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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Eva Har-Even

The ‘career whisperer’ on anti-Semitism, growing up in Hungary and Israel, and the unforgettable dress she wore to her bat mitzvah

Periel Aschenbrand
February 03, 2017
Doug Ellis.
Eva Har-Even. Doug Ellis.
Doug Ellis.
Eva Har-Even. Doug Ellis.

You’ve heard of baby whisperers and dog whisperers, yes? Well, Eva Har-Even, the founder and CEO of Wise Leaders, is the career whisperer. What that means is that whether you’re an educator or a scientist or youwork for a Fortune 500 company, she can help you get your act together. Har-Even’s calm, Zen-like aura communicates to her clients that even if they feel like their lives are totally falling apart, they can be fixed. Ultimately, she fosters a belief in oneself. And that, she says, is part of the primary key to success.

And there’s reason to believe her, too, as someone who’s survived and thrived in the face of adversity. A Hungarian immigrant who came to the U.S. when she was in her twenties, Har-Even has survived and lived through a lot—having her home bombed, being called a “dirty Jew,” and several wars. Raised by a single mother, Har-Even is the daughter of holocaust survivors who believed in herself enough to risk it all to follow her dreams. Part philosopher, part strategist, part expert, she uses her wisdom and experience to teach others how to do the same.

Periel Aschenbrand: Tell me a little about this drawing of a labyrinth? It seems to be a recurring theme in your work.

Eva Har-Even: The logo for my organization is the labyrinth of Chartres, one of the most famous labyrinths in history. It comes from an ancient Celtic temple that revered women and it relates to the cycles of the moon and also to the Yin. The Yin is about reflection, contemplation, thinking, feeling, and getting in touch with who we are. And walking a labyrinth is about the search for our true essence. The center of the labyrinth is our true essence and to get there, we start with the periphery. So it’s almost like peeling an onion until we get to the core, which is our true selves, our unique selves. The unique self is the one that has innate wisdom, it’s the one that remembers and remembering is something that makes us whole again. We remember where we came from and we trust the wisdom that we have to make the right decisions. And that’s really what my work is built on.

PA: So you guide us through the labyrinth?

EH: I guide you into yourself, with all the bumps. Sometimes you bump into dead ends and that’s fine. It’s part of the journey.

PA: Are you at least holding the flashlight behind us?

EH: I am the light that helps you get to your core—the instigator or the catalyst or the encourager. I’m giving tips here and there and asking questions and sharing wisdom that helps you get dislodged from those dead ends. The journey is a solitary journey—from above, from below, from within. But you are the one who walks the labyrinth. And that’s throughout life.

PA: Can you tell me a little about your history and how you got started?

EH: The answer is a bit complex. Everything in my life led to me to where I am now. A lot of contemplation and search and challenges prompted me and triggered me and catalyzed me to do a really deep search for myself. It really started from being the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

I was born in Hungary and I was a very little kid when the revolution happened in 1957. We were in our house and the house was bombed. We were the only Jews in the neighborhood and we lived at the top of the hill in Buda, which is the other part of Budapest, so we were the Buda people.

PA: You are a Buddha person!

EH: Very good. I was called a dirty Jew in Hungary—that’s how it was there. And, unfortunately, part of it still is. And when I was 7, we went to Israel. I did not speak any Hebrew whatsoever. It was the end of first grade, right after Passover, which was very symbolic in and of itself. We actually took the trip to Israel during Passover.

PA: How to did you get there?

EH: By ship. Straight to Haifa. And the beautiful Bahai Temple in Haifa was the first thing I saw. The Sinai War had just ended, right before I arrived. And there was the hope of a new country, and Ben Gurion, and there were people celebrating Yom Hatzmaut in the streets.

PA: Quite a change for the better…

EH: Yes, but there were other challenging things—my mom’s second husband, who wasn’t my father, and wasn’t Jewish, stayed in Hungary. So we came to Israel just the two of us and she raised me as a single mother, in a time when there were no single mothers and certainly not professional single mothers. But she was really a very good role model. She had a very senior position in the Israeli aircraft industry.

PA: Wow.

EH: She was a very strong and sheltering mom. She made it look easy but I know it wasn’t. She’s still alive by the way. She’s 92 and she’s remarkable, very vivacious, and I’ve gotten a lot of good direction from her. But it was challenging to be a newcomer to Israel. It’s a very different society and culture. I mean, it was better than being called a dirty Jew but it had its own set of challenges.

And so, fast forwarding, there was the 1967 war when I was a teenager and that was horrible. We were like sitting ducks while Nassar and the Arab leaders were threatening us, on the radio at that time, that they were going to annihilate us and push us into the Mediterranean And we had to, again, hide in shelters. My childhood was a tug of war between war and peace and hope—Hatikvah—like the Israeli national anthem and conversely, the threat of annihilation. And the memories of annihilation, because my whole family died in Auswitz and in other concentration camps.

PA: When did you come to America?

EH: By the time I came to America I was in my early twenties, I was married and I had a little boy. And because my mom worked, I did not want to work because I really missed her. And so stayed home. My son was a year old and six years later, the next one was born and I only worked a little outside the home. But what brought me to what I was doing is that I was able to do many things. I had been accepted to two of the most difficult law schools in Israel but I wanted to study art history. So I knew I had the talent and the ability and it was confusing—like why wasn’t I doing something practical? And I loved design and real estate and I worked in real estate and did very well and this all confused me.

PA: And then?

EH: That’s when the path within started—right after my divorce in the late ’80s. It was time to embark on what I really wanted to do. But before that, when we arrived, although my career was on hold in a very frustrating way, I got my ex-husband’s career going for him. He was really my first client. I helped create his resume, trained him for interviews or taught him what to say and how to say it and I went with him to interviews and waited outside for moral support. I sent letters to impossible jobs, to CEOs—I employed all the guerrilla tactics. I was the strategist but also the philosopher. And he became very successful.

PA: And you?

EH: I became very bored. I felt my marriage was done and my mission was done and it was time to move on. And everything was challenging again. I saw myself as a mother first, no matter what. It’s never an easy position for women. And then that I discovered my spiritual path through a book given to me by a very dear friend who died suddenly at a very young age: The Road Less Traveled by Dr. M. Scott Peck. The book was marvelous and very instructive. It’s about our essence and how we are spiritual beings. I wanted to deepen my understanding of spiritual wisdom so I went to study to become an interfaith minister.

PA: A minister? Were you very Jewish?

EH: I was always very loyal and very connected to my roots and my legacy; however, I was also always a little bit of a rebel who believed that we were not the only ones who came up with wonderful teachings of wisdom. So I went to study what is now called inter-spirituality. The mystical teachings, suffism, the Native American cultures, the Kabbalah, our connection to earth and animals and how seeing everything on the outside is something that reflects our inside.

PA: How was that?

EH: It was wonderful. At the same time, I got accepted in a two-year college and I started working with kids from other countries who had nothing and I was recruiting them to this school and after a couple of years, I decided I wanted to be a career counselor myself. And again, I asked the CEO of the college to transfer me to the Career Services Department. It was like, I had to do it. Within a year I became the head of the department.

PA: And then you started working at a very big company?

EH: Yes. Because I had also decided that despite my studies, I didn’t really want to be a minister in the traditional sense. My ministry would be helping people. I am very philosophical and spiritual but I’m very practical as well. I asked myself, what is the step I need to take? And I learned that there were these outplacement companies, which is what they were called at the time, which were very difficult to get into. And it was really about planning for the far future and taking risks for something you may not attain, which is what I’ve done my whole life. Which is what I help my clients do.

PA: The labyrinth, again?

EH: Yes. This is what is connected in the labyrinth to your essence and your unique self. And then I went to NYU to study and had the best, best teachers. And then I got the one internship I needed to get and from there I got the one job I wanted, which was the only place in the country that had the job I wanted. All because of knowing what I wanted.

PA: And following your dreams.

EH: Yes, and learning. And seeking to be a master. And for a while, there was nothing, simply no jobs. And one day the phone rang. And I was offered a job at a very prestigious firm. It was like a dream come true. And the first week, the person who trained me told me that the head of the department was leaving and they wanted me to take the job. And I thought, how in the world will I do this? And then I thought, I’ll do this. I’ll stumble, I’ll fail, I’ll fall, but I’ll do this. And I said yes.

PA: But you eventually left…

EH: I was there for six years and then I started Wise Leaders in 2002. And now I have the luxury of coaching a whole range of people, from people who have nothing to CEOs, which was always my commitment. To me, people are people. Some more coachable than others.

PA: What makes one coachable?

EH: Very good question. Maybe it’s easier to say who is not coachable—and that is when a person’s needs for security and safety is so strong that they can’t connect to their blind spots. To elicit from you things that will help you overcome your fears. So you develop coaching mechanisms, but they are not good. And a good coach is there to help you peel them back and help you feel beautiful. People who have strong issues with trust are, at times, not coachable. People whose fears are so severe that they are averse to anything that has to do with change. People who are megalomaniacs. You need to a map and to draw on your experience. I’ve been my own guinea pig, to make sure that way I expect and believe my clients can do, they can do.

PA: Small miracles. Everyday. I love it. May I ask, what’s your favorite drink?

EH: A great decaf latte with a little sugar.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

EH: I typically go for a vegetable omelet—tomatoes, maybe onions, pepper.

PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?

EH: Yes. Here’s how it was. It was in our house, in Ramat Gan, and my mom and I were there and my cousin was two years older and he had in synagogue, but I was girl, so I had it at home.

PA: What did you wear?

EH: Ah, I wore such a pretty dress. I still remember it. It was kind of chiffon, bluish and greenish, which are still some of my favorite colors.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

EH: Hanukkah.

PA: Why?

EH: Miracles.

PA: Me too.

EH: And also making a big thing out of a small thing and not being restricted by what we see but what we believe.

PA: I love that… What shampoo do you use?

EH: The Moroccan oil products.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

EH: Lox for sure but I love gefilte fish. But the real gefilte fish—my late mother in law used to make the best gefilte fish. Nobody made gefilte fish like my late mother-in-law! And I have the recipe.

PA: Have you ever tried to make it?

EH: I don’t cook anymore. But I promised myself that one day I will take all my recipes that are in Hungarian, Hebrew, and English and translate them all in English put them in a book for my daughters-in-law and my sons.

PA: That’s great. Five things in your bag right now?

EH: It’s so banal. Just the usual. A wallet, a brush, a little cosmetic bag, tissues, and an iPhone case.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

EH: Comfortable.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.