots, which contain a very low level of nutrients, instead of fresh green salads. What was included in the poultry or meat categories was processed food with actually very little protein, and a lot of fattening carbohydrates.
Most of the food is processed, such as frozen schnitzel that is heated. The level of saturated fats in the hot meals is high.
In fact, the latest recommended “Food Triangle” calls for large amounts of whole-grained foods; healthy oils such as canola and olive; fresh vegetables of a variety of colors; pulses and nuts; fish, poultry and eggs, low-fat dairy products; and a minimum amount of simple carbohydrates such as white potatoes and sweets, butter and red meat.
Although the Health Ministry sets down guidelines on the food served in educational facilities, said Azaria, these are rarely enforced. “The Health Ministry doesn’t supervise what is actually served, while the Education Ministry doesn’t take responsibility.”
The deputy mayor checked the situation in Jerusalem and found that the situation here is not very different than that in most other municipal educational facilities.
Now that the problem is clear, Azaria is preparing a plan to fight it. “There will be positive developments already this year,” she promised.
AS FOR well-baby centers that monitor infants from birth through toddlerhood and advise parents, Azaria regards them as very important – as key as when the newfound Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America headed by Henrietta Szold established the first tipat halav in Jerusalem over a century ago.
“But again, council members don’t realize this. In coalition negotiations, there was never anyone who wanted to have the portfolio that included these facilities. Treasury officials even wanted to privatize these stations, but the municipality continues to hold them.”
Azaria also has responsibility for supervising Jewish ritual baths in the city.
“I want them to be not only a place for women that is used for religious reasons, but also to provide booklets on various health topics including violence against women,” she said.
The balaniyot (women who check to see that the customers are immersing themselves properly in the mikveh) are intimately familiar with them and can easily see signs of violence, Azaria said.
“It’s an open secret that the health of haredi women is the poorest of all sectors,” the deputy mayor said. Their families are largely low-income, the women have large numbers of children and their own health is the last consideration in the family. I see many of them with teeth missing, because they don’t have the money or the time to go to the dentist.
“Haredi and Arab women have the lowest levels of mammograms, and breast cancer is still detected later, with resultant higher mortality rates, than in other sectors.
The haredi media doesn’t use the term ‘breast cancer,’ let alone ‘cancer.’ It’s unmentionable. They just call it ‘the disease’ with no explanation on how to prevent and fight it.”
During the devastating snowfall two months ago, Azaria asked questions and intervened when necessary.
“I definitely think I was responsible for the saving of some lives during the storm,” she said. When she heard that new mothers unable to breastfeed lacked baby formula, she asked voluntary organizations to overcome the ice and fallen trees to deliver them. She asked health fund clinics, groceries and other facilities to open up to provide necessary services.
Although not directly responsible for enforcing laws prohibiting smoking in public places – this is the job of the office in charge of inspectors – Azaria promised to investigate the poor level of supervision as reflected in the annual Smoking Report presented to the health minister every spring.
Only about three fines – NIS 1,000 per smoker and NIS 5,000 for each proprietor who fails to prevent illegal smoking on his property – are handed out in the country’s largest city on an average day.
One hopes that the functional sculpture near her office in the front of Safra Square – of bicycles that passersby can ride to produce light and other effects – will symbolize a healthier Jerusalem before her term ends.