Breaking gender barriers in national service


11 March 2009 Breaking gender barriers in national service In a world which focuses so much attention on the superficiality of women as models, the recipient of this year’s World ORT Keren Tendler Scholarship makes a substantial contribution to society as a role model. Appropriately, Avital Kigli, 20, a second-year chemical engineering student at the prestigious Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, was presented with her award on International Women’s Day on Sunday. Just as International Women’s Day celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women, past, present and future, so, too, does the scholarship recognise the past contributions of Keren Tendler – in whose memory it was established – and those accomplished and yet to be realised by the recipient. ‘Like Keren, Avital is from Rehovot, and she was an excellent pupil in high school where she chose the army study track,’ said Rony Kalinsky, the Head of World ORT’s Representative Office in Israel. ‘And like Keren, she has chosen a path that is dominated by men – in Avital’s case chemical engineering – before entering military service.’ It was, Mr Kalinsky (pictured, right, with, from left, World ORT’s Projects Manager in Israel, Sherrie Gazit, Rivana Tendler and Avital Kigli) told the presentation ceremony at Bar Ilan University, recognition that ‘Keren’s special way in life is continuing and that she will be remembered and will remain in our hearts for years to come’. The scholarship was set up by World ORT, with funds from ORT America, to inspire young women with Keren’s example of pursuing excellence regardless of the obstacles and her devotion to duty. Keren had been a trail blazer, having distinguished herself at school by joining – and excelling in – the male-dominated mechanics track before going on to become the IDF’s only female flight mechanic. She once said that her goal was ‘to show other women that this position, an on-flight mechanic, can be performed by women’. Tragically, Keren’s helicopter was shot down by Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War and she became the first Israeli woman solder to die on active duty since the Yom Kippur War. ‘It is said that there’s no such thing as coincidence,’ Mr Kalinsky said. ‘So it’s not strange that Avital received the scholarship on International Women’s Day. Keren serves as an example to all women in Israel – and throughout the world.’ Avital also sets a high example. Having chosen an IDF-sponsored study track, most of her tuition fees are paid by the military and she will use her education during an extended six-year – rather than two-year – period of national service. However, to help her pay for her living expenses, Avital receives a grant from Perach, an organisation which pairs up needy Jewish and non-Jewish children from underprivileged backgrounds with undergraduates who act as their tutors, mentors and role models. Many of the children benefiting from the programme suffer from educational, emotional and behavioural difficulties and the care and attention that they receive from their mentors help them realise their potential. Avital tutors a 13-year-old girl in Haifa twice a week in addition to her own heavy study load. The money from the World ORT Keren Tendler Scholarship will top up Avital’s grant from Perach, which has partnered with World ORT to find suitable candidates for the award. ‘I was very surprised to hear that I’d received this scholarship,’ Avital said. ‘And when I learned what it was about I was very moved.’ Avital knew about Keren’s story because her death was widely reported in Israel at the time. But she said that receiving the scholarship in her name had changed her outlook. ‘Now that I’ve met the family I understand the real meaning of it all,’ Avital said. ‘I’ve always worked hard and want to succeed. But now I feel even more that I have to succeed so that I can feel I deserve this award. I don’t mean only the money but in terms of honouring Keren’s memory. I now feel part of Keren’s life and I feel a responsibility towards her family.’ Avital is studying chemical engineering in a special IDF project designed to promote women in the field of the exact sciences – so all her fellow students are female. ‘My field is usually known as a man’s field so I expect that once I am in the army I will have to face the issue of being accepted by my male peers,’ she said. Rivana Tendler, Keren’s mother, was at the presentation ceremony with her husband Dan. ‘I’m glad that the scholarship is going to someone who is such a good student and who, like Keren, wants to serve the army in the best way she can,’ Mrs Tendler said.