The history of WIZO and Tu Bishvat

The connection between the Jewish New Year for the Trees and WIZO can be further illustrated through the following Tu Bishvat related stories.

SOWING SEEDS: The WIZO of the 1920s birthed the WIZO Executive of 2020. (Top: Kfir Sivan; Bottom: Court (photo credit: Courtesy)
SOWING SEEDS: The WIZO of the 1920s birthed the WIZO Executive of 2020. (Top: Kfir Sivan; Bottom: Court
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Now beginning its centennial year, WIZO continues to be a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, supported by the deep roots of its worldwide federations.
Growing up in Palo Alto, (Spanish for ‘tall tree’) California and having a birthday that falls near the Jewish New Year for Trees, I’d often receive the following birthday card. On the front was a cartoon of an Israeli child next to a small sapling. Above the picture it read: “In honor of your birthday, a tree has been planted in Israel...” And then I’d open the card and on the inside it said: “Your day to water it is Thursday.”
I recalled that card two weeks ago while being one of the few males privileged to attend WIZO’s (Women’s International Zionist Organization) 2020 Enlarged General Meeting, a quadrennial event drawing nearly a thousand WIZO women, volunteers from the organization’s dozens of worldwide federations, to Israel for a week of networking, celebration, and inspiration. Founded a century ago in the UK, the EGM kicked off a year of WIZO centennial celebrations under the slogan “WIZO: Doing What Matters.”
Between taking in the scene at the Tel Aviv Hilton and accompanying the participants to opening night celebrations in Jerusalem and visits to WIZO projects around the country, it occurred to me that the upcoming holiday of Tu Bishvat mirrors WIZO work for Israel’s society over the past century.
These inspiring women are not just planting WIZO seeds across Israel with their support and sponsorship of WIZO projects and programs, but when they visit Israel, they water their saplings, ensuring that they have everything they need to grow up strong and stand proud. Without their support, they could not survive.
“WIZO’s worldwide federations and their members are the backbone of WIZO for the crucial role they play in strengthening the movement,” said World WIZO president Esther Mor. “It is vital to encourage and inspire them and show understanding to the great challenges they face, particularly in today’s climate.”
The connection between the Jewish New Year for the Trees and WIZO can be further illustrated through the following Tu Bishvat related stories.
With your own two hands
When the settlement of Magdiel (now part of Hod Hasharon) was established in 1924, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in pre-state Israel, was invited to the ceremony, which included the planting of trees. Rav Kook was honored with placing the first sapling in the ground. He was handed a shovel with which to dig the hole, but he did not take it. Instead, he bent down and began digging with his bare hands, becoming very emotional as he placed the sapling in the ground.
When asked later why he was so moved, he explained that the planting of a tree in the Land of Israel was no ordinary agricultural activity, but emulating the traits of God. For God, when He created the world, also engaged in planting first, as it says, “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Genesis 2:8). Similarly, Rav Kook explained that when the Israelites entered the Land, they too were commanded to engage in planting first, “When you shall come into the Land... you shall plant all types of fruit trees” (Leviticus 19:23).
“When I was about to put the sapling in the ground,” Rav Kook said, “I remembered these words and felt as if I was clinging to the Shechinah (the Divine Presence). Thus, I was overcome by fear and trembling. How could I use a shovel or any or other object to perform this great mitzvah? There should be nothing that separates between the person and the holy land they are planting on.’
Just over 100 years ago, when three of WIZO’s founding mothers, Zionist leaders Rebecca Sieff, Dr. Vera Weizmann (wife of Israel’s future first president, Chaim Weizmann), and Edith Eder, participated in a Zionist Commission visit to Eretz Israel/Palestine, they saw the reality unfolding with their own eyes. What they discovered shocked them to the core. Following World War I, the Jewish population in Palestine had dwindled due to expulsion, disease and famine. The situation of women, both the chalutzot (pioneers) and the city women from the old Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) was unbearable. They were suffering both physically and spiritually.
Like Rav Kook in Magdiel, the three women rolled up their sleeves (unafraid to get their hands dirty), deciding that they themselves had to found an international organization of Zionist women to confront this situation. Thus the founding conference of World WIZO was held in London on July 11, 1920. Rebecca Sieff outlined the activities for the new international organization. She spoke at length that women should work together in an organized fashion, and in doing so, their abilities and powers would develop. This was the beginning of WIZO, an organization that has been improving the lives of children, youth, women and all sectors of the Israeli public for 100 years. Their “hands on” mentality continues in WIZO today.
Seeing is believing
On the eve of a Tu Bishvat in 1850s in Poland, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asked his prized student Rabbi Yitzchak Meir to speak at their festive Tu Bishvat meal of fruits from the Land of Israel. Rav Yitzchak Meir discussed the section of Talmud about the 15th of Shvat being the New Year for the Trees, delivering a lengthy and complicated discourse on the subject. When he finally finished, the Kotzker Rebbe replied, “If we were in the Land of Israel, we could just go out to the fields and look at the trees. We would then understand what ‘the New Year for the Trees’ really means, and we would not need scholarly learning on the subject! For there in the Land of Israel, Tu Bishvat does not say darshuni (expound upon me), but rather asuni (Do it!).”
The most impactful day of the EGM was the “Tour Day,” when participants visited WIZO projects witnessing firsthand how WIZO changes lives. Seeing the smiling, happy children in WIZO’s day care centers, hearing personal success stories from the at-risk youth living and studying at WIZO youth villages, the visitors hard work in fundraising, support and Israel advocacy comes full circle. When a teenage girl confidently describes how WIZO has empowered her though its Otzma Tzeira (Youth Strength) program or when a young mother at a WIZO abused women’s shelter shares how WIZO has saved her and her children’s lives, they are inspired to continue their vital volunteer work on behalf of Israeli society through WIZO from their countries of origin.
WIZO has a saying, “Seeing is believing.” When in Israel you don’t need to spend time talking about WIZO to understand it. You just need to go out and see it for yourself.
Spanning generations
One of the strangest stories told on Tu Bishvat is about the early Mishnaic scholar and wonderworker Choni Ha’Me’Agel, who once observed a man planting a carob tree. He asked him how long until it bears fruit. The man responded, “70 years.” Choni asked, “Do you think you’ll live for another 70 years?!” The man responded, “I came to a world with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so, too, will I plant for my descendants.”
Choni subsequently fell into a sleep for 70 years. He awoke to seeing the man’s grandson picking fruit from that same tree.
At first glance, this story appears to be an older variation of the classic Rip Van Winkle tale, but it has a deep lesson. In one of the EGM sessions, a British actress emerged dressed in a costume from the 1920s portraying WIZO founder Rebecca Sieff. In her monologue, she congratulated the women for all they had done in the century since she founded WIZO, but implored them to continue, with much work still to be done. She encouraged them to empower their young “Aviv” WIZO members to raise the next generation of WIZO leaders and ensure the continuation of the movement.
“Strong, determined and compassionate women – these are the women of WIZO. This applies to all generations,” said newly elected World WIZO Chairperson Anita Friedman, who inherited her love of WIZO from her mother, active in WIZO in Colombia and America. “We are engaged in nurturing the leadership of tomorrow’s Jewish women leaders, as an integral part of our ongoing operations. WIZO serves as a bridge to Israel for tens of thousands of Jewish women around the world.”
“Continuity is the key,” says World WIZO’s Marketing & PR Division chairperson Tricia Schwitzer. “Instead of saying, ‘My grandmother was in WIZO.’ I want women to be able to proudly say, ‘I am in WIZO, my daughter is in WIZO, and most importantly – my granddaughter is in WIZO!’”
The writer is head of English content in World WIZO’s marketing & PR division.