Tragedy struck just when life was smiling at them, and a new beginning was on the horizon. Hagit Vaknin, 33, was behind the wheel of the family car, with her husband Amir sitting next to her, as they were driving from Hadera to Acre to get the keys to their new home after its renovations had been completed. They left their infant son at home with his paternal grandmother. When they reached the Megiddo intersection, Hagit pulled over to let a car pass them. Another car, which suddenly emerged from the right, crashed into them with great force.
"After the bang, there was a horrible silence," Vaknin says with tears in her eyes. "I got out of (the car on) my side, went around the car and tried to open the door where my husband was sitting. He was bent over the glove compartment, full of blood. I screamed at him to wake up and begged the people who had started to gather around us to call an ambulance. And then someone said: 'There's no need for an ambulance. He's dead. Call the police.'"
Chapter 1: Death and Pregnancy
Shortly after accepting the fact she had lost her beloved husband, Hagit regained her composure. "I called his attorney and asked that sperm be extracted from him, so I could have another child that was also his. But that didn't work out. During the shiva (the seven-day Jewish period of mourning), I went up on the roof and wasn't sure whether I wanted to continue living without my best friend. If not for my son, I probably would not have kept on going," she says.
The next day, while the shiva was still ongoing, she felt nauseous and weak. A friend brought her a pregnancy test, and that's when she learned that her late husband had left her a gift. "A day earlier I wanted to die. And, now, something of his remained with me. It was a sign that I had to carry on and keep him alive inside of me," she says.
Today, Vaknin is a mother of two children (Omri, aged ten, and Lian—an acronym in Hebrew for "God gave me a girl"—aged eight) and is an attorney with her own successful firm that specializes in family law and real estate.
Hagit was born in Hadera. Her mother was a new immigrant from the United States and her father, who was originally from Morocco, owned a fruit and vegetable store. Vaknin grew up in a very religious home and was the fifth of six children in the family. "We attended ultra-Orthodox schools, we had no TV at home, and I really didn't know much about the world outside," she says.
Twenty-six years ago, when she was seven years old, her mother took Hagit and her siblings and moved them into her parents' crowded apartment in Hadera. "The cultural differences between my parents were too big. My mother, a rare breed of woman who was very open-minded, was unable to accept my father's mentality," she explains.
"My mother was an aguna (a woman whose husband refuses to grant her a divorce) for about seven years, but that did not break her. She joined a lobby of single mothers who fought for their rights. She went to the Knesset to discuss these issues and for the last 15 years has been volunteering at SHIL- The Citizens Advice Bureau. She recently received the Hadera Distinguished Citizen Award."
Two years after leaving the ultra-Orthodox world and lifestyle, Hagit met Amir, who was nine years older than her. They got married after she finished her IDF service and brought Omri into the world. "A big bundle of joy. My husband was in the car business, he made a very good living, and I didn't have to work. Everything was wonderful," she says.
And then, at the age of 24, she found herself a widow, the mother of a 15-month-old infant and in the early stages of pregnancy. After the shiva, she went back to her mother's home with her son.
"After my husband died, I lost everything. The business was not registered under his name. They were inheritance disputes with his family, and I became penniless. I found myself dependent on my mother, without a profession, without the will to get up in the morning, and without a desire to live," she says.
Lian was born prematurely in the seventh month of Vaknin's pregnancy, weighing 1.3 kg, and was placed in an incubator. "I left the hospital empty-handed and went back to my mother's house. Every morning, after sending Omri to preschool, I would go to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I sat next to the baby, recited prayers for Divine Providence and, at the same time, made sure not to get too attached to her. When you lose a person you love, you are fearful of losing someone again. When I brought her home at the age of two months, I was thoroughly exhausted. I got into bed and didn't get out for four months, and my sister Maya became the mother of my two children," she says.
Then, Omri was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. "When he was 2.5-years old, the preschool teacher and family members noticed that something wasn't normal in his development. My mother, who has a degree in education and raised six kids on her own, insisted that he be assessed at a child development center. When the staff informed me that my son is autistic, I told them they were talking nonsense. After all, I know my child. I took him to private therapists and worked cleaning houses so I could pay for them. It took me 2.5 years to come to terms with the diagnosis. Today, he is in fourth grade, studies in a regular class and has his own teacher's aide. He has difficulties grasping social situations and also has some emotional problems. But he is smart—a genius—independent, and is crazy about science," Vaknin says.
Chapter 2: Social Services step in
The turning point occurred when Hagit decided to put her infant daughter in a daycare center. Her mother convinced her to contact the Social Services Department at the Hadera Municipality so she could get a discount.
"I was living in my mother's house with two children, without a regular job, without an income, living off survivors' benefits from Social Security, and I was scared that they would take them away from me," she explains.
She eventually contacted the National Insurance Institute and embarked on a journey that would change her life. "The social worker saw a broken woman sitting across from her," Hagit says.
"She was able to think outside the box and said to me: 'No problem. We'll give you a discount, but you'll have to join a group of single mothers whose aim is to facilitate their economic self-sufficiency.' I realized that they had me cornered," she says, laughing. "I went there just so I could get the discount at the daycare center and return to the chaos of my life. Who has time for a group?"
Her mother quickly realized the potential inherent in the group, which was part of a national project run by the NGO Be-Atzmi. She said to Hagit: "I'll take care of the kids for you. Go to the group."
How did the first meeting go?
"I came to the community center in Hadera and saw 15 women. All of them single moms like me. Each of them was in her own state of dizziness. The group was led by the coordinator, Shirley Dayan, and another coach. They explained their goal to us, which was to help us acquire tools that could be used to get out of where we were. We sat in a circle and each woman told us about herself.
"I bowed my head and told my story. When I looked back up, I saw that all the women had tears in their eyes. When we were asked to write down what we wanted to do, I wrote: 'I'm going to be a lawyer, and I will never let a widow leave my office broken, like they did to me.'"
In addition to the group sessions, there were also one-on-one meetings between Vaknin and Shirley Dayan. "At first, I tried to convince her to skip the individual sessions, but Shirley did not cooperate. When she asked me what I wanted to be, and I said 'a lawyer,' it sounded totally unrealistic, but we decided to start making some inquiries. The next day, when we shared this with the group, one of the women said: 'I heard about a rehabilitation program at the National Insurance Institute for widows,' and Shirley said: 'See, a first step towards going to law school.' Being deterred or giving up was no longer an option. Shirley actually forced me to go to the social worker at the National Insurance Institute. In retrospect, I know that without her, I never would have done it, because I'm someone who knows how to give, but finds it hard to ask for help."
Chapter 3: Law school
Hagit registered for law studies at the Netanya Academic College at the age of 27. The tuition was NIS 32,000 a year and the National Insurance Institute paid for half.
During her first year, she cleaned houses to cover her tuition. In the second year, when she thought about quitting school because she couldn't keep going, she received two scholarships—one from the Rashi Foundation and the other from the Bnot Rachel organization.
"Thanks to everything I got, I knew I had to succeed—and big time. In the last year of my studies, I got an overall grade of 93.8 and my 3.5-year average was 88."
Vaknin got her degree in 2016. But rather than make her feel proud, it caused her a great deal of anxiety. "I knew I had done everything that was up to me, namely, graduating from school, but who would take a single mother of two to be their secretary or intern?" she says.
"That was the attitude I encountered, both in the public sector and at private firms. The only place that opened its doors to me as an intern was the Legal Department at the Hadera Municipality. They were not familiar with my story. I wanted them to accept me based on merit, and I was accepted. I found a home. A place that knew how to accept mothers and contain all different types of people," Hagit says.
After completing her internship, she took the bar exam and was among the only 18 percent of students who passed it.
Chapter 4: A new life
Getting her license to practice law gave her a lot of pride and satisfaction. "I knew that my worries about how to make a living were over, and that I would be able to take care of my children, of my special child. I climbed up step after step, but managed to meet my goal. I remember how just a few years earlier I was standing on the third floor of a building, not knowing whether I wanted to live or not. And now, there is life after death. One of the happiest moments in my life was when I told my children: 'Your mom is a lawyer.' The proud smile on those kids' faces was worth more than anything," she says.
How did your mother react?
"After telling me that she never doubted my success, she sat me down and said: 'Promise me that when someone who needs help comes into your office and doesn't have the money to pay, that you'll be there to help them.' My answer to her was: 'Mom, that's your legacy.' Two weeks later, she sent me the first person who needed my help."
Three months after passing the bar exam, attorney Hagit Vaknin opened her own firm, which specializes in family law and real estate. "Today, my firm is one of the leading ones in Hadera," she says. "And I also teach courses for real estate agents with the knowledge I gained during my work at the municipality, which helps prepare them for the Realtors Association exam."
And what about a relationship?
"After nine years, a new man come into my life recently. My story and my strength did not scare him off. I hope it works out."
Who do you attribute your success to, apart from yourself?
"To my mother and my sisters, who were there for me all along; to the Be-Atzmi organization, which was an integral part from the start of the process; to Shirley's stubbornness and faith in me; and, of course, my children. They are the engine that led me to seek financial security, so drowning wasn't an option. Whoever has had a whiff of rock bottom knows he won't go back there."
Narrowing the gap between expectations and realty
Be-Atzmi is a social organization founded over 20 years. It bridges social disparities in Israel by advancing and integrating disadvantaged and excluded individuals and communities in the job market. The organization extends assistance to more than 9,000 women, men and families every year.
Shirley Dayan, now the Director of Employment Advancement Services at Be-Atzmi, was the coordinator of the Mifne program in Hadera, to which Hagit Vaknin was referred six years ago. Today, there are 140 coordinators like Shirley throughout the country.
"I heard Hagit's story and saw a woman full of motivation and the will to acquire the tools for success," Dayan says. "As part of these programs, we give people tools, but they are the ones who choose how far to take them. And Hagit embraced them completely and applied them to the world of employment.
"Be-Atzmi developed a methodology, based on which a type of map is made for everyone who contacts us. Using that map, they are able to better understand what they enjoy doing, what their dreams and skills are, and the obstacles they face. We then examine how the map, which contains all these elements, can be used to create a work plan that will help them fulfill their dream, make it more accessible and implementable. Essentially, we narrow the gap between expectations and reality."
For donations to Be-Atzmi please visit their website .