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I have just returned from Israel, leading a delegation of 27 Aussies to visit our WIZO projects and attend the 25th Extended General Meeting along with approximately 800 people from 32 countries. It was such a special feeling to greet our delegation in Tel Aviv and know we were all here because of our love for the work that we do.

We began our pre conference tour with a cocktail party at the residence of the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Ms Andrea Faulkner. This was attended by many of the World WIZO Executive as well as our delegation. On the afternoon of the cocktail party I was contacted by the Ambassador’s PA to say that Bibi Netanyahu had a called a meeting with her in Jerusalem exactly at the time of the cocktail party! I said to her PA, that we couldn’t compete with Bibi!  Our function went ahead with the Deputy Ambassador and the Consul and was an exciting opening to the tour.

Next day we were on the bus at 8.15 for our visit to our flagship project, WIZO Ahuzat Yeladim our special residential boarding school on the Carmel Mountain in Haifa. What a treat. Many on the tour hadn’t been to Israel for 4 years and they couldn’t recognize the school. We have put an opening/ closing roof on the basketball court, built an acoustic shell for assemblies and performances, built the House of Dreams, renovated all three dormitories, doubled the size of the Pet Therapy area and most recently built a hothouse so the children can take part in gardening therapy.

Last year we opened a special dormitory, Ahuzat Ha’aktana (Mini Ahuzat) housing 15 children from 7-11 who have had to be removed from their families. However, no matter how much capital development we have provided, what this boarding school has is a real heart. Some of you would have met the director Yossi, Saragossi last year and as he showed us around the school I can not tell you how many children came up to him to say hello- and these are children with very serious problems. And of course I came away with a list of needs- the most urgent of which are 90 new beds and mattresses for the children. I was very happy to present the two quilts made by Betty Dykes President of WIZO Kesher in Queensland and I know how much the children appreciate these gifts.

After a visit to Zichron Yaacov in the afternoon we visited our Korsunski Youth Club in Kfar Saba. Again we were blown away. The renovations we have made allow up to 400 children to come to the club for a range of activities from homework help; access to computers, gym, dance classes art classes to name a few. Speaking to some of the grateful mothers who happened to be there to play with their children using games and computers that they couldn’t afford at home, we really felt that our work is touching so many lives.

Next day began with a visit to WIZO Australia’s Chorley DCC in Ra’anana. It was a very exciting to see the newly renovated playgrounds and the internal improvements to the kitchen and bathrooms. The children were gorgeous and enjoying their newly renovated premises.

After a stirring visit to the Independence Museum where the declaration of the State of Israel was made in 1948, we went to Modiin, a new city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Here we visited our brand new Tom and Rae Mandel Womens Centre and were delighted to see the building and to hear about the uses to which it was being put. From counseling for single parents, girls at risk women in abusive relationships to running a second hand shop, we were very impressed with what we saw.

Thursday began with a visit to the Raya Jaglom Day Care Centre in central Tel Aviv. This has just become a Multipurpose Day Care Centre which means that one of the classes attends from 7 am to 7 pm, with the children given hot meals, showers and counseling for parents if there are problems at home. As a special treat I had invited Raya Jaglom after whom this centre is named to meet us there. She is 92 and absolutely amazing. She served as world President of WIZO for 25 years and was a protégée of Rebecca Sieff who founded WIZO in 1920. She gave us a fascinating account as to when this Day Care Centre began and which countries were responsible for it before Australia. It was very special to have Marianne van der Poorten with us to see the renovations that she had enabled of the Sensory Motor Room. I have to say that when I saw the beautiful renovations both inside and out I was overwhelmed- we had spent two years fundraising to improve the facilities in our Day Care Centres and this one was absolutely beautiful.

From there we went to our Day Care centre in Rishon L’Tzion and here we were in for a treat. The Australian Ambassador came to meet us to make up for not meeting our delegation at our cocktail party. It really shows the caliber of Ambassador Faulkner and I was very proud that Australia was represented by someone like her. This Day Care Centre is not complete- I still aim to raise funds to renovate one more playground and the kitchen and interior tiling but it was inspiring to see the improvements that we have managed to make since I was there a year ago.

So you can see that our preconference tour was full of highlights and definitely worthwhile to show all of us the reality of what we have done and will continue to do. It is hard to describe our feelings as the Australian delegation visited each of our projects and we saw the fruits of our hard work.

It is so important to visit our projects when you visit Israel. If you let us know when you will be there we will organize a visit for you.

The EGM was scheduled to begin a few days later and it was really exciting to see the delegates arrive. The lobby of the Hilton was full of laughter and people hugging as they reestablished friendships. To actually feel the buzz of some 800 delegates from 32 countries as varied as Finland, India, Sweden, France, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Panama to name just some, was a real thrill.

Helena Glaser finished her excellent 8 year term of office as World President at this EGM and elections were held where Tova Ben Dov, who finished her job as Chairman, was elected as World President. Professor Rivka Lazovsky was elected as Chairman instead of Tova.

The theme of the conference was Creating a New Tomorrow and that of course is what we do. By supplying education, protection, counseling service etc we are creating a new tomorrow for the people in our care.

The Opening Ceremony was attended by President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres and Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom who both spoke glowingly of WIZO’s work. The entertainment was beautiful, a highlight being a 6 year old girl, Rony, singing” Tomorrow” from Annie with the most magnificent voice. In the middle of her number she went down the steps into the audience to give a rose to Helena, Tova and Shimon Perez who tried to talk to her. She said to him I can not talk, I have to sing and confidently walked up the steps onto the stage to finish her song!

We had excellent panels and guest speakers over the four days talking about Diaspora- Israel Relations; todays Zionism- facing tomorrow; Israel’s Economic strength; Challenges to the image of the State of Israel; Israel’s Strength and National Security- Looking toward Tomorrow. Speakers of the caliber  of Danny Gillerman, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN; Tzipi Livni, Head of the Opposition and Chairperson Kadima Party; and Rona Ramon, wife of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died on the space ship Columbus, addressed us.

I was delighted to accept an Honorary Life Membership pin on behalf of past Federal President Jo Gostin. Also honoured at the EGM was Marianne van der Poorten for her longstanding involvement and support of WIZO and Vivienne Selwyn, daughter of Rae and Tom Mandel.Both of these ladies were invited to join the World WIZO International Council

Some disturbing facts that I learnt were that according to the well respected National Insurance Institute annual report, one in three Israelis is now living below the poverty line. According to Gila Oshrat the new WIZO Israel Chairperson, Israel is 33rd out of 34 developed countries in the OECD in poverty levels. The cutbacks in social services have affected the number and quality of services and led to growth in the poverty ratio and widening social gaps. Women and children are the first to suffer from poverty, distress and violence.

The social protests which broke out during the summer, with 400,000 Israelis marching and living in tents demanded a change in national priorities, obtainable housing, free education for children from the age of 3, decent medical care and adequate welfare services, reforms to lower taxes and a stop to governmental privatization and corruption.

The social protests resulted in the establishment by PM Netanyahu of a commission looking into why Early Age Education needs to be subsidized. WIZO participated in the Pram and Stroller demonstration of mothers demanding free education for their children. In January, the Knesset approved a plan to fund free education for children over the age of three as of the new school year beginning September 2012. Of course, our Day Care Centres are attended by babies from the age of 3 months so this doesn’t solve the funding problem but it is a start.

I gave a presentation to the fundraising workshop on how to raise funds for women and girls in distress. I referred to some facts which you may not know. 200,000 women in Israel suffer from domestic violence. Some 600,000 children are witnesses to that violence. Last year 24 women were murdered by their husbands or partners and while we were at the conference, the first woman for 2012 was murdered. These frightening statistics lead WIZO Israel to hold a march carrying false coffins to outside the Tel Aviv Museum each year. There they are joined by politicians and they bring publicity to these statistics in the hope of helping others.

Reference was made by a number of speakers to the latest problem in Israel where the Haredi- a small group of very religious people are segregating their women and refusing to be in a room where women are singing. Shimon Perez said in his address: Wherever there is discrimination against women there is no justice, hope or future. Of course his primarily female audience gave him enthusiastic support. WIZO Israel members demonstrated in Tel Aviv during Chanukah singing “We shall not stop singing” and were featured in all the media, radio, newspapers and the internet. Gila Oshrat spoke at a meeting at the Knesset on the exclusion of women saying:

Women do not have to sit at the back of the bus. Women also do not have to sit at the front of the bus. Women have to drive the bus!What WIZO is fighting for is that women should be partners in all decision making policy on every aspect of life in Israel, not just women’s issues!

Being in Israel was a truly exhilarating experience. We laughed, we cried, we discussed, we ate – lots, we worked – hard, we danced and we learnt so much. It was a privilege to represent WIZO Australia. We should all be very proud of the work we are doing.

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