The queen of Tel Aviv

WIZO's longest-serving president thinks passion for Zionism has dissipated.

raya jaglom wizo 248 88 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
raya jaglom wizo 248 88
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
AT the age of 90, Tel Aviv socialite and social activist Raya Jaglom shows no signs of slowing down. Immaculately garbed and groomed as ever, and looking at least 20 years younger than her age, Jaglom celebrated her entry into a new decade on April 17 by going out to a huge party that morning that was held for honorary citizens of Tel Aviv - a title that she cherishes. Later in the day, some members of her family took her out to celebrate, while others who were abroad called to tell her that they would do something special for her when they came home. On the following day, she went to Caesarea to celebrate the 85th birthday of her good friend and fellow philanthropist, Ruth Rappaport. A day later, she was scheduled to be interviewed by The Jerusalem Post. When her interviewer told her that she would arrive at Jaglom's home in the early evening because she wanted to attend a symposium on anti-Semitism beforehand, Jaglom asked where it was and said that she would come along too. In the interim, she was invited to attend an award ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum, where a veteran artist and a younger artist who is not as well-known received the annual Rappaport Prize donated by Israeli-Swiss banker and industrialist Bruce (Baruch) Rappaport and his wife Ruth. Full of energy as always, Jaglom came to the symposium, then took her interviewer by taxi to the Tel Aviv Museum, and after spending the best part of two hours there, finally left for home and the interview. Jaglom has a back as straight as a ramrod. Her walk is brisk, as is her manner, and her memory - both long-term and short-term - is admirable. At the symposium she murmured elaborations of historical references made by the speakers. At the Tel Aviv Museum, of which she is one of the founders, she was instantly pounced on by people of various age groups who were all delighted to see her and who happily engaged her in conversation. Over the years, Jaglom and various members of her family have made generous donations to the museum. Some of these donations have been valuable works of art. Others have been monetary. She continues to donate not only to the museum but to other causes which she has supported throughout the years - first and foremost to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to which, she says, she owes her life. Seventy years ago, the university sent her a certificate that enabled her to leave Romania for the purpose of continuing her studies in Jerusalem. SOON after her arrival, she met Josef Jaglom, whom she married after a whirlwind courtship, and Tel Aviv became her permanent home. But the couple never forgot the debt owed to the Hebrew University and established a scholarship fund that each year enables dozens of students to study free of financial worries. The marriage lasted for 67 years. Josef Jaglom died in November 2007 at the age of 104. It was he who encouraged her to become a social activist. There were many social needs in the Jewish homeland which at the time was still striving towards independence. Artistically talented, she had wanted to be a sculptress, but he told her that sculpture could wait because helping the less fortunate was more important. In 1941, Jaglom joined WIZO, which like other women's groups at the time was concerned with improving the quality of life for mothers and babies. At the opposite end of the spectrum, she quickly became a member of Tel Aviv's high society. She was on many VIP guest lists, entertained everyone who was anyone in her home, and during many trips abroad was often received by heads of state. Among the family photos in her spacious penthouse apartment are images of Jaglom with David Ben-Gurion, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Dame Margaret Thatcher, the Duke of Edinburgh, Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Ephraim Katzir, Yitzhak Navon, Chaim Herzog, Menachem Begin, Shlomo Lahat, Teddy Kollek, Shimon Peres, Simone Weill, David de Rothschild, Queen Beatrix, Queen Juliana and the Prince of Lichtenstein. The apartment is also full of flowers - floral tributes sent by friends, dignitaries and organizations in Israel and around the world. There are so many, that if she was so inclined, she could open a flower shop! There are also scores of faxes, and of course there were many phone calls, including one from Baroness Nadine de Rothschild, whose birthday was a day after Jaglom's, and who is a good friend notwithstanding a 13-year age gap. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Jaglom is a staunch supporter, decided in addition to the flowers, to name a chair in her honor. Actually, it's the chair that she always sits in at concerts. But now, it's not only reserved in her name, it also bears her name. Among the flowers was a huge bouquet of long stemmed red roses from Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. Expensive floral tributes are par for the course in Jaglom's social circles - yet she is unfailingly moved by them, receiving them with almost childlike joy and wonder - always pleasantly surprised and never taking such gestures for granted. SHE was still a very young woman when her leadership potential was recognized by Rebecca Sieff, one of the founders of WIZO who was elected its first world president. Rosa Ginossar, the first Jewish woman in Palestine to receive a law degree, succeeded Sieff in 1966 and also had a hand in grooming Jaglom for leadership. But long before that, Jaglom had taken leave of absence from WIZO to serve in the Hagana for an 18 month- period from 1947 to early 1949. She had been encouraged by her husband, who was a member of another Hagana unit. It would not have been easy under any circumstances, but it was even more difficult with two small children at home. Nonetheless, her job as a driver taking personnel and munitions to the north of the country and bringing back reports to Hagana headquarters in Tel Aviv was exciting. Even more exciting was wading out on the beach at night to smuggle in illegal immigrants before the boats bringing them to the area opposite what is now the Dan Hotel could be intercepted by the British. The newcomers were rushed to private homes, and early in the morning were driven to kibbutzim, where they were instantly given ID cards that signified that they'd been in the country for a long time. Once, when driving two kibbutzniks from the north to the center of the country, Jaglom was apprehended by the British and placed under temporary arrest while they spent several hours checking the ownership of her vehicle. Fortunately, it was registered to her husband's business, so after several hours during which she was not allowed to call home, the British finally let her go. However, it was not in the car, but on top of a jeep in Jaffa that she heard the radio broadcast of Ben-Gurion proclaiming the creation of the State of Israel. There was a period of great austerity in Israel after Jaglom returned to WIZO, but she still managed to dress well. One of her close friends was leading fashion designer Lola Beer, who had a strong sense of European couture and did whatever she could to promote it in the fledgling state. Good quality fabrics were difficult to come by, and certainly the quantity and variety currently available in Tel Aviv's Nachalat Binyamin, was nothing more than a dream in those days. For some odd reason, the choices in curtain fabrics were more plentiful, and Beer, with Jaglom in tow, would explore the shops specializing in curtain fabrics to seek out textures that were also suitable for clothing. As a result, Jaglom amassed several striking outfits that would not have looked out of place in either Paris or Milan. In later years, Beer did in fact take her on buying sprees to Paris. Although Jaglom has been and continues to be actively affiliated with numerous organizations and institutions, most people who have heard of her, automatically associate her with WIZO where she has spent the greater part of life. She is currently one of the honorary life presidents of WIZO, but also refers to herself as WIZO's walking history. No one has as much instant recall about WIZO as she does. Jaglom has an archival brain that soaks up data like a sponge - and not just information in Hebrew or in English which are WIZO's two main languages. She also speaks fluent French, Russian, German, Yiddish and Romanian and understands Spanish and Italian. Whatever she has heard in any given language, she tends to repeat in that language. So when one asks her about her meetings with Russian immigrants or about her life changing visit to the USSR in 1964, some of what she relates will be in Russian. An avid follower of French television, she will pass on excerpts from the news in French. THE visit to Moscow was at the invitation of the Soviet Women's Committee, and of course, the small four-member delegation which she was part of did not limit itself to the Russian capital, and the work of Soviet women, but also made a point of meeting with Jews in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. They visited the synagogues there, saw the conditions and identified with the fear of the people. Almost everyone was scared to talk to them, yet eager for some contact with the visitors from Israel. Here and there, they were able to take someone aside and to snatch a few moments of conversation that was not being monitored by some agent or a spy device. Jaglom made her mind on the spot to join the "Let My People Go" campaign. On her return to Israel, she reported her findings to Nahum Goldmann, who was president of both the World Jewish Congress and the World Zionist Organization. He, in turn, invited her to join the WJC. WIZO was not interested in this at the time, so she joined as an individual rather than an organization, but WIZO eventually followed. Jaglom was a founding member of the Council for Soviet Jews and in February, 1971, led a WIZO delegation to Brussels to participate in the World Conference on Soviet Jewry that was attended by some 800 delegates from 38 countries. Later that same year, Ida Nudel, the famous refusenik whose name became a household word and whose struggle to emigrate to Israel was taken up by actresses Liv Ulman and Jane Fonda and eventually Margaret Thatcher (who was the British prime minister), applied for the first time for an emigration visa - and was refused. Some years later, her case was taken up by Israel, with Shulamit Shamir, the wife of the prime minister, heading a movement called I Win - an acronym for Israeli Women for Ida Nudel. With the number of duties that she already had, Shamir felt that she could not give the Ida Nudel project the time and effort that it deserved, and asked Jaglom to take over the role. As Jaglom was already deeply immersed in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, working on behalf of Ida Nudel was a natural progression. IDA Nudel arrived in Israel 1987. Jane Fonda, who had met her in Russia, came to Israel to greet her. Jaglom hosted a huge luncheon in Nudel's honor. Liv Ulman happened to be in Israel at the time as the guest of the Technion, and Jaglom invited her to the luncheon. Ulman was more visibly overcome with emotion than Nudel, and retired to a corner weeping. "Why is she crying?" asked Nudel. "Because you're a symbol," replied Jaglom. "But I don't want to be a symbol," protested Nudel. "I want to be Ida Nudel." Whether she liked it or not, she had indeed become the surrogate mother of Prisoners of Zion. Jaglom subsequently took her to London to give her the opportunity to personally thank Margaret Thatcher for all that she had done to secure her freedom. Although she has disappeared from the spotlight, Nudel did not retire into anonymity. Disturbed by the number of single-parent families from what was still the Soviet Union, and concerned by the number of children in these families who were taking a wayward path, Nudel set up Mother to Mother, which organizes after-school programs for children of Russian immigrant parents, and to a large degree keeps such children off the streets. INVITED many times to run for the Knesset, Jaglom has tended to steer clear of party politics, but not of politics per se. In 1959, WIZO was granted representation at the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, but its six representatives were not permitted to vote. This did not sit well with Jaglom who fought hard for voting rights and a seat for WIZO on the executive. The problem was that until WIZO joined the WZO, its membership was purely political. While still chairperson of WIZO, Jaglom succeeded in gaining the support of Louis Pincus, who was then chairman of the WZO, and in 1965, a year after WIZO had been invited to become an associate member of the WJC, WIZO, at the 26th World Zionist Congress was granted 12 members with voting rights and a seat on the WZO executive with full voting rights. Needless to say, the person nominated to the WZO executive was Raya Jaglom. In her various executive capacities, Jaglom traveled throughout the Jewish world. Although she raised many millions of dollars on these trips, becoming arguably the best fundraiser that WIZO ever had, fundraising was only part of the reason that she went abroad. She felt it was important to bring the spirit of Israel to the Diaspora to help strengthen Jewish communities not yet living in Israel. Though not religiously observant herself, she recognized that for centuries religion had held the Jews together as a people. In the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, religion was to some extent supplemented or supplanted by Zionism. In her view, the two had to go hand in hand, regardless of the stream or level of religious observance. Wherever she went in the Diaspora, she saw the synagogue as the centerpiece of Jewish communal life and felt the need to infuse whatever adherence there was with a good dose of Zionism. It was like having double insurance for the future. She actively promoted aliya and Jewish education, and did everything she could to bring Israel into the everyday lives of Jews living elsewhere. Quite early in her fundraising activities, she learned an important lesson for which she remains eternally grateful. When raising funds for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, she approached Miriam Sacher, who was one of the younger sisters of Rebecca Sieff. "You've got money," said Sacher. "Why don't you donate yourself?" It had actually never occurred to Jaglom. Raising money from Jews abroad for projects in Israel had been so natural a thing to do that it never dawned on her that she could write her own check. After that, it became a habit with her to make her own contribution to a project before asking anyone else to do so. Here again she had her husband's support. Life had been good to him and he saw no reason for not sharing some of the wealth he had acquired. He certainly did not confine it to scholarships at the Hebrew University, but gave to a wide range of causes. The Jagloms also established a scholarship fund at Tel Aviv University. When Jaglom could come to a millionaire and show that she had given first, she often walked away with more money than she had hoped to raise. Setting an example paved the way for large donations. But it also gave her a sense of added responsibility. It made her very careful to see that money that had been earmarked for a particular project was used just as she had promised it would be. "If it wasn't," she tells the Post, "I wouldn't be able to live with myself." The promise remains firm even after the donor dies. This explains her tooth-and-nail fight to maintain the presence of the WIZO parents' home, which she feared was under threat of closure. Here, she had a dual responsibility - not only to the donors whose generosity had enabled its construction, but also to the residents - senior citizens to whom this was the haven of their twilight years. There was no way that she would allow anyone to spoil their equilibrium. Moreover, she had donated the synagogue inside the parents' home in memory of her parents. This was particularly sensitive, because her father had been murdered by someone who had broken into his apartment. So far, she's winning the battle. WHILE many philanthropists make a careful study of the causes to which they give, and won't give a few coins to something they don't believe in, Jaglom is occasionally spontaneous in her giving. Following the June 2001 terrorist attack at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium which resulted in 21 deaths, many of whom were Russian immigrant youngsters, Jaglom read in the papers that all the victims were from low-income families. Stuffing several envelopes with cash, she used her contacts to get a list of the addresses of all the victims, took a taxi driver who occasionally doubled as the chauffeur of her luxury car, and went from apartment to apartment, leaving the envelopes so that the families would have the wherewithal for emergency provisions. On another occasion, when she was at the wheel herself (with this writer in the car), a radio broadcast warned against giving money to highway beggars who were occasionally dangerous and attacked drivers who lowered their windows in order to meet their requests. Jaglom lowered her window, and gave more than just a few coins to the bedraggled looking man who thrust his hand into the car. When admonished by her passenger for ignoring the warning, her reply was typical. "He needed the money, so I gave it to him." Raya Jaglom has been awarded an honorary doctorate by both Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, and has also been conferred with a French Legion of Honor. No one has yet beaten her record as the longest-serving president of World WIZO - a post she held for 26 years. She no longer sits on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, or the executives of the WZO and the WJC. But she does continue to sit on the Boards of Governors of the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, and on the International Boards of the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum. Although she has no official status with the Israel Philharmonic, it's known that she can be counted on when need be - and she is sought not only for money, but also for advice and the occasional use of her influence. Nothing in life is absolutely perfect. Notwithstanding her many successes and the honors that have been bestowed on her, or the fact that she is the matriarch of a four-generation Israeli family, Jaglom has one great regret, and it has nothing to do with any of her battles against bureaucracy or her struggles against opposition in the organizations in which she served. It has to do with her place of birth. The Bessarabian-born Jaglom is sorry that she's not a Sabra. She has always been so proud to be Israeli that she simply cannot fathom those natives of the country who are constantly complaining and who in too many cases choose to live elsewhere. Recently, she was arguing with a cabbie who didn't stop griping throughout the ride about the situation in Israel. "Where were you born?" she asked. "In Tel Aviv, to my great sorrow," he replied. "Why are you sorry?" she responded. "I've lived here for 70 years, and I wouldn't live anywhere else. I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity." Looking back on her long history of involvement in the development of the country, Jaglom says that if she had to do it again, she would do it better and focus more on persuading the powers-that-be to invest in Zionist education. It bothers her that the passion for Zionism which motivated Jews of her generation and the generation that followed has somehow dissipated. She sees it even in her own grandchildren, who were brought up in a Zionist milieu. While none shirked their military service and even served in elite units, they don't share her fervor. When she mentions Israel's founding fathers to other young people, they've never heard them, or if they have, it's only in relation to street names. This causes her a great deal of concern, she says.