Dawn of a new WIZO
Anita Friedman, the newly-elected head of WIZO – the Women’s International Zionist Organization – brings a fresh and refreshing vigor to her new role as leader of the organization.
By WORLD WIZO
MARCH 13, 2020
World WIZO Chairperson Mrs. Anita Friedman (photo credit: Courtesy)
When Anita Friedman came to her first WIZO event in Florida in 1995,she could not have imagined how fateful that day would be. She was a 29-year-old mother of two who had moved with her family from Israel to Miami for two years to support her husband’s career as he established his own hi-tech company. “I was looking for a way to help Israel, women and my community,” she says, almost apologetically. “I just thought about volunteering for a few hours a month.” But there, at her first WIZO Florida event, she met Jana Falic.
This was actually not their first meeting.
Friedman and Falic knew each other superficially when they were both students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. More than a decade later, they renewed their friendship on the other side of the globe, at that WIZO event in Florida, where the eloquent and charismatic Falic was a leading activist. This friendship, which continues to blossom to this day, drew Friedman into the volunteer world of WIZO Florida, via the local Yonit chapter which was then headed by Judit Groisman (now co-president of WIZO USA), who immediately recognized Friedman’s talents and potential, taking her under her wing and appointing her as recording secretary of the chapter.
This was the genesis of what would become Friedman’s life mission. Her husband’s hi-tech company began to take off, opening offices all over the world, trading on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ. Following his success, the family chose to stay in Miami for another year and then another.
Only after 25 years, when her husband’s company was sold, did her journey end, and the Friedman family finally returned to Israel. During these years in the US, Anita Friedman was involved with both AIPAC and WIZO. She was quickly recognized as a rising star within the WIZO organization, climbing the ranks and reaching the pinnacle in 2006, with her election as chairperson of WIZO Florida, a large and vibrant group with 4,000 members. Later, she also served as
vice president of WIZO USA.
Upon her return to Israel, Friedman was recruited to become part of WIZO’s Executive Committee, first as deputy chairperson of World WIZO’s Fundraising Division, and in 2016, as its chair. “It wasn’t something I planned,” she explains, “I was just doing my part to support the organization I believe in.” Her talents and leadership gifts did not escape the notice of her fellow WIZO Executive Committee members, who asked her to assume the WIZO chairmanship, the most senior role in the organization, and last month, she was elected unanimously.
Friedman could have easily chosen a life of leisure, traveling the world, and dedicating her time to life’s pleasures. But anyone who knows her, know that this is a completely foreign notion to her, that a day without raising more funds for WIZO or starting another social enterprise, is a wasted day for her.
In Israel, WIZO is often identified with the public campaigns it leads to advance the status of women and combating violence against them. Friedman advocates for an underrepresented aspect of women’s lives: the right of mothers to work and build a career. “We need to start a broad and powerful public movement to adapt the education system to the labor market so that mothers can develop careers as well. This will be transformative, enabling women to have careers and raise children without these two challenges coming into conflict with one another.”
Friedman experienced this struggle herself when she was a young mother, with a husband busy setting up a new company. When he sat at home writing computer software that was not yet profitable, she needed to support the family. This experience taught her how difficult it is for mothers to raise children while supporting the family. “To make a living, I opened a franchise of my father’s jewelry factory. I started marketing jewelry in the evening, using the ‘party plan’ method – holding women’s meetings to present and sell the jewelry. It’s a solution that doesn’t work for everyone, and today, it is very difficult for mothers to work full time.”
In Israel 2020, Friedman’s vision seems utopian: free education from the age of three months, regulated and subsidized educational frameworks until 18:00 (6 p.m.) for children up to the age of nine (fourth grade), and a dramatic increase inthe number of school days per year, so they are more synchronized with the parents’ working days.
“How can a mother, who is entitled to 12 days off per year, manage a career when her child comes back every day in the middle of the day and stays home for 120 weekdays a year?” she asks. “Why can the school day in France end at 6 p.m. and in Israel – at noon?” When confronted with the assertion that insufficient budgets may be the reason for the gaps, she quickly responds:
“The state’s financial investment in adapting the education system to the labor market will generate income for the state, thanks to many more women joining the workforce, and working for more hours. It will also benefit from the increase in the number of women who will be able to develop their professional academic skills and achievements. It is not an expense, but an investment that will produce a great return. This is a cause we must start promoting, starting now. This is a goal that will change the reality for many in our society, and will affect entire generations of young Israeli women. I am determined to drive this agenda until the government will eventually be compelled to adopt it as well.”
ANITA FRIEDMAN was born in the Colombian capital of Bogota, in a Zionist home in which Israel and Judaism were an essential part of life. She attended a Jewish school, and was involved in a local youth movement called “Kinneret.” She was always an outstanding student and a social leader, even though she never sought to be one. Her first visit to Israel, at the age of eight, brought her to her grandparents’ home in Netanya, where she became a true Zionist, one who, at 16, returned to volunteer at Kibbutz Beit Guvrin in Lachish.
At 17, she pleaded with her father to allow her to immigrate to Israel alone. Once she realized her Zionist dream and immigrated to Israel, her life started changing very quickly: She studied archaeology, sociology and social anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She met the man who would become her husband, dug in archaeological excavations, got married, became a mother, started a business and “relocated” to Miami, where she had the fateful encounter with WIZO in Florida.
Today, her eldest daughter and youngest son live in the US. Her middle son lives in Israel, where he runs the family venture capital firm, LionBird, which invests and provides business and professional support for Israeli hi-tech ventures.
“Today, at 59, I see things differently,” she says. “I want to leave a better world for my grandchildren. Like WIZO, I can look back on how far I have come, but instead I choose to look ahead to my next goals.” In her role as Chairperson of the World WIZO’s Fundraising Division, which she held for the past four years, she actively assisted in securing the financial backing WIZO needed. As part of that role, she enjoyed taking delegations of Zionist women from abroad to see the Rebecca Sieff Centre for the Family in Jerusalem.
This complex includes a large WIZO daycare center, an abused women’s shelter, a WIZO vocational high school, and more. “This WIZO complex demonstrates the power and size of WIZO and the immense impact of what we do. Through such centers, WIZO is saving souls, supporting and empowering people who are lost and in despair and helps them become independent and confident people,” she says.
“This is a cause which is good to dedicate yourself to, it’s the purest form of Zionism of our time.”
If the stereotype of a “WIZO Woman” is that of a wealthy elderly lady dipping a biscuit in a cup of tea, Friedman is exactly the opposite: energetic, passionate about making things happen, with two feet on the ground but with a dream or two she is determined to fulfill.
She speaks quickly and to the point, switching between three languages just to ensure the focus remains on the task at hand. She sees her new role as a national, Zionist, social and feminist mission, and as an opportunity to secure WIZO’s future and its centrality as the leading force for social change in Israel. “I look at the responsibility I have taken upon myself with profound humility,” she says, “but am excited about the challenge of leading WIZO into its second century.”
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