Jewish Journal

Conference Celebrates Women’s Empowerment

From left: Conference attendees and speakers Barbara Leanse, Kathy Suto, Barbara Morrison, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Suze Yalof Schwartz and Nancy Paul. Photo by Karina Pires

When Los Angeles resident Suze Yalof Schwartz got the idea five years ago to open what has been called the world’s first drop-in meditation studio, people were skeptical. “Who’s going to pay to do nothing?” she recalls one person saying.

But Schwartz was undeterred, and today Unplug Meditation in West Los Angeles offers some 40 classes a week. A second studio is opening soon in West Hollywood and there also is an Unplug app.

Schwartz was one of three women who shared their stories of empowerment at the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) of Los Angeles Women’s Leadership Network’s Woman to Woman Conference on Nov. 14 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The theme of the event was “Unstoppable: The Power of Women.” The use of the plural in the title was significant, since the message delivered by Schwartz and the other featured speakers — film director Haifaa Al-Mansour and singer Barbara Morrison — focused on how none of these accomplished women got to where they are singlehandedly.

Their message resonated with the 500-plus attendees, overwhelmingly women, who came out to support the work of JVS. Last year, the organization served approximately 30,000 people through 18 sites across Los Angeles.

Among JVS’ 40 programs are Veterans First, which provides career coaching to military veterans; and WoMentoring, which pairs women with established professionals in their desired field. Clients from both programs attended the event.

Al-Mansour, who wrote and directed “Wadjda,” the only feature film shot entirely in her native Saudi Arabia, spoke about growing up in what she called “the land of men,” and the challenges of making a movie there. “I grew up hearing women’s voices should not be heard,” she said.

She characterized her own family, however, as liberal, with her parents valuing the voices of all their 12 children, boys and girls. “My mother taught me never to give up,” Al-Mansour said. Her mother also forbade her daughters to wear a veil, which was the norm. This upbringing, she said, “gave me a feeling of defiance.”

Mansour’s inner rebel has served her well throughout her career. Without it, the Los Angeles transplant probably never would have attempted to make a movie in Saudi Arabia, where she often had to give instructions from inside a van because, as a woman, she was not allowed to be outside in certain areas.

My mother taught me never to give up. — director Haifaa Al-Mansour

The day’s other headliner, Morrison, performed snippets from jazz standards such as “Summertime” and “What a Difference a Day Makes,” which she interspersed with stories of the unwavering support she received over the years from both of her parents. There was the early morning in 1967, for example, when, at 18-years-old, she was awakened by her mother. This was at a time when Morrison, then a recent high school graduate, had committed to staying home in order to help her struggling mother, despite her desire to continue her education.

“She said, ‘You’re going to school,’” Morrison recalled. “She secretly enrolled me in college.”

Her mother even walked her to all of her classes that first day.

The vocalist also shared a conversation she had with her father a few years later. He was in the hospital and acknowledged that he had never asked her what she really wanted to do with her life. When Morrison told him she wanted to be singer, he told her, “Go be a singer. I want you to go.”

And so she did. She drove to California from her native Michigan and two weeks later joined a band. She’s been singing professionally ever since on some of the biggest stages and alongside some of the biggest names in music.

The kind of unwavering support Morrison received is what JVS seeks to provide through its programs, said JVS CEO Alan Levey.

“The goal at the heart of everything we do at JVS is to empower people with the skills, resources and support they need to lift themselves out of poverty,” Levey said. “What greater gift could we give someone?”