Why did social activists from Chicago come to Israel to make bouquets?

If you heard that an official delegation from Chicago traveled to Israel to learn how to arrange flowers, you might think you were being fooled.

That is exactly what was on the mind of Zarina Wasser, an expert in the field of floral and event design from Jerusalem.

Wasser said that when he first received an email from someone claiming to be from the Israeli Consulate General in the Midwest, he assumed it was a scam and never bothered to respond.

“I almost missed the opportunity. I saw the long email in English and thought, ‘This is a scam.’ I received a follow up email. It was shorter, but it said the same thing, that they were looking for someone who could teach floral design to guests from Chicago,” she says, adding that even the second email didn’t convince her to respond.

“Eventually, I received a direct message on Instagram. So I showed the message to my partner, who is American, and he helped me figure it all out.”

Help at-risk youth

The request was definitely real.

Wasser recounts that consulate staff—she calls them “incredible, out of this world”—hoped to give a professional course at the special request of Southside Blooms, a sustainable florist run by Chicago Eco House, a nonprofit that employs to workers at risk. youth.

Finally, the wheels of the unusual project were set in motion.

“My job was to give them the skills and techniques to design flowers for Jewish events, so they could serve the Jewish community in Chicago. The idea was that I would teach them and they would teach the at-risk youth who work in their store,” Wasser says.

Why did social activists from Chicago come to Israel to make bouquets?
A bouquet of summer lilies. Photo courtesy of Southside Blooms

The workshop was meant to take place over the course of a month, but due to time constraints “we managed to go through it in 12 hours in a function room I had rented”.

flower girl

The 45-year-old mother of three was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan. In her late teens she moved to Israel and settled in Jerusalem, where she studied cello at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Once she had children, she gave up music and opened a daycare where she taught children music.

“I saw how much it helps his development. I created special programs for the children and during that process I fell in love with art and creativity,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

As a result, Wasser enrolled in Shenkar’s College of Engineering, Design and Art to study event design. “At a certain point, I decided that I wanted to stay in the floral and event design industry,” she says.

Wasser’s business was so successful that Hannah Blackwell, who co-founded Chicago Eco House with her husband, Quilen, personally requested to work with the Jerusalemite once she saw her work on Instagram.

“Hannah said it was a dream for her to learn from me,” says Wasser, who admits she’s still incredulous.

“I am in Jerusalem and they are in Chicago! It was a great honor. They are not Jews, but they have a mission. They want to help their city, while helping at-risk youth. I was surprised by their kindness,” Wasser says of the Blackwells.

flowers for peace

Chicago Eco House opened its flower shop in 2020. The goal of the project (slogan: Flowers that Empower) is to train and hire at-risk people, ages 17-24, to scout vacant lots throughout Chicago and turn them into sustainable flower farms. . .

Why did social activists from Chicago come to Israel to make bouquets?
Collection of bouquets. Photo courtesy of Southside Blooms

Last year, Yinam Cohen, Israel’s consul general in the Midwest, approached the Blackwells, offering to partner with the nonprofit to help it grow.

That partnership blossomed, culminating in February 2023 when the Blackwells traveled to Israel to participate in Wasser’s training course.

“We chose [Zarina] because we felt like she was on top of her game, on top of the world of event design…and she went the extra mile for us,” Hannah Blackwell said at a webinar hosted by the America-Israel Friendship League. (AIFL) following his trip to Israel.

Why did social activists from Chicago come to Israel to make bouquets?
Hannah Blackwell from Chicago and Zarina Wasser from Jerusalem during the Israel workshop. Photo courtesy of the America-Israel Friendship League

“Flowers bring a lot of peace. A young woman recounted that she used to have quite a temper and that working with flowers helped her feel calm. It also gives them financial peace. When you cling to the basics, you can’t focus on anything else, not school, not relationships.”

Dozens waiting their turn

Quilen Blackwell told AIFL that there are dozens of people on the waiting list who “want a chance to work for us. The consulate has been helping us build connections within the local Jewish community, not just in Israel. It has helped us grow our social enterprise.”

This was the second time I had visited Israel. “The first time I was part of an African-American delegation that visited the technology center on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. But what impressed me the most was not the technology that Israel has, but the story behind it,” he says.

“It wasn’t that long ago that Israel was considered a third world country. It is amazing that, in a few decades, Israel went from being a country fighting multiple wars, people trying to wipe it off the face of the earth, struggling to develop economically, to now being an economic powerhouse in the Middle East.”

Blackwell adds that the story of Israel resonates with him because “we [in the inner city] they are now where Israel was a few decades ago. We are trying to figure out how to place ourselves on the economic map.

“That was the biggest inspiration.”