A pilot program aimed at improving cardiac health in Jerusalem’s Arab population recently trained its first cadre of volunteer “Heart Guardians” to create community health initiatives.

The 25 women granted certificates from Hadassah Medical Organization’s Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women at Hadassah Medical Center’s Ein Karem campus are all homemakers.

They were chosen for their potential leadership qualities from among dozens of women who signed up for free Hadassah-sponsored health courses offered in two community centers.

“What we learned in conducting these courses,” related Pollin Center Director Dr. Donna Zfat-Zwas, “is that these women know what they need to do to be healthy, but they don’t know how to translate this knowledge into their own daily reality. Empowerment must be the first factor in getting women to take care of themselves.”

Free of charge, the women took a 22-week course on the prevention of diabetes, which is becoming more prevalent in Jerusalem’s Arab population and raises the risk of heart disease. Then they learned how to design, fund and implement health projects in their own neighborhoods.

Several of the women started a health awareness program in boys’ schools in Jerusalem’s Old City and in the neighborhoods of Shuafat and Sur Baher. Classes competed with each other to choose healthier alternatives such as water instead of sweetened drinks; healthful breakfasts; and fruits and vegetables for their school snack. The women also convinced Old City kiosk owners to add more healthful options to the snacks they sell near the schools.

Another project encouraged women to walk on a regular basis. They had to overcome their husbands’ objection to their going out alone – a cultural taboo in the Muslim community — and find a safe environment for their walks. They published a brochure about how walking can reduce diabetes and heart disease, and created walking paths within their neighborhood and in the field of a local community center. Twenty women are now participating regularly.

A third project is an “Over a Cup of Coffee” health club, where women meet in one another’s homes to share healthful recipes and talk about health issues. Women whose husbands object to them leaving their own homes for such meetings are included in WhatsApp group discussions.

“We are so impressed with the creativity and resourcefulness of these leaders. At our first meetings they were too shy to stand up and speak,” said Zfat-Zwas. “Now, with new tools in community organization, they are already having such a positive impact on their communities and themselves.”

At the graduation ceremony, Dr. Maha Nubani Husseini, director of the Pollin Center’s work in the Arab sector, said that several participants have decided to go back to school and complete their matriculation exams.

“The best part is that many women are connecting with their inner strength,” said Husseini.

Hadassah’s Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women, founded in 2013, acts to increase awareness of cardiovascular disease in women, and to increase cardiovascular wellness, especially in hard-to-reach sectors. Heart Guardians is one of a cluster of projects designed for Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish, disadvantaged and Arab communities.