It might have taken 60 years to recognize their invaluable contributions, but finally on this year's Independence Day the state will honor eight social advocacy and welfare organizations for their contributions to creating and sustaining its citizens in a wide variety of ways.
From advancing the status of women to working with children, youth and the elderly; sustaining industry and supporting newcomers, the Israel Prize for Special Contribution to the State of Israel and Israeli society will be awarded in a state ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday night to the Jewish Agency for Israel, women's organizations Na'amat, WIZO and Emunah, the Manufacturers Association; the Youth Movements Council, health aid organization Ezer Mizion and mentoring program Perach.
Each organization has displayed excellence in its field or has contributed strongly to Israeli culture. The winners were selected by a committee of judges and approved by the education minister.
While it seems like winning the Israel Prize was a long time in coming, the symbolism of receiving such an honor on Israel's 60th year is not lost on Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Zeev Bielski.
"I can't explain why it took so long," he says. "But I'm very proud to be chairman at a time when the Jewish Agency is receiving such a prize. I know that it's not for me but for the thousands of people worldwide who are working or have worked and for those who have volunteered to the Jewish Agency and done so much for the State of Israel."
"Created at the 16th Zionist Congress on August 11, 1929, JAFI is an organization that unites the entire Jewish world with the State of Israel," wrote the Israel Prize judges in their justification.
Until the establishment of the state, JAFI was the
central body responsible for overseeing the welfare of the Jews in the Diaspora, promoting unity and aliya, purchasing land in the future state and establishing settlements and cultural life here before Israel formally existed.
"Since the founding of the state until today, JAFI is no less active in developing the country, assisting new immigrants and deepening the Jewish identity of people worldwide," noted the judges.
"We have helped three million new immigrants to make their homes in Israel," points out Bielski, who will receive the prize on behalf of the semi-government organization. "We are involved in Jewish education worldwide and in closing the socio-economic gaps here too."
Noting the increasing criticism of the agency's role in world Jewry, Bielski says he believes that receiving the prize this year "will hopefully put everything in perspective and allow people to focus on all the good work we do and allow us to concentrate on what has to be done in the future."
"Despite their differences, the combined activities of these women's organizations [Na'amat, WIZO and Emunah] have succeeded in advancing social, humanitarian, cultural and education activities within the public sphere," noted the judges.
Among their noble activities, wrote the panel, is the establishment of day-care centers for pre-schoolers - providing quality education and allowing working mothers to participate in the workforce. Plus, their joint work in advancing legislation for women's rights and providing aid, advice and shelter to battered women.
Na'amat president Talia Livni says the fact that three women's organizations are receiving this year's prize is a welcome recognition by the state to the role of women in society.
"I am very happy that the three organizations have won this together," she says. "Together we have been pioneering in the field of women's rights, child care and other activities for more than 80 years."
While each organization has its individual character, continues Livni, Na'amat's specialty lies in female empowerment, advancing legislation for women and taking a stand against domestic violence.
"In Na'amat, one of our main focuses has been on helping women to reach the workforce," she highlights. "We recognize the double duty of women as employees and mothers."
While the organization proudly points to the fact that 50 percent of women now contribute to the economy, Livni, who will accept the prize on behalf of all Na'amat workers, volunteers and supporters worldwide, points out: "We still want to see complete equality in every workplace. Women are still not in the highest positions in many fields and we will not stop until we get there."
Founded in 1921, the organization was originally called Moetzet Hapoalot (Council of Working Women) and was made up of young female pioneers who arrived in Palestine in the early 1920s.
Today, Na'amat employs more than 5,000 women and men here, has sister organizations in nine countries and provides support services to women, children and families across the country.
While religious Zionist women's organization Emunah is no stranger to winning prizes for its wide-ranging contributions to society, Liora Minka, its chairwoman-Israel, says "it's finally sinking in how significant receiving this prize is."
"We have dealt with the unique challenges facing Israel over the past 60 years," says Minka, an educator and former lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, who will accept the prize on behalf of Emunah. "We have had influence over Israeli society in many spheres."
From working with disadvantaged children in any one of its 130 day-care centers or assisting new immigrants in building their homes here or the elderly in growing old with dignity, Minka believes that this is a very "symbolic year to receive the prize."
Based in Jerusalem, Emunah was founded in 1935 to "promote religious Zionist ideals through volunteering in various communal activities and endeavors to improve the face of Israeli society."
The organization, which today has 26 chapters worldwide and a network of professionals and volunteers, also aims to invests in developing the spiritual aspect of women through Midreshet Emunah for the Study of Women and the Jewish Family and in its many Torah centers throughout Israel.
"WIZO has helped to create a country that people want to be part of," states Helena Glasser, world president of Women's International Zionist Organization, who will accept the prize for the 88-year-old organization. "And this year is the right time for us to get such an honor."
Glasser says that unique aspect of WIZO's work lays in the thousands of people here who have graduated from its day-care centers, youth villages and outreach programs.
"We continue to work with children, youth, women and the elderly," she says proudly. "Everywhere I go I see the handprint of our organization."
However, Glasser refuses to take personal credit for the prize preferring to deflect her praise onto the professionals and volunteers both here and abroad throughout the organization's history that have "aided Israeli society."
WIZO was founded in Britain in 1920 by Rebecca Sieff as a non-partisan voluntary movement aimed at addressing the needs of the fledgling Zionist community already living in Palestine.
Today, it provides services to all sectors of society from newborn babies to the elderly via its day-care centers, schools, youth clubs and other programs.
President Shraga Brosh says it's difficult to quantify "what has happened to Israeli industry over the past 60 years but one thing is for sure, we have factories from the Golan Heights to Eilat."
As well as providing millions of people with jobs, Brosh points out that the association has also succeeded in closing socio-economic gaps by fighting to ensure that these blue-collar workers receive salaries above the average wage.
"The judges recognized this achievement and the work we have done in peripheral communities," he observes.
Since its establishment in 1921, the association has grown to become a central force in the economy, particularly in the industrial sector. Today, more than 2,000 companies are affiliated with the association, which is the sole representative body of all industrial sectors: private, public, kibbutz and governmental. It is the country's largest employers association, representing them in all matters concerning labor agreements with the Histadrut and the government.
Israel Council of Youth Movements
Aside from its regular activities out in the field with some 17 youth movements, perhaps the Israel Council of Youth Movements' greatest influence is on the thousands of alumni who have gone on to hold high-level positions within the government, industry and society.
"I hear it all the time in interviews with important people that their background almost always includes some inspiring experience from their time in a youth movement," observes Naftali Dery, the council's general secretary, who will accept the prize on behalf of the movements. "[Being part of a youth movement] gives young people the chance to become leaders, they learn to take responsibility and give back to society."
However, Dery notes the challenges faced by today's youth movements, which must compete with the technological interests of young people.
"This prize is extremely important to our future activities," he says. "It will hopefully allow us to continue our activities for many years to come."
The Council of Youth Movements was established in 1974 as a volunteer umbrella organization connecting youth movements from across the political spectrum. The council functions as an auxiliary body and meeting place for the heads of each movement to address subjects such as education, youth involvement in social processes, and community projects, as well as current problems in society. All of the council's activities are nonpartisan and comply with the laws and spirit of the Zionist movement and the Declaration of Independence.
It is almost impossible for Hananya Chowak, founder and CEO of Ezer Mizion, to put his finger on his health support organization's greatest achievement.
"Every one of our departments is very important, whether its our work with mothers who have cancer, people with mental retardation or our bone marrow registry, we are developing programs all the time and have more than 11,000 volunteers working with us," says the father of 12, who started the organization's assistance program in his two-room Jerusalem apartment 30 years ago.
"We all work together to help each other and really this prize should go to thanking everyone of the volunteers who have worked with us."
Ezer Mizion's worked started as a simple "babysitting" service, with a small network of volunteers sitting next to hospitalized children to give their parents a break from the stress of the situation. Slowly, its fields began to branch out to provide support services for elderly hospital patients and then onwards to providing those people and their chaperones with food and later on transportation to and from the hospitals.
"Our services grew out of the needs in the field," says Chowak, who will accept the prize. "I never really thought about what prizes we would be winning in the future, I was just focused on how to help the people in the State of Israel."
The student mentoring program Perach is perhaps the least known organization out of this year's Israel Prize winners, but its influence is no less significant. Perach, which also means flower, provides thousands of children with young adult guidance helping them to blossom into productive and motivated individuals.
"Winning this prize is a wonderful honor," says national director Amos Carmeli. "We are very happy that the Israel Prize has recognized all the work we do with young children and with students."
According to Carmeli, the organization, which was started 34 years ago, has had major influence on similar programs worldwide from Singapore to Sweden and Hungary.
"As well as helping children through difficult times in their lives, we also provide support and advice to organizations in more than 20 other nations," says Carmeli, who will accept the prize.
Perach's formula is simple, it aims to "cultivate and enrich the lives of children from underprivileged backgrounds, from all sectors - Jewish, Arab and Druse - through a close relationship with a mentor, while at the same time to help university students cover the cost of higher education by providing partial scholarships or academic credits in return for their work.
In its own words, "Perach also hopes to promote tolerance and understanding between Jews and Arabs, through joint activities and allows students to foster ties with the community by encouraging them to become an active, contributing member of society and to assume full civic responsibilities."
Approximately 20 percent of all the students in the country's institutes of higher education participate in the project each year.
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