Blessing in disguise

When Lisa Cohen made aliya she found the country to be lacking in environmental awareness.

Lisa Cohen 370 (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
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 ovaries.”
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 position.
“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 patients.
“In the United States 70 percent of women [with the BRCA gene] were doing mastectomies, but in Israel there was no encouragement,” she says.
In 2008 she felt ready to create her non-profit organization. She called it “Bracha,” which means “blessing” in Hebrew.
“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.
Now 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 ( Cohen goes to the conference every year and updates the doctors on the latest developments.
“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 back.”
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 purpose.
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 environment.
“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 vegetables.
“I especially love the hands-on work with the children,” she says.
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.
The 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.