Raya Jaglom: A lady of valor

WIZO’s honorary life president, 98, has inspired women around the world.

Raya Jaglom (left) helps Ziva Lahat, wife of then-Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, to cut the cake donated to WIZO Tel Aviv’s spring bazaar, in 1980 (photo credit: M. DEKEL)
Raya Jaglom (left) helps Ziva Lahat, wife of then-Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, to cut the cake donated to WIZO Tel Aviv’s spring bazaar, in 1980
(photo credit: M. DEKEL)
Mention the name Raya Jaglom to Israelis or non-Israeli leaders of Diaspora Zionist organizations who are middle-aged and older, and the immediate association will be WIZO.
An honorary life president of WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, Jaglom was also its longest serving world president, having held the position for 26 years. She maintained a keen interest and continued to attend the annual conferences of World WIZO and other important WIZO events even after stepping down in 1996 and being confined to a wheelchair.
A protégé of WIZO co-founder Rebecca Sieff, Jaglom served WIZO in various capacities for more than 55 years. Although her name is primarily associated with WIZO, she was also extremely active in the World Zionist Organization, the World Jewish Congress, the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boards of Governors of the Jewish Agency, the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, the International Council of the Israel Museum and the International Board of the Tel Aviv Museum.
Now, however, at age 98, still immaculately groomed and fashionably attired, she spends most of her time in her elegant penthouse apartment in Tel Aviv.
Once an avid reader, she finds it difficult these days to concentrate on books, but still manages to read newspapers and magazines.
Her long-term memory, which only a few months ago was still encyclopedic in terms of detail, such as names, dates and places, is beginning to betray her, but her short-term memory is fine.
One of the issues occupying her mind these days is whether and to what extent WIZO may have had a hand in the disappearance of mostly Yemenite children during the early years of the state.
Although no death certificates were ever issued, their parents were told by various authorities that the children had died.
For more than half a century, the disappearances had been investigated by a series of committees and public commissions, but it was not until 1995, when the Shalgi Committee reached the conclusion that 733 of the missing children had died and that in 65 of 301 cases that were investigated the fate of the children was unknown, that the public outcry began to gather momentum.
In June 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Tzachi Hanegbi to reexamine the material that had been submitted to the commissions. Hanegbi, a former justice minister who is half- Yemenite himself, approached this assignment with a sense of mission. The upshot was that all findings of the three commissions that had investigated the situation were made public. More recently it was discovered that many of these children had been subjected to cruel medical experiments.
The subject had started to bother Jaglom many years ago when she was still in office.
Jaglom had asked WIZO members and staff whether WIZO was in any way responsible for the disappearance of these children, some of whom had disappeared from daycare facilities run by WIZO. Each time, she was assured that WIZO was in no way involved. Now, she wonders whether she was told this because the people she asked either wanted to absolve themselves from blame or gave her the answer they thought she wanted to hear.
The WIZO day care centers, kindergartens and schools are very dear to Jaglom’s heart, especially because she raised the funds for so many of them.
Travelling the world wherever there was a WIZO federation, Jaglom inspired women to give individually or on behalf of the federations in their respective countries and to send large delegations to Israel for the opening of the facilities they sponsored.
She also engaged in public diplomacy long before the term was coined.
Jaglom and her late husband Josef, who died in November 2007 at the age of 104, frequently hosted foreign diplomats and high-ranking public figures from both Israel and abroad in their apartments in Tel Aviv or Geneva, Switzerland. Many became their personal friends.
Born in Czernowitz, where in 1939 she had her first bitter taste of antisemitism, Jaglom (née Choresh) a banker’s daughter and later a banker’s wife, came to what was then Palestine in April 1940. She would have preferred anywhere in Europe, but Europe was at war. In Tel Aviv, she met Josef Jaglom, and after a whirlwind courtship, they were married on July 4, 1940.
When she landed in Haifa, she carried an entry certificate designating her as a student who had come to study at the Hebrew University. After registering, however, she never did study there, but did eventually serve on its Board of Governors and receive an honorary doctorate.
She and her husband also established scholarships at the Hebrew University in gratitude for the student certificate that may well have saved her life.
Her initial connection with WIZO came a few months after her wedding. Already pregnant with her son Elan, Jaglom was invited by Sonia Shapira, the head of the Tel Aviv branch of WIZO, to join the organization.
Jaglom’s only knowledge of WIZO at that time was a soup kitchen, which she refers to as a restaurant that WIZO ran on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Trumpeldor Streets. Recently, when interviewed by The Jerusalem Report, she repeats several times how her heart went out to the long lines of people waiting to receive a bowl of soup and piece of bread for a minimal payment.
“It was so little, yet for them that bowl of soup and piece of bread was so much,” she says.
So, when Shapira approached her, Jaglom said she would be delighted to join but not until after she had given birth. Shapira didn’t let her off the hook, and was back a few months later. Thus began Jaglom’s career in voluntary public service.
Although most of the women who worked for WIZO at the time were affluent socialites, the places in which they began to build WIZO facilities were in the most downtrodden areas of the Tel Aviv.
“Even though there was so little food available, we made sure that all the children were fed,” says Jaglom.
The daycare facilities gradually spread across the country, including in Arab and Druse communities. Eventually, schools, youth villages, senior citizen homes, thrift shops and shelters for battered women were added to WIZO’s list of projects.
Priority was always given to daycare centers where children were informally introduced to education.
Jaglom took time out from WIZO to join the Hagana in 1947. By that time, she already had two young children whom she left in the care of her parents and a nanny. She joined a communications unit as a driver, and as part of her duties monitored the switchboard in a hotel that was frequented by British officers.
One night when she and her husband had planned to go and see a movie, she received a call from her Hagana commander ‒ in and of itself indicative of the Jaglom family’s affluence and status because hardly anyone in Israel had a private phone in those days.
Her commander told her to bring some warm clothes and come to the beach near the Dan Hotel. The men and women in the unit were instructed to pair off and walk up and down the beach as if they were couples out on a date. At around three in the morning, their mission became clear as they detected boats bringing in illegal immigrants. That night, Jaglom and her colleagues waded into the sea and brought in 165 immigrants whom they managed to temporarily settle in safe houses along Hayarkon Street, which runs along the beachfront.
The following day, the newcomers were taken to kibbutzim and moshavim.
There were also relatively long periods away from home, especially when her unit was assigned to a mission in the Galilee.
On May 14, 1948, she and her unit were on duty in Jaffa when David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, proclaimed the independence of the sovereign State of Israel. Jaglom and her group were sitting in a jeep, and heard the proclamation on the radio.
In 1948, Rebecca Sieff, who together with Vera Weizmann, Edith Eder, Romana Goodman and Henrietta Irwell had founded WIZO in London in 1920, moved to Israel and made her home in Tel Mond. A fervent Zionist and an ardent campaigner for women’s rights, Sieff was also a philanthropist and a keen promoter of education.
She was the second of five children of Michael Marks, the co-founder of Marks and Spencer; all five siblings and their spouses were committed Zionists and gave generously to Zionist causes.
Sieff recognized Jaglom’s leadership potential and, almost immediately, took her under her wing.
Jaglom’s first mission abroad was in 1949. Fortunately, her destination was Switzerland, where she met several bankers’ wives, was able to impress them with the need to support Israel and returned to Tel Aviv with far more money than anyone had anticipated.
Her second overseas mission, the following year, was to Denmark to raise funds for prefabricated buildings to house child Holocaust survivors. She was greatly encouraged by Sieff, who had personally rescued children during the Holocaust and who had helped Recha Freier, the founder of Youth Aliya, to 1,000 certificates to bring European Jewish children to Mandate-ruled Palestine.
Jaglom still speaks of Sieff, who died in 1966, with awe and admiration, saying she was a great source of inspiration to Jewish women around the world.
As WIZO grew in size, its small, dilapidated offices in Tel Aviv became inadequate for its needs. Sieff suggested to Jaglom that she write a letter to Sieff’s family in Britain to ask them to fund the construction of a proper WIZO Center.
However, on this occasion, the family refused and, in a return letter, advised the WIZO Federation in Israel to raise the money on its own.
With great reluctance, Jaglom went to Sieff’s home in Tel Mond and showed her the letter. Often impulsive, Sieff’s reaction was to say that she would contribute the first large donation – and, indeed, her gift of £50,000 indicated the seriousness of intent, and money started to come in from WIZO federations around the world.
The world WIZO headquarters was built in area that was then on the edge of Tel Aviv, surrounded by orange groves.
Today, that same area is in the center of Tel Aviv, surrounded by apartment complexes.
Although well-versed in protocol, Jaglom put Israel’s interests ahead of political correctness. For instance, during a visit to Costa Rica, she addressed a WIZO luncheon meeting that was attended by the wife of the president. As she always did, she concluded her speech by urging the young women to make aliya. When she sat down, the president’s wife asked for the floor and said, “Mrs. Jaglom has asked you to go to Israel. I ask you to stay here.”
The incident was greatly embarrassing to the Costa Rican women, who later asked Jaglom how she could make a pitch for aliya in the presence of the president’s wife. Jaglom’s reply was that as a representative of Israel, it was her duty.
In 1967, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek asked her to build three or four day-care centers in Jerusalem. Personal friends from Geneva had already donated two such centers in Beersheba, but for their 50th wedding anniversary, they wanted one in Jerusalem. Jaglom told Kollek and he made land available in Talpiot. However, when Jaglom went to inspect the construction progress, she was dismayed to see the building was obscured by a hill.
Taking the head of WIZO’s building department with her, she went to see Kollek to explain the problem. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “I want you to take down the hill,” she replied – and he did. Moreover, he related the story at the inauguration, causing the donor to remark, “Raya can move mountains.”
In 1989, Kollek presented Jaglom with a certificate of appreciation, acknowledging what WIZO had done for Jerusalem; at the time there were already more than 20 WIZO projects in the capital, and the number has increased considerably since.
Jaglom, who prior to getting caught up with WIZO, had seriously considered a career as a sculptress, was deeply interested in culture.
During a visit to her husband’s brother and sister-in-law in New York, she became enamored with their art collection, and was among those who persuaded Mayors Mordechai Namir and later Yehoshua Rabinowitz that Tel Aviv needed a world-class museum. It was actually more difficult to persuade her in-laws to part with some of the masterpieces in their possession, but eventually she succeeded and other collectors also began contributing valuable items to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Closely involved with the Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, she was asked to raise funds for a clubhouse for the musicians where they could relax between rehearsals, and before and after performances. The Mann Auditorium, now the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, had not yet been built, and the orchestra performed in the Ohel Shem Hall, where the acoustics were not the best and the seats very uncomfortable.
It was common practice at the time for many organizations and institutions, when fundraising, to turn, first, to the Rothschilds or the Marks family siblings.
Miriam Sacher, one of Sieff’s sisters was visiting Israel and Jaglom went to see her. Sacher had already donated funds for some six major projects, when Jaglom went to ask her to contribute to yet another.
Sacher, who knew her well, replied, “You’ve got money, why don’t you contribute yourself?” Israel was so accustomed to asking Diaspora Jews to pay for construction costs, it had never occurred to Jaglom that she actually could pay for the project herself.
She took Sacher’s words to heart and did indeed finance the project.
Since then, she has always made the first contribution before asking for money from someone else.
When she looks at today’s Israel, there simply doesn’t seem to be anything to rekindle the passion she had as a younger woman.
Time has also taken its toll. She used to walk with determination and loved to host and attend parties, to dance, swim, ski and ride horses. Today life is not much fun for her sitting in a wheelchair and watching television.
She is thrilled when her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren come to visit, but is less than happy that she has to rely on a caregiver to help entertain them.
Two years ago, at the inauguration of the Raya and Josef Jaglom Auditorium in the Senate building of Tel Aviv University, former TAU president Prof. Haim Ben-Shahar said, “When Raya had an idea, she not only presented it lucidly, but it was usually a very good idea. I do not know of any other case at the university where the donor came with an initiative, and not the other way around.” Jaglom thanked her son for helping her to realize her dream, adding, “After seeing that the theme of the Board of Governors meeting was ‘Putting your passion into action,’ I thought it was appropriate, because building this auditorium was a passion for me.”
Raya Jaglom was not only a witness to modern Israel’s evolving history. She helped to make it.