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The Jerusalem Post: A Heroic Past, an Exciting Future: At 100, WIZO is just getting started

The following article, published in The Jerusalem Post on the opening day of the 2020 WIZO EGM celebrating 100 years of WIZO, shows how WIZO has impacted the lives of the people of Israel for the last century and beyond.


January 23, 2020

The Jerusalem Post - Israel News

A Heroic Past, an Exciting Future: At 100, WIZO is just getting started

WIZO’s success can only be fully understood in the perspective of time.


JANUARY 21, 2020 06:13

WIZO in Strasbourg, 2009 (photo credit: JI-ELLE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

WIZO in Strasbourg, 2009


WIZO: Withstanding the Test of Time

Our story begins 100 years ago, in the summer of 1920, at the height of the Third Aliyah to Eretz Israel, which laid the institutional foundations for the future Jewish state. At the same time, in London, a Zionist women’s organization was born, headed by 30-year old Rebecca Sieff, a woman of vision and action.

The name of that new group was the Women’s International Zionist Organization - WIZO.

WIZO’s success can only be fully understood in the perspective of time. The institutions so familiar in 1920 have either been totally transformed, or have long disappeared. The exception is WIZO, now celebrating its centennial, a vital, vibrant organization that has served the people of Israel for an entire century.

How did a small group of British Jewish women manage to conceive, establish, and lead a Zionist organization that has survived the test of time, flourished and grown, with tens of thousands of chaverot (members) around the globe, and 6,000 employees in Israel?

"To understand this wonder which is WIZO, one must first understand what WIZO is,” says Anita Friedman, who will assume the role of World WIZO Chairperson next week. “WIZO is a framework that connects a network of Jewish-Zionist activity and leadership in the world to specific needs in Israel. WIZO was a social network long before anyone had heard of Facebook or Twitter. A network that connected the Jews of Melbourne and Berlin, of Buenos Aires and New York. Connecting our supporters to the homeless boy in Haifa, to the abused wife in Ramat Gan who needs shelter, to the young parents in Sderot looking for day care. It’s a unique model that attracts women who are ready to get involved and give, and expect to see the fruits of their investment. When you take the tens of thousands of personal stories, of lives that have been changed under WIZO’s roof, you realize what an enormous impact WIZO has had on Israeli society as a whole.”

The 1920’s: WIZO and the Jewish Nation Grow Together

To encapsulate WIZO’s story, let’s go back 100 years, to the 1920s. As the Zionist movement in Europe gained steam, four passionate British women, Rebecca Sieff, Vera Weizmann, Edith Eder and Romana Goodman, decided to establish a Zionist women’s body that would train new immigrants to the Land of Israel in the farming skills that would provide them a livelihood. In this destitute society-in-the-making, every bit of aid WIZO could offer was drunk thirstily by the penniless refugees and immigrants; and thus, within a few short years, the original, limited goal of vocational training was superceded, with WIZO extending services in welfare, education, health, employment, absorption, and early childhood care.

The idea of WIZO spread like wildfire. WIZO established youth villages and schools, a preschool network, Mother & Child centers called Tipat Chalav (“A Drop of Milk”), soup kitchens, immigrant counseling, ulpans to teach Hebrew, and more. The loving and supporting hand of WIZO seemed to be everywhere, and there was hardly a person in Israel who did not benefit from the organization’s services. As every new need arose, WIZO stepped up to meet it.

WIZO Rises to the Challenges of the New State

Like all Zionist organizations of that time, WIZO found itself at a crossroads when Israel was founded in 1948, with government authorities taking over services that organizations such as WIZO had previously provided. This suited WIZO just fine, as it freed resources and energy for WIZO to forge ahead with new initiatives. In the years that followed, as a new generation of talented and passionate WIZO leaders took the helm, the organization focused on education, welfare, and the struggle for the rights of women.

Within 18 months after the establishment of Israel, its population doubled, mainly due to the influx of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The reality of mass immigration, poverty, scarcity, and existential security threats only reinforced the need for the kind of services that WIZO provided. WIZO flourished, driven by Israel’s enormous needs and a commitment to constant renewal and innovation.

“WIZO has always searched for the next challenge,” says Prof. Rivka Lazovsky, the outgoing Chairperson of World WIZO. “Renewal is the key word, and we aspire not only to adapt to reality, but to shape it as well.”

Today, the WIZO umbrella covers a vast array of hundreds of institutions and programs, from day care centers to youth villages, from abused women’s shelters to second-hand clothing shops, from foster homes to women’s leadership programs, and much more. Many of these programs are run by thousands of WIZO volunteers serving their communities in local WIZO branches throughout the country.

All of this -- a magnificent symphony of women doing what truly matters for Israel -- is supported by tens of thousands of WIZO members around the world.

A Worldwide Sisterhood

WIZO’s Tel Aviv headquarters oversee the organization’s programs throughout the country, and link dozens of WIZO federations around the world. WIZO’s Israeli federation has a special role, as it implements a large portion of WIZO’s projects.

“WIZO’s federations and their members are the backbone of WIZO, deserving the utmost appreciation for the crucial role they play in strengthening the movement,” says World WIZO President Esther Mor. “It is vital to encourage and inspire them, to involve them in the challenges of WIZO and contemporary Israeli society, while at the same time supporting them in the great challenges they face in the Diaspora.”

Jana Falic, past co-president of WIZO USA, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and a prominent WIZO leader, wears WIZO on her sleeve. “When I see a blue and white flag - I see life,” she says. “For us, for the Jews, it represents the confidence that we will always have a home. That’s what brought me to WIZO, and the combination of Zionist, human, social, and feminine activity under one roof - completes the picture for me. Today I know that in my investment in WIZO, I am also investing in a project that is being carried out here and now, but also in an organization that will continue to work and bring light to Israel for many more generations.”

Doing What’s Good, and Doing What’s Important

WIZO’s activities are not limited to education and social welfare. Throughout the years, WIZO has been involved in global Jewish issues, such as working for the release of the “prisoners of Zion”, advocacy for Israel, and beginning in 1958, activity in the United Nations as an advisory NGO. At the same time, WIZO Israel shapes legislation and public awareness on the rights and status of women.

The Secret of WIZO  – the Chaverot

What connects thousands of Jewish women internationally, to WIZO? It’s not just their devotion to the idea of WIZO, but their connection to Judaism, their love of Israel, and commitment to improving the daily life of all Israelis. “Strong, determined and compassionate women – these are the women of WIZO, they are our support system,” says Anita Friedman. “This applies to all generations. We are engaged in nurturing the leadership of the tomorrow’s Jewish women leaders, as an integral part of our ongoing operations. WIZO serves as a bridge to Israel for Jewish women around the world.”

"For the past century, WIZO has been able to pinpoint the challenges and rise to overcome them -- that is our secret for remaining relevant,” says Ora Korazim, Chairperson of WIZO Israel. “WIZO knows how to connect the women of Sderot and Kiryat Shmona to the women of Miami and Sydney. Everyone wants to be a part of this great mosaic that is WIZO. It is a framework flexible and large enough for anyone to find her place in it. All WIZO chaverot agree on one thing: investing time in WIZO is a wonderful way to contribute to causes larger than themselves.”

Celebrating a Centennial

A journey through WIZO’s seemingly endless archive shows you just how much WIZO’s story is interwoven in the story of Israel. The faces that look out at you from the pictures are those of pioneers, immigrants, refugees – the faces of the grandparents of today’s Israelis. This organization, that survived a world war, whose leaders included a signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, won the Israel Prize for its contribution to Israeli society in 2008.

On July 11, 2020, WIZO will be 100 years old. Next week, 1,000 WIZO members from around the world will kick off the celebrations, convening in Israel for the movement’s quadrennial global gathering.

As WIZO crosses the threshold into its second century, it gazes back with pride at its heroic past, and looks forward in anticipation to the exciting challenges that lie ahead.

This article was written in cooperation with World WIZO.

Find the link to the original article on The Jerusalem Post here: