WIZO: Responsibility, not charity

Women from 36 countries celebrate anniversary of the world's largest women's Zionist organization.

wizo feat 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
wizo feat 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Through the Tel Aviv Hilton's electronic revolving door, past the concierge and behind the leather couches sits a group of women. They are well dressed and neatly coiffed, and they boast of the million dollars they earned this year. But that million did not pay for their hairdos, nor their sophisticated clothes, nor their rooms at the Hilton. In fact, those million dollars didn't even budge their personal bank accounts. It went straight into the Israeli social system via the Women's International Zionist Organization. Last week, 1,000 women from 36 member countries came to Israel to celebrate the 88th year of WIZO, the largest women's Zionist organization in the world. President Shimon Peres officially opened the organization's 24th Enlarged General Meeting on Sunday night. This week, WIZO members toured Israel, visiting the projects for which they tirelessly strive to raise money, to witness these initiatives' progress and to get a sense of the difference they are making to the Jewish homeland. Co-president of the 2008 EGM and President of WIZO Australia Jo Gostin shared with Metro her thoughts on Zionism in the Diaspora and discussed WIZO Australia's major project, Ahuzat Yeladim ("The Children's Ranch"). WIZO founded Ahuzat Yeladim as a tent city on Mount Carmel in 1939. When the ship Patria sunk in Haifa in 1940, the school took in many needy immigrant children. Ahuzat Yeladim is now a specialized therapeutic boarding school for children who suffer from behavioral or emotional problems, and who need intensive care and supervision. The school gives these children a chance to get their lives back on track through individualized support and counseling. "I think [Ahuzat Yeladim] is the most mind-blowing project of all," said Gostin. Of WIZO Australia's 12 projects, the one the organization raises the most money for - and needs the most money - is Ahuzat Yeladim. WIZO Australia has to raise two "kinds" of money - their quota, or commitment, (US$575,000 in 2007) pays to maintain and operate all WIZO Australia's projects. Any sum beyond that is raised separately. In 2007, WIZO Australia launched a campaign for one of those separate financial needs, building a "House of Dreams" at Ahuzat Yeladim. The campaign set out to raise $1 million to pay for a multi-purpose building that would include rooms for music, drama, media, therapy, counseling, relaxation and a library. "We were given three years to raise the money [for the House of Dreams]. It took us three months. It was such an emotive campaign," Gostin said, adding that a large cross-section of donors had been solicited to give anything from $5 to over $500,000. "This building we're replacing was a decrepit one-story building that has been there for too long and can no longer meet the school's demands. We are now continuing the campaign to furnish and equip it," Gostin explained. Two years ago, a girl at Ahuzat Yeladim sat down on a dining room chair. She was overweight and broke it. "This is a psychologically disturbed child," Gostin notes. It took the girl three weeks to go back into the dining room. When WIZO heard the story, one of their donors went and saw the state of the kitchen. The place was "falling to pieces," Gostin said. "The furniture was secondhand to start with." WIZO found a donor who paid to renovate the entire kitchen and replace all its furniture. "The kitchen is now beautiful," Gostin boasted. Today, Ahuzat Yeladim houses 85 students, significantly fewer than the 120 it housed more than 10 years ago. Gostin attributes the decline in numbers to the state of the children being enrolled in the school. Their problems are worse and their cases are more serious, she said. In addition, a post-psychiatric unit was introduced in 2000. Of the school's 85 students, 31 live in this dormitory. These children are given case-specific counseling and supervision. "That has put such demands on the school that it can't take in as many students [as it once could]" Gostin said. Gostin said that while she would love to see Ahuzat Yeladim take in more students, she wouldn't like to see an expansion come at the expense of the students who are already there. "Our emphasis is on making sure that the kids [already at Ahuzat Yeladim] are given every chance to heal their scars," she stressed. The school features a staff-to-student ratio of nearly 1:1. The staff includes teachers, counselors, madrichim (guides), social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists. Therapies offered include music, art, animals and literature. Ahuzat Yeladim's goal is to bring the students to a point where they are independent and can function as "normal citizens," said the school's director, Yossi Saragossi. It also strives to have those of its students not in the post-psychiatric unit drafted by the IDF. "The army has made it more difficult to get drafted," said Saragossi, "Not like when I was a soldier." He said that some 90 percent of the school's students capable of being drafted were, but that the figure varied. Though WIZO's fundraising activities clearly help Israel create a healthy social welfare system, Gostin has more than once had to defend her Zionist activities. She says both Israelis and non-Israelis sometimes find it hard to accept that Zionists can live in the Diaspora and support Israel without making aliya. "I remember my daughter [challenging] me years ago, [asking] how could I be a Zionist if I don't live in Israel," Gostin said. She added that she used to argue that she could still be a Zionist, support Israel and love Israel while not necessarily being able - or wanting to - live in Israel. "Ideally yes - if you're a Zionist and you're a Jew, you should live in Israel. But that's ideally. In the meantime, just because you don't live in Israel that doesn't mean you don't have to take responsibility and some sort of role in the state. Whether that's done by raising money [or] by bringing people to the country, there are plenty of ways you can [support Israel]," she said. Gostin also recalls something an Israeli man said to her years ago, something she would never forget. He said, "We give you our sons. We give you our lives and the only thing you do is support us [financially]," she remembers. Gostin thinks Israelis who resent donations by Diaspora Zionists do so because they see the donations as charity. But they aren't, she said. "No state that has lived under the threats and pressures that Israel has had to live under in terms of defense could afford to provide the social system that is necessary in a country… I think the citizens of Israel are entitled to the support of Jews who are living in far easier, far safer, far higher economic standards. So the word 'charity' does not enter into anything. It is a responsibility." Israel plays an important role for Jews in the Diaspora, though its meaning is different for different people, Gostin explains. For Holocaust survivors, having a Jewish state represents security. But for Gostin's children, who grew up after Israel came into existence, its importance is even greater, she adds. "I think Diaspora Jewry will disappear if they don't have that link to Israel." With intermarriage and assimilation, "which are fine," Gostin says, Diaspora Jewry is at risk. "If their own communities are going to survive… they need to have a focus outside their own community. And that [focus] is the State of Israel." The connection with Israel does not have to be financial, she notes. Jews abroad can "find" Israel by visiting, learning its history, and seeking to understand what Israel has done over the past 60 years for Jews needing a haven. Gostin commented on the Diaspora's importance to the state of Israel. "We can't rely on the press, the media or in most cases even the governments of other countries. So I think it's every Jew's responsibility to know as much as possible and present Israel's case." This, she said, would ensure that balanced information was made available to people outside Israel. "I don't know that there's any other reason why I would consider it important for Jews to live anywhere other than in Israel," she added. Despite her undying loyalty to WIZO, Gostin points out that many of the group's leaders had considered themselves indispensable, and hadn't bothered to train successors. According to Gostin, this organizational flaw (hardly unique to WIZO) caused an age gap, and could possibly have led to the group's demise. But in recent years, she says, WIZO Australia has focused on closing that age gap through programs designed to attract younger members. "We now have some very active [young members]. They're tremendous - they understand what they're doing and they're thrilled with what they're doing," she says. "It's fine that I'm president, but the next one should be younger," she adds. For now, Gostin lives in Australia, where she works as a travel agent, wife, mother and grandmother. At 63, she is approaching her 40th year with WIZO. There is something special about being a member of this organization, she said. It's not just a body that raises money for some good cause. It's an organization that connects women from all over the world, who speak different languages but share a love for Israel.