Going strong

After losing two daughters, the way forward for Sima Menora is empowering young women.

Sima Menora takes part in last year’s Jerusalem Marathon. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sima Menora takes part in last year’s Jerusalem Marathon.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Sima Menora’s young daughters died in a plane crash in the summer of 2010, she quickly realized she wanted to create something meaningful in their memory.
This led to the founding of DROR, the Hebrew acronym for Derech Rikki v’Racheli (Rikki and Racheli’s Way), an organization promoting the empowerment of young girls through education and athletic activity The idea to commemorate her daughters through sporting activities was “very clear to me, because I watched my girls,” Menora says of Rikki, who was 17 at the time of the accident, and Racheli, who was 15.
“That’s how I always picture them,” playing tennis and going to their hugim (afterschool activities).
Menora and her family made aliya from the US in 1994, and have since lived mostly in Beit Shemesh. During a visit to the US in the summer of 2010, Rikki and Racheli, as well as younger brother Yossi, took a plane ride with their pilot grandfather, Moshe, and cousin, Sara.
The plane crashed over Michigan and only Yossi survived, sustaining grave injuries and burns to half of his body.
Upon returning to Israel after spending a few months alongside Yossi in a Michigan hospital, Menora began getting the organization together. “I spent a lot of years doing fund-raising, but never at this level,” she says. “It was challenging.”
The nonprofit operates educational and athletic programs in the Hila and Noga girls’ schools in Beit Shemesh, and seeks to help girls who have “fallen through the cracks” get back on the right track and succeed.
The program is aimed at seventh- to ninth-graders, and provides on-campus, after-hours classes and sports activities. The girls in the program enjoy eight-and-a-half additional class hours in math, English and literature, as well as around an hour of sports such as kickboxing and hip-hop dancing.
“These are girls who are not necessarily motivated,” says Menora, noting they come from all different backgrounds. “I want to change the trajectory of their lives,” by raising their self-confidence.
This, she hopes, will help them appreciate themselves and make good decisions about the rest of their lives, for example about going to college. “When you see a girl [formerly] slumped over standing tall… it’s a good picture, God willing, of what the future is going to be.”
The privately funded organization, run in collaboration with the Azrieli Foundation, has a staff of about 10 teachers, tutors, sports instructors and volunteers. “So many people experienced the accident with us,” Menora says of people’s readiness to donate to DROR. “Every donation is an investment in DROR; it reaps exponential benefits, not just the amount put in it.”
A surprising challenge for the organization came from the participants themselves. “A huge surprise was having sports hugim on offer for the girls, and having to beg them to participate.
“For the most part, it’s really hard to get girls to do sport,” she says, suspecting that low body image is responsible.
Another issue was getting parents on board; this was particularly true regarding Ethiopian girls, who constitute about half of participants.
The parents weren’t keen on the program, Menora explains, because they were weary of aid programs and of signing contracts. “I think that there was a tendency to offer Ethiopians assistance, and by receiving the assistance it slowed their ability to excel,” she says, calling such moves “reverse racism.”
To tackle the problem, DROR employs Amharic-speaking mediators who engage the parents in the program and explain its goals. “It’s really hard to maintain change… without parents,” she says, noting that giving ownership to the parents is a key part in the process.
“We had a situation last year where no amount of cajoling, from the mediator or the girl’s teacher, could convince the family that DROR’s assistance and intervention would open up great opportunities for their daughter and would help lead her on a path to success,” Menora says. An Ethiopian tutor who herself had been helped in school spoke to the parents, who then agreed to enroll their daughter in the program.
“Their daughter joined our program and went on to thrive in school.
We learned from this experience that having positive role models the girls could personally relate to is one of the biggest factors leading to success,” she says. “It really comes down to specific girls. I just want to see girls flourish and grow; you want to see individual success stories.”
An upcoming goal is the Jerusalem Marathon in March. Menora is training with the girls, and a team of girls is going to take part in the marathon alongside yeshiva and seminary students who are in Israel for the year. The sponsored run, Menora says, is about “physically improving and at the same time, helping DROR grow.”
Rikki and Racheli, she says, would have loved to run in a marathon in honor of something important. “I hope they would be pleased.
I think so, I really think so.” Speaking of her daughters, Menora describes Rikki as “a spitfire; she just had a ton of energy, she had a million questions.” Younger sister Racheli was the peacemaker of the family. “You just couldn’t fight with somebody if Racheli was around.”
The accident, Menora notes, “made everybody closer.” Her eldest son, Ben, is 26 and the father of two children, and the next in line, 23-year-old Yehuda, is engaged. Yossi, now 18, is studying in Har Etzion Yeshiva. “He’s amazing. He’s interested in everything, he’s a pretty serious kid.”
At the time of the accident, “we felt like the whole country, people who knew us and people who didn’t, were part of the devastation,” Menora says. “The community was amazing.” As for the girls in DROR, they are too young to remember the accident, something that is “always difficult for me,” she says, adding that she tells the story of her daughters at the program’s opening ceremony.
“The impetus [for DROR] was the accident,” she stresses. “Taking it from there, I feel every good thing and good deed that are done are [in their memory].”
While this is the overall picture, the accident is not what dictates the day-to-day operations. “Challenges come up every day, it really is upon each individual to decide they want to do with it,” she says. “If you can walk around smiling, it’s motivation.”
As for plans for the future, Menora hopes to expand DROR to other schools in Beit Shemesh and around the country; she’d also like the program to cater to girls from different religious backgrounds. “I’d like to be able to bridge the gaps between different sections of society early on,” she says. “It would be a lot easier later on” for communities to get along if people from different backgrounds interact at an earlier age, she believes.
“The girls are my biggest motivators,” she says of the DROR participants. “They’re the ones who push me, so I say, ‘You’re doing great.’” The biggest lesson she’d like them to come out of the program with, she concludes, is that they’re lovely young women. “You’re wonderful.
It’s okay to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m wonderful.’”
For more information, visit DrorNow.org