International Women’s Day, observed annually in March, is a global holiday that commemorates the cultural, political and socioeconomic achievements of women. This year, The Jerusalem Post and Nefesh B’Nefesh spotlight an unusual woman who is helping strengthen women from all backgrounds – literally and figuratively – throughout Israel.
When Sarah Illouz made Aliyah in 2005 from Montreal with NBN, she was single, equipped with a software engineering degree and looking for a job. Sarah is grateful for the assistance she received from NBN in the aliyah process. “They did the paperwork before I arrived and they helped me get my first internship in hi-tech.”
Today, Sarah is married with an eight-year-old son and lives in Givat Shmuel. By day, she works as a senior customer success partner at SAP, with years of professional experience in project management and making client projects successful. All in all, a fairly conventional aliyah experience.
But in her spare time, Illouz is slightly unconventional. The founder of Women Who Lift – Israel, an online community focused on empowering women through strength training, Illouz is a dedicated and devoted fitness CrossFit enthusiast. CrossFit, she explains, is a combination of Olympic lifting, powerlifting and cardiovascular endurance using weights.
As a child, Illouz considered exercise as a means to an end. “I have had weight issues since I was eight. I was introduced to the gym, where my goal was always to lose weight.” After years of failure, Illouz realized that eating had a greater bearing on her weight than the time she spent running on the treadmill. Most women, she says, go to the gym with the ultimate goal of losing weight and fail.
Five years ago, Illouz had become desperate. She was about to give up on exercise when her trainer introduced her to weightlifting. “My trainer said, ‘You can try to be healthy instead of trying to lose weight. Weightlifting can give you many health benefits that you’ve never heard about.”
Illouz took her advice and found that lifting weights did, in fact, reduce her health issues. “Weightlifting saved my life and helped me reduce health issues. I had high blood pressure and pre-diabetes.” As a result of her CrossFit training, these issues disappeared. And, she explains, weightlifting has mental benefits as well.
“When you get into a CrossFit gym or a weightlifting gym, your weight on the scale doesn’t matter anymore. The trainer only cares what you put on the bar. You start to focus on performance instead of how much weight you lost. Instead of going to the scale and being disappointed, you change your mindset. Every single day can be a new personal record, and every day you can be proud of yourself. When you start lifting 20 kilos and the next day you lift 25 kilos, you will be on a new high note. I got addicted to endorphins from weight lifting and the mental happy things that came from it.”
Fast forward to March 2020, when COVID-19 and social distancing arrived. Gyms, health clubs and workout rooms were all shut down. In response, Illouz opened the Facebook group.
“I wanted to create this a long time ago because of the benefits that strength training gave to my life. I wanted to share this message with other women before, but the trigger was the closing of gyms at the beginning of the pandemic. I wanted to recreate the community feeling at the gym, online for me and for other women to continue their motivation routines online, while shut down in our homes.”
Illouz reports that the group has been growing rapidly and now numbers 2,500 women of all types. “We have a very diverse community,” she says. “We have super beginners and professional athletes, and we also have women of all different religions – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, observant, secular, Masorti – supporting each other and empowering each other. It’s an amazing community. There is zero drama, everyone helps each other, and it is amazing.”
Chuckling, she notes that her seventy-three-year-old mother has joined the group. In addition to the Facebook group, Illouz recently opened an Instagram account with an additional 500 followers.
Illouz has now extended her efforts to help observant women in Israel participate in powerlifting competitions.
Powerlifting is a strength sport that consists of three attempts at lifting maximum weight on three different lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. Though not an Olympic sport, powerlifting competitions take place around the world and are held three times each year in Israel.
Yet, she explains, most Jewish observant women powerlifters – and there are a number of them – cannot compete because of the uniform requirements for the competition. In powerlifting competitions, contestants must wear form-fitting singlets so that the judges can clearly discern the form exhibited by the competitors. The judges must clearly see the knees and elbows. “It is impossible to visualize the lift when wearing a skirt,” says Illouz.
Though she herself is not a powerlifter, a number of women in her Facebook group, including several haredi women, are avid powerlifters and cannot compete as a consequence. “This restriction makes them give up their dream of being professional athletes, even if they have the skills,” says Illouz.
Illouz was not to be deterred. She enlisted the help of three close weightlifting friends to organize a unique women-only powerlifting competition at a powerlifting venue in Rishon Lezion, where everyone in the building, including judges, spotters, contestants and staff will be women.
She describes her friends who have helped in this campaign with great pride: Iris Shekhter, a professional powerlifter, is a three-time powerlifting world champion and an official powerlifting judge. Michal Orlinsky from Bnei Brak is an outstanding powerlifter, says Illouz, who adds that “she could be our next national champion, if we give her the chance to compete.” Efrat Lev, a religious woman who hails from Efrat, is currently the national champion in her weight category, and is a powerlifting and CrossFit coach.
“The goal,” she explains, “is to give equal opportunity to these women athletes to compete internationally on an official professional level. It will change the sport in Israel. We can break the official records.” On May 27th, the first women-only powerlifting competition will be held in Israel.
But the irrepressible Illouz has not stopped there. Two weeks ago, she organized a women’s CrossFit event held in Petah Tikva, and she is planning a self-defense class for women to be held on March 25 at Fight TLV in commemoration of Women’s Month that will be led by Thai Boxing World Champion Adi Rotem.
For Illouz, the message of International Women’s Day and her Women Who Lift – Israel group are similar. “The whole group is empowering women, making them feel confident and stronger. We want to share that message through strength training and taking care of your body and your mind. You can be a stronger woman and it spreads throughout your life – with your kids and your work and your relationships.”
“Everyone tells me, ‘You’re so motivating and you’re so inspiring.’ It’s easy when you have an army of superwomen behind you.” For the members of the Women Who Lift – Israel group, it is Illouz who is the true superwoman.
This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with the Aliyah & Integration Ministry, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL), and Jewish National Fund-USA.