Arriving in Israel for the annual Meeting of Representatives, four international WIZO federation presidents weigh in on the challenges of being 21st-century female Zionist leaders in the Diaspora.
BY YONATAN SREDNI / Sourced from JPOST
From Australia to Argentina, from Belgium to Brazil, leaders from Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) federations across the globe will gather at WIZO’s Tel Aviv headquarters for the Meeting of Representatives – a week of sharing, planning, bonding and strengthening their deep connection to Israel.
The meeting brought together four WIZO federation presidents to discuss burning issues of the day: support for Israel against the backdrop of rising global antisemitism, violence against women, the future of Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora and more.
WIZO is a leading social services provider in Israel. Established in 1920, WIZO’s 800 projects and programs include preschool education, schools, youth villages, women’s empowerment programs, women’s shelters, and more, all supported by a global network of WIZO federations.
“What sets WIZO apart is that is a truly global volunteer-driven organization,” World WIZO Chairperson Prof. Riva Lazovsky said.
Seeing is believing
All four WIZO leaders agreed that when it comes to garnering support for Israel, distance is a major factor.
“Because all of the WIZO projects that we sponsor are in Israel, one of our greatest challenges is getting people overseas to understand the work of WIZO in Israel,” says WIZO USA’s new co-president Mireille Manocherian. “It’s difficult to show the work WIZO does when our constituents are so far from Israel.”
“We plan to create a mission to Israel to bring a diverse group of women of all ages to visit our WIZO projects and see firsthand how WIZO educates, cares for and teaches Israeli citizens – particularly the most vulnerable – how to become self-sufficient, which has a direct impact in strengthening the country.”
WIZO Germany president Simone Graumann echoes the sentiment.
“We try to send our young women to the annual WIZO Aviv Young Leadership Mission in Israel, because “seeing is believing.” They must see with their own eyes the life-changing work we do. This experience totally changes their attitudes towards Israel. This is the best way to get them involved.”
“Seeing the babies and toddlers thrive in WIZO’s care always brings tears of joy to my eyes,” Graumann says. “The same is true for our young mothers when they see our daycare centers in action.”
Ambassadors for Israel
“Jewish communities in the Diaspora, especially WIZO’s federations, play a crucial role in advocating for Israel,” Lazovsky said. “They show the beautiful side of Israel – not only within the Jewish community but to the wider public.”
“I strive to be connected to Israel and feel it is my duty to pass this on to others,” WIZO Brazil president Silene Balassiano said. “I use all of WIZO’s resources – especially sharing on social media.”
“There is negative perception about Israel in the media, especially in Germany.” Graumann says. “I see a part of my WIZO work as hasbara. At our federation’s events, we show the real and beautiful Israel. We focus on coexistence and diversity, like The Olive Tree Project, a WIZO initiative bringing Jewish, Muslim and Christian women together through art. WIZO day care centers are also examples of co-existence.”
“Australians are very supportive of Israel and we have many Zionist organizations,” Paulette Cherny, president of WIZO Australia says. “But with such achievements, we must convey the impact of WIZO’s work to the citizens of Israel.”
“In Australia, so far, we are fortunate that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not as rife as elsewhere,” she says. “However, it is on the rise. Supporting Israel is the only option, no matter what forces there are against it. I am able to influence members of our community to understand and support the wonderful work we do.”
“Raising funds for projects in Israel is especially difficult now,” Graumann said, “especially given the fact that in Germany, we currently have a large amount of refugees and people tend to help those in their own country more than Israel.”
Another major challenge for all Zionist organizations is preparing the next generation to be future leaders.
“One of the things we’ve managed to do well over the past 30 years in WIZO USA is to attract and retain the next generation,” Manocherian says. “We start by having our members’ children model in our fashion show. Then as teenagers, they participate in their own basketball fundraising tournaments. As they grow up, we have our Young Professional group and our Rising Leaders group for young married families.”
Championing women’s rights
Regarding the status of women in Israel, the federation presidents praised WIZO’s work in championing women’s rights and WIZO’s great impact empowering women through its projects and services in that area. Last month, after 25 women were murdered in the year 2018 alone, WIZO joined the nationwide protests against violence towards women, calling on the government to act before more women become victims.
“Israel today continues to strongly address violence against women, as do most Western countries,” Cherney says. “Israel has always given women equal rights in so many spheres. Domestic violence has also come to light in a much more supportive way in Israel, which empowers women to be stronger.”
Israel guarantees a home for all Jews
When asked to look ahead a decade, Graumann said, “Israel is becoming more and more important for the Diaspora, as it guarantees a home for all Jews. I am not so optimistic about Jewish life in Europe in 10 years from now, so it is our job to strengthen the identity with Israel and its future.”
Balassiano is cautiously optimistic. “Brazil’s president-elect just received Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu very warmly and we project a future of confidence, commerce and success together between our two countries.”
“Being involved with WIZO means a commitment to Israel,” Cherny says. “I believe that Israel will get stronger and become the leading light in many areas of life, including technology, agriculture, defense, medical breakthroughs and more. As many countries Europe and elsewhere struggle to keep our people safe, many more will make aliyah, increasing the population greatly. To strengthen our identity, we must look at the achievements over the past 70 years and be proud.”
“What the public does not fully understand is the great contribution of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora in general and WIZO federations specifically,” Lazovsky said. “The Israeli government does not always provide the full budget required to run the social and educational services needed and WIZO sees it as its duty to ensure there is no deficit.”
“It’s fitting that this year’s WIZO Meeting of Representatives begins on Tu Bishvat,” Lazovsky concluded. “With the backing of the strongest Jewish communities in the world, WIZO will continue to be a ‘tree of life’ for women, children and the weakest sectors in Israeli society for years to come.”
This article was written in cooperation with World WIZO.