Two quotations on Sari Revkin’s office wall capture her mission in life: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” under a 1902 photograph of Mother Jones, and “He afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted,” in an old framed newspaper obituary about her mentor, community organizer Bob Cheeks.
Revkin, 51, heads YEDID—The Association for Community Empowerment—a citizen-rights organization she founded eight years ago, inspired by an old dream. She had met Cheeks while working as a social-work student in Baltimore to revive the defunct Baltimore Welfare Rights Organization, a national movement of welfare mothers, in 1976. “There was nothing I wanted more than to do what I was doing in welfare rights,” Revkin says.
Instead, in 1983, she made aliyah to a kibbutz to “live my ideals instead of preach about them.” But an ad from the New Israel Fund looking for someone to start an organization that would help social-change NGOs do their jobs better lured her to Jerusalem. Revkin founded Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change Organizations in Israel, keeping her firstborn son in a playpen by her desk. She headed it for 14 years, during which she saw the Israeli volunteer world grow from 50 organizations to more than a thousand.
Her social activism is a multigenerational family affair. Revkin’s father, an activist in the Lithograph Operators Union, took her to a local ballpark every Sunday morning when she was five to protest the fact that black players were not allowed in the leagues.
“I would whine, ‘How long do we have to stay here? It’s hot.’ And he would say, ‘Until we win.’ More than anything, that statement focused and directed me. We see something that needs to be done and we do it till we win. Sometimes it’s really hard, but you can’t give up.”
In 22 Citizen Rights Centers throughout Israel, YEDID works to empower the poor on the level of individual needs (“you can’t work with poor people if they don’t have food on the table”), policy change and community programs. The eight-year-old organization drafted Israel’s hot-lunch bill after Revkin encountered a mother at their Sderot center who was crying because she couldn’t send her son to school. His classmates had discovered there was nothing between the two pieces of bread he took to school for lunch and laughed at him. “I said, ‘We should ensure that each kid has at least one meal a day,’ ” Revkin recalls.
The program is now being incrementally implemented in schools throughout the country. Among its many other achievements, YEDID convinced the finance ministry to start a pilot program that will allow 1,200 welfare mothers to pursue higher education without losing their benefits (the law now stipulates that welfare moms cannot study).
“Eight years it took,” says Revkin, echoing the Yiddish she learned when her grandmother read her the then-socialist Daily Forward in Yiddish every morning. “You could give up a million times in eight years.” She smiles, recalling her father’s dictum. “But you’re not supposed to give up.
“I like to make things happen that everyone says can’t happen.”
Revkin is proudest of the fact that YEDID is the largest national organization doing community organization on the local level, with native Israelis, Ethiopians, Russians and Arabs, and is managed by a nearly all-women leadership team. In her vision, people who are different from each other would come together around common goals and affect the systems that affect their lives.
“It was a dream,” she says. “And it happened.”
Yedid is one of Ameinu’s partners in Israel. To learn more about this relationship click here/about/israel_partners.php