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An Interview with Silene Balassiano, President of WIZO Brazil

Silene Balassiano answers questions about her beliefs, beginnings with WIZO and nature of her work as a WIZO president for South America's second-largest Jewish population. 

January 06, 2016

FOTO 2015

 

How did you first encounter WIZO?

WIZO first came into my life when I was about ten years old. My mother belonged to a WIZO group in our area, in Rio de Janeiro. I would help her prepare whenever meetings were held at our house.

I vividly remember those meetings: the sounds, the smells, women talking, debating and discussing important issues. Later, after getting married and already pregnant with my second child, I was invited by a WIZO chavera, Mrs. Suzana Grinspan, my mother's friend, to attend a meeting. I was pregnant, the weather was terribly hot, and I didn't really feel like going. However, Suzana was older and I went mostly out of respect. Well, after 40 years of being involved with WIZO I can say that I made the right decision!

 

What is your history within WIZO? What was your path to becoming a president?

In my original local WIZO group of 24 women, I did a little bit of everything. You could say I filled all the positions: I scheduled meetings, planned events, and did fundraising. I was the president of that group as well, twice.

Suzana Grinspan, the same woman who once had acquainted me with WIZO Rio de Janeiro, became its President. She knew that I was a writer of some ability, and so she asked me to join the communications team. The new position involved various responsibilities: reporting about events to the whole community and conducting interviews. The writing and publicity work involved in that position really pleased me. Up until then, with three small children, I hadn't had the opportunity to use my professional skills. And thanks to my work with WIZO, I was finally forced to learn new skills as well as the world of computers and technology.

In 2003, when I was 50 years old, I was invited to be President of WIZO Rio de Janeiro, a post that I occupied for six years. From 2009 to 2015, I continued working as a part of WIZO Rio de Janeiro, doing everything and anything required at any given time:  advertising, creating short films, writing articles for community newspapers, Facebook management – you name it, I do it!

In 2015 I was asked by WIZO Brazil President Helena Kelner to accept her post at the end of her term. The support of my family was crucial in making the decision of whether to accept or not; my husband, was the first to say, "Accept!" I received tremendous support from my daughters, friends and the WIZO chaverot.

Now, as a new national president, I have a completely new set of responsibilities, but I am very determined to be successful in all of them. It will not be easy: Brazil is a very large country with many social, cultural and economic differences. Although WIZO Brazil has been active for 90 years, there is still a lot of room for WIZO to expand. There is the added challenge of the difficult economic situation of large parts of Brazil's Jewish community. However, as a WIZO chavera, I'm confident that everything is possible and achievable; "giving up", practically doesn't exist in my vocabulary!

 

What are some of your goals as a WIZO federation President?

Well, the work of the president of WIZO Rio de Janeiro is virtually equal to the work of WIZO throughout Israel, since the population of the city is so huge – think about it. One of my main goals at the time was to spread awareness and involvement in WIZO as much as possible. I wanted to transform people's perception of WIZO into something trendy, vibrant and relevant for any Jewish woman of any age – not just elderly ladies with nothing to do all day.

 

Well, in that case, what IS WIZO, for you?

For me, WIZO is a way of being. It's elegant, modern and optimistic. WIZO is also a fantastic vehicle to unite Jews living in the Diaspora, along with schools, clubs, associations and synagogues. Jews around the world should share ideas, culture and love of Israel – it will make the Jewish people stronger.

There is nothing more exciting to me than empowering people. It is so rewarding to see people and communities grow.  WIZO gives people that opportunity, not only in Israel but around the world.  Especially during the current rising tide of anti-Semitism, it is crucial that we participate in organizations like WIZO, which give us the tools that we, as women, can use to lead our families and communities, and know how to to defend Israel when necessary.

 

What were some of your greatest and most memorable moments as a WIZO leader?

Firstly, in a general sense, visiting the WIZO projects and institutions in Israel are always great moments, as is attending the EGM. Specifically, nothing will ever compare to two wonderful experiences I've had. Firstly, watching my daughter join the organization and rise up in the ranks to become a president of an AVIV group. Second, seeing my granddaughter participate in the MINI WIZO activities in Rio de Janeiro – it is very emotional for me. What could be more satisfying and inspiring? I have been able to see the fruit of my own work, see WIZO goals being realized, and take a peek at the future of the movement. I truly thank God for these opportunities and blessings.

 

What are some of the major WIZO events your federation organizes?

One of the biggest, most important and most moving projects we implement is the hair donation campaign for cancer patients. Donating hair is a relatively simple action which has tremendous positive impact for people who are suffering: it strengthens the self-esteem of people on one side, and gives people on the donating side a chance to honestly reassess and take stock of their own lives and realize how blessed they are.


Who are some of your role models?

My biggest role models are my grandparents, my mother, and my mother-in law: women from a generation that lived in Europe and in the Middle East, during some of the Jewish people's most difficult times. They were forced to leave their families and homes behind, escape in order to survive, rebuild their lives and keep their Jewish values and identities alive.

I also greatly admire Tova Ben-Dov, who I was lucky enough to host at my home when she came on a mission to Rio de Janeiro. Tova is both powerful and sensitive - the mother, grandmother, daughter, and sister that all of us would like to have.  She knows when she needs to be tough and when to be human, a mentsch.

 

What are your dreams and plans for the federation?

Put simply, I dream of its growth. I dream that every Jewish woman in every place of my huge country will hear and understand WIZO's wonderful message - a message that unites, encourages and gives us energy and strength to advocate.  

 

What are some of your guiding beliefs as a WIZO president?

Never give up on your dreams! Fight and struggle as much as you have to – it's always worth it. All you have to do is look to WIZO for inspiration: think about our predecessors and the world as it was 95 years ago. If those women could revolutionize things in those times – we are capable of so much more today. Fight your battles for yourself and of course, for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, its homeland, always.

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