Advocate for displaced takes on a new role
As a Jew, Meryl Frank has felt the pain of those whose lives have been devastated by genocide.
As a feminist, she has felt the frustration of women around the world trying to assert themselves in male-dominated societies.
Frank, the former mayor of Highland Park and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, has traveled the world advocating, sharing, and teaching on behalf of women.
“I have met extraordinary women, from members of Parliament to Maasai basket weavers” in Africa, she told 160 audience members at a March 24 meeting of the Raritan Valley chapter of Hadassah and the sisterhood of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
Frank, a life member of Hadassah, spoke about her work as president of Makeda Global Network, encouraging female participation in political systems and leadership roles worldwide, and her new position as executive director of FilmAid International, which uses film to educate and entertain members of marginalized communities around the world.
While being named UN ambassador “was a real honor,” she said, she left her UN position several years ago because she felt she wasn’t doing enough to help women.
“Everything I said had to be approved by the White House because it might cause an international incident,” said Frank, who began her new job March 1. Once, she recalled, she was passed a note from three veiled women with the Iranian delegation who wanted to speak to her. However, because the United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran, she couldn’t respond.
Frank said she grew up hearing stories of the slaughter of relatives in Vilna during the Holocaust, and as a result has a keen understanding of the aftershocks of genocide. “I feel it in my bones,” she said.
She also feels the need to perform the mitzva of tikun olam, making the world a better place.
“It’s not because we’re the chosen people,” said Frank. “It’s not because we’re better than anyone else, but because it’s our duty to help repair the world. It’s embedded in my soul.”
A longtime board member of what was Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County (now Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ) until her UN appointment, Frank had also been president of the Women’s Division of American Jewish Congress. She now serves on the national boards of Jewish Women International and the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom.
Frank said her being Jewish often influenced her work with women in other ways. In Cambodia, which is still recovering from the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, she worked with a woman fighting to clean up government corruption. The sole survivor of her family, the woman told Frank she couldn’t understand her situation; she changed her mind when she learned Frank is Jewish.
In Afghanistan, by contrast, Frank “would absolutely not say I was Jewish.” Nevertheless, when she and human rights activist Kerry Kennedy entered the restaurant at their Kabul hotel, the band was playing “Hava Nagila.” Because the two of them would look at each other and smile every time they heard the song, the band played it whenever they came in. Finally, a curious Frank asked the musicians about the song.
“It’s an Italian song,” they told her.
In 2012, the Jerusalem Post unintentionally “outed” her when it named her one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.
“My work in the Middle East had come to end because of the Jerusalem Post article,” said Frank who began concentrating more on Eastern Europe.
When she was offered the FilmAid job, Frank said she jumped at the chance to help some of the world’s 51 million refugees — the largest number since the end of World War II. It would allow her to make a change “in a big way.”
Frank said she now “feels whole.”
“I had spent a lifetime thinking about relatives who didn’t make it,” said Frank. “I realized we were the ones who invented the word ‘diaspora.’ We were exiled from Spain, the Middle East for 2,000 years. ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ is a longing for home.’”