Dear Becky – a letter to WIZO’s founding mother

 

On the eve of WIZO’s 96th anniversary, I write a letter to WIZO’s founding mother, Rebecca Sieff z”l   in which I ask the question, “how are we doing?”  An earlier version of this letter appeared in the WIZO Review in 2010.

Dear Becky,

It is human nature to seek the approval of our elders. From that very first crayon drawing that we thrust wide-eyed into our mothers’ hands when we skipped out of nursery school as children to be met with a “well done, darling – how clever you are!” Such affirmation spurs us on to do more, to reach further and to aim higher. So, indulge us, dear Becky, when we ask you, “how are we doing?”

Through your vision and steadfastness, you bequeathed a legacy of incalculable worth to the women and children of the State of Israel and in so doing, you placed upon the shoulders of your WIZO daughters and granddaughters the enormous responsibility of safe keeping such a precious gift. You entrusted us with the wellbeing of a nation.

Ninety-six years ago, when you stood up at the International Women’s Zionist Conference at the Russell Hotel in London and brought your brainchild into being, could you have known how that first seed would take root and grow?

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When you rolled up your sleeves and said, “Let the men get on with it and we’ll do the real work,” did you ever stop to analyse the weight of that declaration? No. You just got down and did it.

The Irish dramatist of the 17th century, George Fabricius said, “Death comes to all, but great achievements raise a monument, which shall endure until the sun grows old.” But, dear Becky, the sun will never grow old, and like 250,000 WIZO chaverot in 50 federations around the world, the sun rises each morning and shines on the State of Israel.

Your legacy in our hands and those of our daughters and granddaughters places rainbows over every child attending WIZO day care centres, schools and youth villages – nurturing and educating them. Through a network of some 800 projects and services, WIZO supports, guides, protects and empowers. WIZO affords mothers the opportunity to work, knowing that their children are in the safest of hands – WIZO hands. WIZO gives those women the confidence and tools to retrain and make their difference in this world.

In your image, and that of all who walked with you in those pioneering days of pre-state Israel, thousands of women no longer take ‘no’ for an answer in the home and workplace. WIZO throws its full weight into the fight for women’s rights. It stands strong and defiant in the face of domestic violence and provides sanctuary and therapy to victims of abuse and their children. WIZO campaigns tirelessly on both the national and global stage against the discrimination of women in all its forms.

As pertinent as Fabricius’s words are, to call WIZO a monument conjures up visions of an immobile structure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Time and terrors, wars and circumstances have left scars on the face of Israel that WIZO strives to erase. The changing and ever-increasing needs of society, economic factors, the cost of terror and a widening poverty gap all command a hefty price, which WIZO pays every day, in every way.

 

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Helena Kagan (l) and Rebecca Sieff (r) at the opening of the Jerusalem Baby Home in 1955 with the home’s director.                   Photo courtesy of WIZO Archives, Tel Aviv

 

WIZO mobilises, renovates, modernises and re-establishes itself to address new and different challenges, spearheading social activism and shaping society.

Becky, we do not rest on our laurels. You would not have approved of that. The organisation that you founded 96 years ago moves forever forward, keeping up the momentum with an evolving Israel and a changing world, and it is no easy task. Just as we, here in Israel, invest heavily in the security of the people, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment rises in the Diaspora. Jewish communities across the globe have become all too familiar with campaigns to smear Israel’s name, to ignore her excellent record of Tikkun Olam and life-saving innovations and to paint her in a less than flattering light.  We must work ever harder to raise the profile of our beloved State of Israel, to spread truth where lies permeate and to advocate and support her as best we can.

And we do our best because first and foremost, we care for the people of Israel. We are a sisterhood of women gathered under the WIZO banner in their service. The strength of the people determines the strength of the nation. The strength of WIZO depends on all our endeavours.

Waiting to take up the gauntlet are the young and focused Aviv members, committed Zionists whose passion for the State of Israel match their desire to take WIZO into the future, to further evolve and perpetuate. Women all over the world join hearts with their mothers, daughters and sisters in Israel to close the generation gap and volunteer for WIZO, and they do it, as we all do because Israel is central to our Jewish soul – and WIZO is the Zionism of the Jewish mother.

So, Becky, as we gaze upon your portrait hanging in WIZO Federations all over the world, can we assume that behind that resolute and stern persona, there lies a smile of approval? I do hope so.

With deepest respect and affection.

A WIZO Chavera

Tricia Schwitzer serves on both the World WIZO Executive and the Executive of Friends of WIZO.  Tricia also serves on the committee of Truth Be Told, an advocacy group countering misinformation relating to Israel. Special projects undertaken for World WIZO include Israel advocacy, social media marketing material and promotional writing. 

 

We are the people

We are the people; the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters that the haters, the anti-Semites and the anti-Zionists refuse to acknowledge. We are the people whose integrity, whose values, whose right to be is called into question by those who, for reasons unfathomable and ominous, choose to point a bloody finger. We are the people who, surrounded by sworn enemies, refuse to be intimidated.

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We are the people who live by the Talmudic teaching: ‘for whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.’ Yet we, in honouring our own basic human right to survive are compelled to fight the war on terror on two fronts, here in Israel and on the world’s stage.

Tikkun-Olam-Repairing-the-World

We are the people for whom Tikkun Olam (healing the world) is a prerequisite. We teach our children to respect the other and the world around us. We are the people whose army operates by a code of conduct that demands purity of arms and an unprecedented level of humanitarianism in our defence while facing an enemy that thrusts its women and children in the line of fire, that goads and taunts. We, who must rise above and beyond the call of duty, refuse to be defined by the warped perceptions of the inciteful and the incited and those deceived ones who would do us harm.
We are the people who when mourning our dead also mourn the casualties of our adversaries. We are the people who, no matter how committed or otherwise we are in our faith, will ask forgiveness from God even when we are not at fault.

We are the people who, when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, are first on the front lines, mobilising medical, search and rescue squads and post-trauma experts to repair the shattered lives of devastated populations delivering them from catastrophe to reconstruction and rehabilitation. Whether it be famine in Kenya, outbreaks of Ebola in Sierra Leonie, typhoons in the Philippines, earthquakes in Japan, tornadoes in the USA, it is we who will dig deeper and delve further in order to save a life, even the lives of sworn enemies who pray for our demise.


We are the people who speak the universal language of healing, of caring. Since December 2013, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have medically treated more than 2,000 Syrian casualties of the Syrian civil war, many of them women and children, and sent them to Israeli hospitals for further care. When dehydrated refugees looking for safe haven from the Syrian battle ground landed on the shores of Greece, it was a team of volunteer Israeli medics that came to their aid. As Former Israeli President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres said, “We are all human beings. Who can be indifferent to the sight of this horrible massacre, the sight of children in small coffins, and of screaming mothers?” Medical assistance to Syrian civil war casualties, the IDF says, is a humanitarian initiative.

We are the people who, despite suffering a daily onslaught of indiscriminate car ramming, shootings and knife attacks, persist in saving the lives of babies and children with life-threatening heart defects from Gaza to Tanzania. Children and their families from developing countries as well those from Syria, Iraq, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Romania are brought to Israel for life-saving surgery by top paediatric surgeons regardless of religion, race or creed. Israel, in her humanitarian mission, does not discriminate.

We are the people who have little choice but to abide the slander, to deflect the poison pen arrows and victimisation of our people with diplomacy and good deeds, lest we offend the meek critic.  The world watches us and waits to trip us up. Erroneously  described by a former French Ambassador to the UK (Daniel Bernard) as, ‘Israel, that shitty little country,’ we are more inclined to be defined by the great Greek philosopher Plato when he coined the prophetic  phrase, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’  Israel, so poor in natural resources, has had no option but to pool its brainpower in order to survive and thrive and to support those who need our help, because we are committed to salvation.

We are the people who deliver. From ground-breaking irrigation and water purification processes to agricultural advancement, from life-saving cures to terror-busting cyber security and from technological and scientific breakthroughs to ecological and life-enhancing inventions, we lead where others follow. Many millions of people around the world owe a debt of gratitude to that uniquely Israeli chutzpah that compels us to push the boundaries of discovery to new frontiers and to share it, loudly and proudly, with a world that needs Israel more than it cares to admit.

We are the people, the citizens of the glorious yet tiny State of Israel – one of the smallest nations on the planet. Half her area is desert and only 20% is arable, and so it is that we, the people have replaced the mantra, ‘location, location, location’ with a far more fitting description:’ innovation, innovation, innovation.’

And thus, we the people of the State of Israel ask you, beg you, the people of the rest of the world not to define us with ridiculously ill-fitting and ill-willed labels as you often do. In this tiny strip of a country, we unite as a force for good to heal the world. Ours is a positive, life-enhancing, life-saving contribution. We are the people who believe in saving the world. Let us be defined for that.

We are the people. Am Israel Chai

The collective power of WIZO

(This article appears in the January 2016 print-only  edition of the World WIZO Lapid newsletter)

‘Individually we are just one drop, but together we are an ocean,’ these words by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro, are the very essence of the WIZO  (Women’s International Zionist Organization) movement. WIZO transcends oceans in an ingathering of Jewish women from all over the world who proudly wear her badge and for whom WIZO is their vehicle of choice, in which they steer with steadfast determination towards Israel, towards her people. WIZO women all over the world know that by strengthening the people, the State of Israel itself is fortified.

And so it is with WIZO. Her strength is in the sheer numbers of her volunteer/fundraising force scattered over continents, poles apart and yet simultaneously together. This passionately Zionist sisterhood sings from the same song sheet at full throttle in a unified voice, as she stands shoulder to shoulder with not only her Israeli counterparts but also every man, woman and child, who comes under the protection of WIZO’s vast welfare umbrella in Israel through its 800 welfare projects.

The WIZO chavera, whether she lives just around the corner in Tel Aviv or down under in Sydney or any place in between, knows that she is an integral part of something much larger than herself and that her inclusion and unity is as crucial to WIZO’s success as that of any other woman who serves the movement. It is only in the collective strength of unity under the WIZO banner that  WIZO maintains its edge in answering the calls from an increasingly needy Israeli society whose challenges are great.
The WIZO chavera is, bar none, an ambassador for the State of Israel. She is an agent for social change in Israel. By her membership to WIZO  she has pledged loyalty to the people of Israel, by wearing a WIZO badge she holds the megaphone and articulating loudly and proudly that she is one of many who care enough to belong, who care enough to volunteer and who care enough to be visual, audible and, above all, credible in her passion for this worthiest of causes. For who are we, if we are not for our own people?

WIZO is a collective, a global community comprised of  Jewish women from all walks of life, of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Some 95 years after her inception, she continues to realize the ideology of her founding mothers but at the same time, WIZO has evolved to address the issues, and provide effective, manageable solutions for a growing and diverse population. The weight of such a huge burden on her shoulders is distributed evenly throughout the entire WIZO world; some 50 federations, comprising of around 250,000 volunteers each with their commitment and fair share of the load.
The largest federation, WIZO Israel, works directly with and on behalf of the local population, including those of minority communities. Her aims are to advance the status of women, defend their rights and achieve gender equality in all fields; to combat domestic violence; to assist in the absorption of new immigrants and to contribute to family and community welfare, with special emphasis on single parent families, women, children, and the elderly. Elevating the status of women has always been a priority of the Israel federation. The Equal Rights for Women Law of 1952 was passed on the initiative of then WIZO Israel chairman Rachel Kagan, who represented the organization in Israel’s first Knesset. Today, WIZO remains active in this field.

Lapid Dec 2015Together with WIZO Israel, under the World WIZO umbrella, worldwide federations strive to donate much-needed revenue for the movement, both for the provision of crucial benefits to Israeli society and in the support of their own sponsored projects. The engagement of the Jewish heart into giving is reinforced by identity with the people of Israel. WIZO is the embodiment of the Jewish mother looking after her brood. These days, as anti-Israel sentiment rages and anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in frightening proportions around the world, the defence of Israel’s integrity is a crucial precursor and it is important that WIZO chaverot are active in their Zionism in order to educate and enlighten and bring value to the WIZO table – not just as a fundraising organization but as a movement proud of its underlying principles. Constant regeneration of commitment, of passion and ultimately of membership, is key to preserving WIZO as the powerhouse that she is today. World federations actively network with local Jewish and non-Jewish members of their communities in social and fundraising events, thereby increasing exposure to WIZO’s endeavours both on the ground and on social media platforms.

On the world’s stage WIZO is recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization with consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and the International Children’s Emergency Fund. She is a member of the World Zionist Organization and has the power to influence decisions crucial to the wellbeing of all sectors of the population of the Jewish State.
WIZO is a peoples movement, she cares deeply for the baby, the child, the adolescent, the young parents, the unmarried mother, the abused woman, the great grandmother – her family. She cares for all the people, without prejudice towards creed or colour, providing in equal parts, wherever the need arises. WIZO’s strength lies in her emotional appeal to every Jewish woman, everywhere. She is the win-win, go-to movement for any woman who cares about her family, who cares about Israel. It is easy to identify with WIZO’s ethos. It is the ethos of every Jewish mother who treats her children equally while striving to strengthen the weakest and nurture the neediest.

As relevant as ever, and needed even more so,  as spirited and as forceful, WIZO constantly looks to the future with the engagement of young Jewish women to take up the gauntlet to become the leaders of tomorrow and on whose shoulders the weight of responsibility for the world’s largest women’s Zionist organization can, and will, rest easily. The State of Israel and her people deserve no less than that.

 

It’s not about me, it’s about WIZO

I guess you could call me a loose cannon. I don’t always see eye to eye with the management of  the organization for which I volunteer, on whose board I sit.  I don’t always totally agree with the policies. I find long meetings and monologs tiresome and petticoat politics somewhat unproductive and often wonder if I really am ‘executive’ material – being so blatantly down to earth and somewhat outspoken but then I think of the recipients of the service we provide and  the federations that we must serve in our quest to deliver the goods. It’s why we do what we do – and how I can help the organization adapt to a changing, more modern world, with the skills I have. However,  it’s not all about me, you see, it’s about WIZO.

Before I became a volunteer, I was an employee, working as an assistant editor. I absolutely adored my little job and my enthusiasm for the work fuelled a passion for the product. This enthusiasm led me to feel great guilt in taking a wage from an organization that I saw as being run by a volunteer force.  I was in awe of the women I met, volunteers all, from every corner of the world, who tirelessly flew the flag for WIZO, who believed in the product so fervently that they spent 24/7 on the job, doing great things for the women and children of Israel through WIZO. And so, with the support of my husband I gave up the salary and did exactly the same job on a voluntary basis – and my passion for WIZO soared.

I recall my boss at the time, herself a volunteer, was somewhat baffled by my decision to give up my salary. ‘It’s not a good idea.’ she said, somewhat stone-faced. I thought I was doing good and had expected that my newly found altruism would be warmly, if not gratefully, welcomed. She was clearly not pleased with my decision. The same could not be said for the then-chairperson of the executive and the president who were both  delighted  with their conscientious volunteer and welcomed me with open arms.

Some years later, I was voted on to the executive and was told, ‘you are on the executive now, don’t chat with the paid workers.’  I will never divulge who it was that said that to me, but it struck a chord. It was as if by becoming one of the executive members,  I was somehow elevated to a position of grandeur, where I had to adopt the airs and graces of ‘leadership’. As if I had to think of myself as somewhat higher in the pecking order of things. As if it was expected of me to demand respect.  Indeed, it was a bitter pill that I preferred to spit out than to swallow.

One of my dear friends,  who is sadly no longer in the employ of the organization, said to me, ‘Ah but you will change now, because those that join the executive always do,’ to which I replied, in typically Tricia fashion, ‘Not me, no bloody way.  I will never change.’ I never did. I never will.

And that is precisely the thing. We are a team – all of us, whether here in Israel or  out there in the federations in the wider world – and we should, all of us, be judged on our enthusiasm, our passion and the level of service we provide, whether we receive a salary or not. We are, all of us, working for the same goal, to better the opportunities and education of the citizens of Israel, to promote equality for the weaker sectors and to feed the mind and body of the children, and to assist those who partner us in our quest around the world. That is our task. That’s what I signed up to do.

Surely it is a matter of, ‘ask not what WIZO can do for you, but what you can do for WIZO?’

Anyone who knows me will already be aware of my great passion for WIZO, but passion alone is no basis for a healthy relationship. There must be mutual respect, kindness and empathy. WIZO was born out of a great empathy for the women and children of Israel, we must never forget that. WIZO is a WE thing, not an ‘I’ thing.

We must think first of WIZO and then of others and lastly of ourselves. Only by putting the mutual interests of WIZO first can we ever achieve that selflessness that goes hand in hand with volunteerism. Respect is not something that we can automatically assume. Respect is not our hammer that threatens to swing over the heads of others. Respect is earned, respect is mutual. It is the very essence of the work we do. We teach even the youngest toddlers to respect the other, to share – to play nicely. In order to maintain good relations with each other, in order to be inclusive and included, we have no other choice than to practice what we preach – or in Tricia-speak we need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

By presenting a totally united front and standing together with a time-served and faithful workforce, by listening to their grievances and equating real and pressing issues over personal agendas,  will we ever even begin to earn the respect – and earn our place on the executive of the  most wonderful organization to which I am proud to belong.

 

The Attitude of Gratitude

Why do I volunteer for WIZO? Well, thank you for asking. Mine is not the typical ‘WIZO is  in my DNA’ story. I did not walk in my late mother’s footsteps. She and her friends, back in Manchester, were ‘Ladies in Blue’ – members of the League of Jewish Women whose volunteerism centred around the local community.  Apart from buying the occasional ticket to a WIZO fashion show, or the  WIZO Manchester calendar to hang on the kitchen wall  of my house in Prestwich, I knew little of WIZO and cared even less. Sure, many of my friends were WIZO members. I viewed their WIZOism as an indulgence. Back then, I had no idea what they did or why they did it – oh yes, I vaguely remember it had something to do with feeding little children in Israel. Nothing more, nothing less. Joining their ranks was never an option. It was a struggle just to feed my own family – and to keep up a pretence that everything in my garden was coming up roses, when clearly to all but me, it wasn’t.

If you read my profile you will know that it was in Israel that I found sustainable happiness. I was,  for the first time in a long time, looked after. The hard landing of Aliyah was massively cushioned by my crazy diamond Israeli lover who indulged me in heart and spirit and showered me with everything I needed to repair a shattered sense of self-worth. My Zionism was sealed with a wedding ring under the chuppah at the Tel Aviv Sheraton, at the height of the Second Intifada.

This perplexed but happy middle-aged woman while  learning the excruciating language of the Hebrew man,  would often cut classes at the ulpan and head off to Gordon Beach to work more studiously on the ultimate sun tan, but it was not long before the conscientious Tricia took over from the tanned one and she  found herself a little part time job at the World WIZO HQ in Tel Aviv.

Brenda Katten was to become my role model. I was in awe of her wisdom and passion. To work with her in the (now defunct) public affairs department was to share an office with an eloquent spitfire who needed no notes and no autocue in her delivery of an impassioned plea that infused her audience with Zionism and warned (all those years ago) of the rise in global anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism before it even became trendy. A staunch defender of Israel, she had been victimized and verbally abused at the United Nations International Conference on Racism – Durban 2001, which spawned a new and hateful breed of anti-Israelism known as BDS. She stood her ground. Brenda led a rallying cry against Iran’s nuclear proliferation from the very first antagonistic utterance of ‘wipe Israel off the map.’

But it was not just her Zionistic stance that impressed me, it was her manner. Brenda knew the importance of those two words –  ‘thank you’. She knew that appreciation had a two-fold effect. Both the giver and the recipient are rewarded by thanks.

I went on to become the deputy editor of the WIZO Review, a job I loved. I felt a great respect for all the chaverot around the world. Reporting on their fundraising and social events made an impact on me. Their selfless acts of altruism for Israel through WIZO impressed me so greatly that I began to feel guilty taking a salary (albeit a very modest one) from WIZO. I felt as if I was stealing from every chavera around the world. It just did not sit right with me.

I wanted to become a volunteer. It would have no negative effect on the quality of my work. Indeed, the opposite. It would add value to my work.  I figured that if WIZO was all about women who make a difference to the people of Israel through volunteerism, good deeds and generosity,  well then count me in. After all, I had visited the day care centres, the schools, the battered women’s shelters. I had smiled, and laughed and wept with the chaverot – and I had been in awe of all these women because they care enough to volunteer. I had let these new-found emotions wash over me and it felt good. Altruism is an affair between the heart and the pocket. I knew that WIZO, an organization that  did so much to bring out the very best in Israeli society was the perfect channel for me to give back to the Israel that showed me such love.

I was able to volunteer, I was able to donate. I still am and I hope I always will. My need to give back becomes greater with each passing year – and now more than ever.

There is no doubt that WIZO has every ingredient to appeal to the heart of a Jewish mother. It is all about nurturing, caring and empowering. I often wonder whether my deep respect for WIZO comes from a place deep within me where lurks a modicum of guilt at leaving my boys back in England and following my heart to Israel. But even if it does, what difference does it make? I have paid my dues. It really does not matter from where it comes, the fact is that I have it and it is a gift to be used, because whatever little or much I can do for  WIZO and  the people of Israel I will do.

There exists within all of us the need to do something good for others,  but there is also the need for acknowledgment, for inclusion and for a little gratitude. We need to feel that we belong, that what we do matters.

Sometimes, the act of gratitude is often minimized to the detriment of both the giver and recipient and yet it is this simple acknowledgment or lack of it that can make or break motivation  Interestingly, you can find many graphics on Google images for motivation and yet hardly any for demotivation. Even your spellchecker will query the word – as if it is a truth that dare not speak its name. Left  unchecked, negative factors may impact on every action and inaction of the demotivated volunteer. I have been demotivated more than once but never by the organization as a whole. An organization cannot ever demotivate a person. Only other people can do that. I am learning to rise above it, focussing always on why we do what we do. The WIZO movement is far bigger than any one person. I like to think of it as a global village raising the Israeli nation.

And so, when no thanks from my immediate peers is forthcoming, I take satisfaction in knowing that disadvantaged youth can enjoy a game of snooker in a room named after my late and much-loved father, at the same time as they are learning new skills and rebuilding broken lives at the Rebecca Sieff Centre for the Family in Jerusalem.  I take my thanks from the smiles on the faces of the little  children in a WIZO day care centre.   I know that one day (and think how time flies) that those little children will become the  principled defenders of the State of Israel. They will  stand up for me, my children and the grandchildren I am yet to have. There can be no bigger heap of thanks than that.

So why do I volunteer for WIZO? I do it because I believe in the product and because I can. For that, I am proud to have the attitude of gratitude