Zionist Women You Should Know
As part of Hadassah’s yearlong celebration of Israel’s 75 years of statehood—including a virtual symposium, “Inspire Zionism: Tech, Trailblazers and Tattoos,” set for October 25-26—the organization is highlighting the Zionist achievements of 18 Jewish women.
The honorees live all over the United States and in Israel and represent the diversity of the Jewish community. Among them are immigrants and refugees, a Wall Street managing director and an entrepreneur, a rabbi and a Hollywood actress, writers, educators, activists and social media influencers.
“We were looking to highlight women in the Zionist world who weren’t highlighted before,” said Michelle Rojas-Tal, who last year became Hadassah’s first-ever Zionist scholar-in-residence. “We also wanted to make the list as diverse as possible, professionally and geographically. And we searched for women who were active Zionists, but who did not necessarily work in the world of Jewish and Zionist organizations.”
These dynamic women, four of whom are profiled here, underscore that Zionism remains not only relevant, but central to the lives of many Jews.
On social media, Amy Lin Albertson’s message to young Jewish people rings loud and clear: Do not be afraid to show the world who you are. “I’m always pushing being unapologetically Jewish,” said the 31-year-old.
Albertson, a Jewish Chinese American, is an online activist and public speaker as well as a consultant for At The Well project, a Jewish women’s group, and an associate at the Tel Aviv Institute, a pro-Israel digital content and social media collaborative.
Growing up in Sacramento, Calif., with an Ashkenazi Jewish father and a Chinese American mother, she celebrated Christian and Jewish holidays, albeit in a secular way. Today, she proudly identifies as “100 percent Chinese and 100 percent Jewish.”
Albertson’s journey to Jewish advocacy and education began with a protest on her college campus. While a sophomore at Portland State University, the Hillel chapter screened the documentary Israel Inside. When the screening was protested, she recalled that she “had no idea what was going on. Why did people hate Israel? I didn’t know Israel was controversial. This sparked my curiosity, and I took it upon myself to learn as much as possible about Israel and its culture.”
Albertson co-founded a student group called Cultural and Historical Association for Israel (CHAI), which remains active today.
After an inspiring Birthright Israel experience, she made aliyah upon graduation in 2015. She spent six years in Israel, working for various nonprofits and chronicling her life as a Jew with Chinese, American and Israeli identities on social media.
When Covid hit, Albertson moved back to California, where she reassessed her approach to online activism. She decided to change her focus from reacting to messages of antisemitism and anti-Zionism to instead creating content that celebrates Jewish culture and religion, including on her Instagram page, where she has more than 16,000 followers.
“I don’t want young people to feel that Judaism and Jewishness are a burden,” she said. “I want them to see it as something beautiful.”
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Leah Soibel’s work in countering the rise of antisemitism is often invisible yet far-reaching.
As founder and CEO of the media organization Fuente Latina, the 45-year-old connects Spanish-speaking journalists with resources to cover the news in Israel and the wider Jewish world. For most Hispanics, Soibel explained, Israel is Terra Santa, the Holy Land, but they don’t have much understanding of the country beyond Christian religious history.
“I view what we’re doing in the media as public diplomacy and national security,” she said. “We know there’s a direct link between negative images in the media and increasing antisemitic attacks. If we can help decrease the amount of negative imagery that’s seen on news, we can break down stereotypes and improve relations.”
Soibel, herself a Latina Jewish woman who divides her time between Miami and Jerusalem, is uniquely suited for this type of work. She was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo.; her parents had fled political persecution in Buenos Aires. Growing up, she attended Jewish day schools and played soccer in Catholic church leagues.
“I was a Hispanic Jew in Middle America,” Soibel recalled. “I was a confusing character for anyone whom I met.” Early on, she said, she learned to represent the Jewish community to non-Jewish audiences.
After earning her B.A. from Dickinson College, she went on to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo, followed by graduate degrees from George Washington University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In 2012, as antisemitism started rising around the world, Soibel founded the nonprofit Fuente Latina.
“The diversity that is Israel doesn’t come across very often in full scale in the media,” she said. “We’re just empowering journalists to do their jobs.”
An award-winning journalist for Los Angeles’s Jewish Journal, Tabby Refael has a lot to write about.
Refael, 40, spent the first years of her life in Iran. At an all-girls school in Tehran, where her teachers were radical Shiites who wore black hijabs, she lined up with her classmates every morning to chant “Death to Israel! Death to America!” Her parents, staunch Zionists who listened to Voice of Israel radio broadcasts in Persian, were powerless to intervene.
The family ultimately fled the country in 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War, and found refuge in California.
“I grew up a penniless, unassimilated refugee in 1990s Beverly Hills,” Refael recalled. Her parents rented a small apartment half a block from the city limits, just so she and her sister could attend Beverly Hills public schools.
In one of her Jewish Journal columns, Refael wrote that her Beverly Hills elementary school, Horace Mann, was “the most important and redeeming space I would ever know after my trauma in Iran.”
She went on to study communications at the University of California San Diego, where “I saw anti-Zionist and antisemitic activism, the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was in Iran,” she said. In response, she became a pro-Israel activist on campus.
“I realized that as an Iranian-born Jew who had lived in the Middle East, my voice was very important,” she said.
After graduation, she worked as a director of academic affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles before earning a graduate degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California and becoming a journalist. She also co-founded 30 Years After, a nonprofit that helps Iranian American Jews get involved in American civic, political and Jewish life.
Refael continues to write about the Persian Jewish community, women, religion, Iran and the Middle East. But, she said, “the topic that’s truly close to my heart is expressing the pains and dreams of refugees and immigrants—and specifically the Mizrahi and Sephardi ones.”
Philanthropic work is how Zoya Raynes prefers to express her gratitude.
“In America, we get to be who we want to be, in the realm that we want to be in,” she said. “I feel so privileged to live the life that I do.”
Raynes’s family emigrated from Kiev in 1979, when she was 3 years old, and settled in Baltimore. Jewish philanthropists helped make it possible for her and other Soviet Jews to come to the United States, and Raynes grew up seeing her parents give back to the community that welcomed them.
“I see philanthropy and Zionism on a continuum of my responsibilities as a Jewish person,” she said.
Today, the 47-year-old lives a full and busy life in New York City. She is a managing director at Bank of America and sits on the board of five Jewish organizations—Jewish Funders Network, Congregation Shearith Israel, UJA Federation of New York’s Investment Management Division, Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Heritage Program.
Jewish philanthropy can be a “leaky pipeline,” said the Drexel University graduate. “There are so many people we lose who are not connected. And the community needs them, financially and otherwise.”
To fix the leak, she believes in talking to children early on about tzedakah to the Jewish world and in helping people in their 20s, 30s and 40s get involved in Jewish causes they feel passionate about.
Raynes views her own “cause” as helping Jewish nonprofits grow and thrive. She facilitates behind-the-scenes work connecting people who could benefit from collaborating and improving best practices.
“I don’t need to start an organization, I don’t need my name on an organization,” Raynes said. “I like to support different organizations to further their trajectory, connecting us and making us a stronger community.”
Hadassah’s 18 Honorees
Amy Lin Albertson | Pro-Israel digital content producer
Mayim Bialik | Actress, Jeopardy! host and neuroscientist
Shiva Beck | Attorney and Jewish Agency for Israel board member
Laura Ben-David| Pro-Israel speaker, writer and photographer
Daniella Greenbaum Davis| Journalist and television producer
Rayna Rose Exelbierd| Holocaust educator and speaker
Rabbi Rachel Marder| Congregation Beth El, South Orange, N.J.
Megan Nathan | COO of Israel on Campus Coalition
Zoya Raynes | Finance executive and Jewish nonprofit board member
Tabby Refael| Journalist and Persian Jewish activist
Danielle Rugoff| Social entrepreneur in community building
Emily Schrader| Digital journalist and social media agency CEO
Naava Shafner | Orthodox feminist activist
Leah Soibel | Founder of Fuente Latina media nonprofit
Margot Stern | STEM entrepreneur and philanthropist
Alexandra Lapkin Schwank is a freelance writer in the Boston area.