(February 4, 2020 / JNS) The Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) celebrated its centennial year last week in Israel. At the conference held from Jan. 19-23, more than 1,000 women representing leaders of Jewish communities from 40 countries around the world attended and recognized WIZO’s contributions to Israeli society over the last century.
Conference participants hailed from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, India, Panama, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Monaco, South Africa, Australia and more.
Established in 1920 as a Zionist women’s movement, WIZO was created as a result of a lack of sufficient representation for women in Zionist centers, and for the purpose of helping women and children in the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. During the pre-state years, WIZO established the first and only women’s political party in Israel, as well as the first education and welfare services, day-care centers, Tipat Chalav (“A Drop of Milk”) baby clinics and youth villages.
Today, it represents the largest social organization in Israel, working to promote the status of women, educate children and youth, and improve the welfare of disadvantaged populations.
“When WIZO was established, public services in ‘Palestine’ were extremely limited, leaving many unmet social needs,” noted newly elected WIZO chairperson Anita Friedman on the occasion of the anniversary.
“Even today, in a country where developed and rich public services operate, many unmet needs still exist,” she told JNS. “In the face of changing reality and the ever-changing world, WIZO is constantly working to identify the next goals, the next public struggles and the projects that will save people on the one hand, and strengthen Israeli society as a whole on the other.”
According to Friedman, caring for weaker segments in society is a special sensitivity in Judaism and in Israel. “From the Jewish communities in the Diaspora to the independent State of Israel, the community supporting those in need and not letting anyone fall by the wayside is a value that is present in every sector, every tier of the population, in every community of Israel,” she said.
“WIZO is an important pillar of this way of thinking and acting, and in effect implements the Talmudic saying of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (“All of Israel are responsible for each other”) through social projects that offer a hand to help the most disadvantaged—abused women, at-risk children, youth whose school frameworks have given up on them, and teenage girls and young women who need help and guidance,” she added.
‘Initiating and leading a vast array of social projects’
At the recent conference, workshops on leadership development were held and key issues discussed relating to the Jewish people and society in Israel. Topics included advancing the status of women in Israel and Zionist institutions; dealing with rising anti-Semitism and public awareness of Israel; the economic and social challenges facing Israel; sexual harassment and gender inequality; reducing pay gaps and promoting populations at risk; and deepening connections between the younger generation in the Diaspora and the State of Israel.
The leaders visited WIZO projects, including schools and youth villages, shelters for battered women and violence treatment centers, day-care centers, “warm homes” for teenage girls and emergency centers for at-risk children. Among the initiatives that the organization is promoting for Israeli society in the framework of the centennial events is the distribution of study scholarships for youth at risk.
Friedman, a Colombia native, succeeds Rivka Lazovsky, who served for the past eight years in the role as chairperson, heading the organization and its 800 institutions and educational establishments in Israel. Friedman will also be responsible for liaising with all branches of local government agencies, as well as public and business entities operating with WIZO to strengthen society in Israel.
The centennial conference featured senior politicians, ambassadors, mayors, leaders of Zionist institutions and leading women from the economic, social and security arenas, as well as philanthropists and media personalities.
At the opening event in Jerusalem, graduates of WIZO institutions shared their life stories and expressed their gratitude for saving or changing their lives. They included one young woman who spent her childhood in an affiliated shelter for battered women together with her mother; and a counselor in the police-cadet training program of the Nir HaEmek Youth Village where she began the program as an at-risk student.
“For the last century, WIZO women have been initiating and leading a vast array of social projects—projects which have educated and/or treated hundreds of thousands of Israelis,” emphasized Friedman. “It is hard to imagine Israeli society today without its vital activities over the past century.”
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