The Women’s International Zionist Organization is really the first social start-up in Israel, said Tova Ben-Dov, president of World WIZO.
Ben-Dov, who will step down this week after completing her four-year term as leader of the women’s organization, sat down with The Jerusalem Post to talk about the past, present and future of WIZO, which is celebrating 95 years.
Her history with the organization began in 1965 when, as a young mother living in Herzliya Pituah for only two weeks, she received a knock on the door by a representative of the local WIZO branch.
“She asked me if I know how to bake a cake? I asked her what cake? She said chocolate cake,” she laughs.
And so, Ben-Dov – who had been crowned “Queen of the Kitchen” in a cooking competition – walked down the street with a chocolate cake in hand to her first WIZO meeting.
“I saw all these women and I looked up to them– they were the who’s who of Israeli society – and they were all working for WIZO,” she said.
At the meeting, Ben-Dov heard about IDF soldiers in the North who were in need of heaters and warm blankets.
“I thought this was something for me,” she said. “I raided all the houses – 400 houses – in Herzliya, and that’s how I started my volunteering.”
It was not long before Ben- Dov began taking on more responsibility in her local WIZO branch, recruiting girls from well-off Herzliya Pituah to volunteer in the underprivileged nearby neighborhoods of Shaviv and Neveh Yisrael.
After that, Ben-Dov quickly rose through the ranks of the organization, leaving her full time position at a university to volunteer full time with WIZO – where she has devoted her life to advancing women’s rights and helping the underprivileged.
“I love people, I love to touch people, I love to help people,” she said, adding that volunteering has always been “in her blood.”
She has more than 50 years of stories about the people she has helped through WIZO, and can recount the smallest details of each person’s face and each exchange as though it had happened only yesterday.
“I was really lucky that my parents taught us to give tzedaka – a day that you didn’t do something good for others wasn’t a day that you justified your food – every day I had to tell what I did for someone else,” she said.
“Giving is from the heart, afterwards from the pocket – this is the way we were raised,” she adds.
“WIZO is in my DNA,” she said. “Even now, when I will be an honorary president, I will continue to volunteer.”
And there’s plenty for her to do, as Ben-Dov said there are still numerous issues and challenges facing women in Israel.
“We have a lot of social challenges that we must address – we want an equal society with true personal, familial, public and economic social justice.
“So we have advanced a little bit – we have four female heads of banks, women in key government ministries, in the media the presenters are all women but despite these advances women still suffer and there is still a pay gap, which is simply unacceptable,” she said, adding that she would like to see more women take on roles in key decision-making positions and in the security and defense establishment.
“We would like to reach a point of 50 percent representation of women in the Knesset,” she said, citing the examples of Scandinavian and European countries.
“We must also reduce the gaps in education, something WIZO does throughout,” she said.
“Education is the most important thing – just as important as security – if we educate children to be good citizens, to understand ‘what is Israel’ and ‘why it is important to us’ they will be better soldiers, better citizens and then our security will also improve.
“Violence against women is a scandal – both in Arab and Jewish society,” she continues, noting that WIZO operates numerous shelters for battered women, helping them rehabilitate back into society.
She also addressed the issue of poverty – with nearly one million children in Israel living under the poverty line today – calling it a top priority.
“WIZO has always worked to help the poor and we are good at it – we bring people living in danger and give them a chance – and a good chance – to escape the cycle of poverty; through education, vocational training and new opportunities.
“We have hundreds of volunteers who commit to helping children in need – and it is day to day,” she adds.
According to Ben-Dov, WIZO’s position as an organization “belonging to the citizens” makes it uniquely qualified to address all these pressing issues.
At the same time, she asserts: “The State is shirking its responsibilities – what they are supposed to do they put on the NGOs to do.
“I have complaints against the state – you cannot dump everything on the NGOs,” she said.
“Today, there is a real problem with poverty and social services in Israel – and the burden falls on organizations like WIZO,” she stresses while citing the example of the lack of daycare centers for young children – an issue that has regularly appeared in the headlines over the past year.
“It cannot be that the government said it will establish 600 daycare centers and they have barely built seven,” she said.
“To build a day care center today costs NIS 5.5 million – and the burden falls on WIZO and other organizations like us to finance the daycare centers – but there is a limit to how much money we can raise to build new centers,” she said.
“The government needs to give more money to social causes and education and welfare,” she said.
She also addressed another troubling phenomenon regarding youth in the Diaspora: “I see young Jews abroad who say they are Jewish but they are against the State of Israel,” she said. “If we will lose these youth, it will be horrible for Israel.”
The solution, she said, is to bring as many youth as possible to Israel on trips such as Birthright to “let them see [the country] with their own eyes.”
At the same time, she said she is not worried about the future of WIZO and support from women abroad.
“We are the feminist voice of the Jewish world and we incorporate Jewish communities from around the world who view it as important for Israel to remain a strong society,” she said, citing the 26th World WIZO EGM (Enlarged General Meeting) Conference this week, which will see some 700 women from 40 countries arrive in Tel Aviv to participate.
“These are Zionist women for whom Israel is most important,” she said.
As members elect the organization’s next president at the event, the EGM will mark the end of Ben-Dov’s tenure as president of World WIZO.
Still, she said her dream for the future is to see WIZO incorporate a new generation of young and ambitious women.
“I see a wonderful society. There are youth who want to volunteer and we just need to capture them – and we see a great future,” she said.
“WIZO is still relevant and it is a breakthrough organization – we are the first social start-up. So to the youth I say: ‘come and volunteer.’ And to the managers in my generation I say: ‘Make way and let them come and make their own mistakes.’ “We do incredible work and everyone can find their own niche in this arch because we work from birth until the third generation,” she said.