As the Women’s International Zionist Organization celebrates its 95th anniversary, Prof. Rivka Lazovsky, chairwoman of the World WIZO Executive, sat down with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday to talk about the largest social organization in Israel.
Lazovsky is not the first woman in her family to be involved in WIZO. Her grandmother was a member in Vienna and escaped the Nazis with her family to Uruguay in 1939, where her mother became involved in the organization.
After immigrating to Israel in 1977, Lazovsky immediately signed up to become of member of WIZO.
“From the first day, WIZO was part of family life for us,” she said.
Growing up, Lazovsky was not bothered by the fact that her mother was always busy working outside the home, she said, because she was always part of that work.
Lazovsky recalled memories from as early as six years old, presenting flowers to dignitaries at a WIZO event.
“If you ask my children, or even my grandchildren, they’ll tell you how important WIZO is,” she said.
She said she always knew she would be part of WIZO, but not that she would get to her current position as chairwoman.
After completing her PhD in education, Lazovsky said she had to decide “between my two loves” – education and WIZO. She said her decision to go into the field of education made her an example of a WIZO woman, a strong woman with a career, a working mother.
“Education is a passion,” she related. From an early age, as a young counselor at a youth group, Lazovsky knew she loved to teach.
“There is no stronger tool today than education,” she said, especially in the age of technology, when guidance is needed to help people learn how to consume information properly.
At WIZO, she said, education starts from the youngest age, with 183 daycare centers across the country caring for more than 15,000 babies and toddlers.
“We know that what we implement at an early age will, to a large extent, dictate the rest of their lives,” said Lazovsky.
Providing daycare centers started as part of an effort to afford women the opportunity to go out to study or work, but the effort grew into its own branch of WIZO, and now education is a core part of WIZO philosophy, she said.
“Giving equal opportunities in education is one of the signs of a true democracy.”
The organization runs 20 daycare centers for children at risk, 23 emergency frameworks and foster homes for children at high risk who are removed from their homes, and 45 therapeutic centers that cater to some 400 elementary school children who receive hot meals, help with homework, and enrichment programs through WIZO.
WIZO operates a hotline for parents of young children with questions about developmental, emotional or behavioral issues.
At the middle and high school level, WIZO operates five youth villages, three special education schools, and 34 youth centers offering tutoring and after-school activities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Lazovsky discussed the emphasis on informal education alongside the formal education WIZO offers.
“Informal education is an indispensable part of education,” she said, pointing to the high cost of private tutors and the large gap it creates between the upper class and middle class, let alone those children from the poorest families.
Lazovsky spoke with pride about the opportunities offered to disadvantaged youth through the programs run by WIZO, including the international competitions and conferences students from the youth villages attend in the fields of math, sciences, dance, choir and more.
She spoke of the unique classes the youth villages offer their students, including their police program, which has youngsters partner with local police forces and take part in community patrols.
“We see them walk straighter, literally,” she said of the students who take part in the police class. She related that the police forces were not sure at first if it was a good idea or not but now they fight over who gets to work with the pupils.
“If I could go back in time, I would send my children to school at the youth villages...
there are extra-curricular activities, they meet people from different sectors in society...,” she said, adding that at the youth villages the students are taught the values of equality, democracy and community.
Women’s rights are also at the forefront of WIZO’s philosophy and goals.
Lazovsky spoke of the organization’s involvement in politics and legislation from the beginning of the state, when Rachel Cohen-Kagan represented WIZO and signed the Declaration of Independence alongside only one other woman, Golda Meir.
There has been progress over the years, she said, but there is still much work to be done.
Lazovsky spoke of the workplace and its need to adapt to family-friendly practices, such as flexible hours and allowing for telecommuting.
“The employment world needs to ensure a structure that will allow a woman – allow parents, women and men – to take care of children without it harming their professional lives or their advancement opportunities,” she said.
Lazovsky spoke of the many cases in which employers violate women’s rights in the workplace and about WIZO’s hotline for working women, not just to obtain advice but to get legal assistance when needed. The line is run by volunteer lawyers and helps thousands of women a year, she said.
There is a need to raise awareness regarding a father’s right to take paternity leave from work following the birth of a child. It’s good for the baby, it’s good for the marriage, it’s good for the family, she said.
Sometimes the woman is the main provider, sometimes the woman is in the middle of earning a degree – there is a need to allow the man to take off from work and care for the child, she said.
“Being a feminist is not being against men,” she said.
“There is some distortion of the term. I always say, we need to take care of equal rights for all genders.”
Lazovsky concluded by sharing what she sees as the secret of WIZO’s resilience: “We are attentive to the needs of Israeli society and the needs of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”
Upon WIZO’s 95th anniversary, Lazovsky wished upon the organization to stay attentive to the needs of society and keep advancing equal opportunities for everyone, from young children through to senior citizens.
WIZO runs more than 800 projects for children, youth, and women in Israel and is the largest provider of education and welfare services to the government.
With a budget of some NIS 1 billion a years, the organization has 50 federation across the world with some 250,000 members.