Making the Desert Bloom La Leche League Style

By Ilana Glucker, Beer Sheva, Negev Desert, Israel


David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had a dream –– to make the desert bloom. The Negev desert in the south of Israel covers approximately 60 percent of the State of Israel. When the state was founded, it was very sparcely populated. Ben-Gurion fell in love with this marvelous region and made it his mission to help the desert bloom and develop, and when he retired he settled there himself.

More than 65 years later, I made it my mission to bring La Leche League to the Negev—and make it bloom in breastfeeding support.

In the summer of 2014, a military conflict in the Gaza Strip broke out. Hundreds of rockets were fired and many families, especially in the south of Israel, spent hours on end in shelters. At the time, I was a breastfeeding mother living in the center of Israel, where we had considerably fewer attacks, and yet I still had the experience of breastfeeding in a bomb shelter in the middle of the night. I was also a Leader Applicant and was very active on the La Leche League Israel Facebook group.

Whenever the Leaders advertised a Group meeting, there were always responses asking why there were no meetings in the south, and it was clear to me that there was an opportunity to fill. And so, feeling the misery of the families in the south of Israel under constant attack, together with their frustration at the lack of breastfeeding support nearby, I made it my mission to fill this void.

Israel is a small country, and when I say there were no meetings close by for mothers in the Negev, one may question this –– as there are meetings in cities about an hour’s drive from the Negev. However, one needs to take into account social standards. Israelis are not accustomed to driving far from home for things they need. They expect to have all basic services within walking or a short driving distance. Most Israelis do not travel far for work, and a commute of over 45 minutes is considered very long. Given these norms, the idea of traveling over an hour, with a baby or while pregnant, would not appeal to many mothers. Furthermore, the socioeconomic situation in the south is lower than in the center of Israel––hence not all families may own a car, and public transportation, though much improved in recent years, is still far from convenient. In general, there is a feeling of the south being cut-off and neglected.

And so, at the end of the conflict with Gaza, in the autumn of 2014, I set about establishing the first La Leche League Group in Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev.

I started by posting the idea in the LLL Israel Facebook Group and asking local mothers to suggest a convenient venue for the meetings. It took some weeks and many phone calls, but we were finally offered a space in a privately owned mother and baby leisure complex in Beer Sheva—the largest city in the south of Israel. We set a date for the first meeting, and then I asked for volunteer Leaders to come and lead the meeting. As the drive to Beer Sheva for most Leaders takes takes one and a half to two hours, we decided that each month a different Leader would come and lead the meeting, thus sharing the load. A Leader Applicant would handle the coordination, publicity and related needs.

The first meeting was in November 2014. We drove down to Beer Sheva, two Leaders, Sivan Ben-Orr and Annette Green, and two Applicants, Nirit Karawani (now one of my co-Leaders in Kiryat Ono, in the center of Israel) and myself. We were excited. We didn’t know if anyone would show up. We didn’t know what exactly to expect. We had asked mothers to register for the meeting, however we knew from past experience that this does not always provide a good indication of how many mothers will show up. The meeting was an overwhelming success. We arrived to find mothers already waiting for us, and more and more mothers poured in. In the end, 38 mothers attended! A record for all Israeli Groups!

Luckily, the venue had two rooms we could use, and there were two Leaders present, so in a split-second decision, Sivan and Annette divided the Group. Sivan led a meeting in one room for expectant mothers and babies up to 6 months old, and Annette led a separate meeting for mothers of babies over 6 months. Both meetings were exciting, full of motherly support, oxytocin in the air. The feedback we received was phenomenal. Many of the mothers shared their experiences from the recent conflict, expressing the anxiety of raising children in what was, in simple terms, a war zone. Some of the women exhibited symptoms of post trauma, and the feeling of solidarity, shared experiences, and empathy were appreciated by all. It was for us, the Leaders and Applicants who had experienced only a fragment of what these women had been through, a moving and eye-opening experience.

The Group continued to meet in the same venue, once a month, for about half a year. Then the mother and baby center had to close and we started looking for a new home. Luckily one of the local mothers put us in touch with the Beer Sheva municipality, and they in turn put us in touch with one of the new community centers that had recently been built in the city. After presenting the organization to them, the benefits to their local mothers, and the value we bring, the community center agreed to let us host the meetings there. Since our meetings are held on Fridays, which are not working days in most places in Israel, the community center is opened up especially for us. We have use of a large sports room, floored with foam mattresses, perfect for mothers and babies to sit, and plenty of room for the toddlers to run around.

In April 2015 I completed my accreditation, and took over leading the Group. Four and a half years later, I still make the long trip once a month––driving down to Beer Sheva to bring La Leche League to the south, excited to see how many mothers will come, how the babies have grown, and to meet the new babies born since the last meeting. Two local Leaders (Anna Yakobi and Rotem Vered) recently finished their accreditation and lead the Group with me, and two Applicants support and help us. In December, an additional Group will start meeting in the evening mid-week once a month, for working mums who cannot attend on Fridays. In parallel, Vered Leb, a longtime Leader returned from a lengthy vacation and relocated to a settlement further south from Beer Sheva and has set up additional meetings there. Together, La Leche League Israel has expanded its reach and its influence, and brought breastfeeding support to farther regions.

Ilana Glucker was born in the United Kingdom in 1973 and emigrated to Israel with her family at age five. She has three children; Ronnie, ten; Shelley, seven; and Tommy who is almost four years old and still nursing happily. She also has two step-children.