The people’s chair

Presiding over World WIZO, a network of 800 projects serving hundreds of thousands of children, youth and women across Israel, chairperson Rivka Lazovsky is in the business of changing lives

RIVKA LAZOVSKY visits a WIZO day-care center on the first day of school (photo credit: KFIR SIVAN)
RIVKA LAZOVSKY visits a WIZO day-care center on the first day of school
(photo credit: KFIR SIVAN)
The irony of Prof. Rivka Lazovsky’s title, World WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) chairperson, a position she has held since 2012, is that with her extremely busy schedule it can be a challenge to find her in her chair.
“Sunday she’s in the South for the dedication of a WIZO shelter for battered women,” her secretary told me. “Monday she is at one of our Tel Aviv day-care centers in the morning, and then she’s traveling to the graduation ceremony of our vocational school in Jerusalem, which she never misses, in the afternoon. On Tuesday, she is lobbying for women’s rights at the Knesset …”
While the secretary continued searching for an opening to schedule our interview, my mind wandered back to some of my recent memorable encounters with Lazovsky.
“Rivka,” a young soldier called out to her after the Remembrance Day ceremony at CHW Hadassim, WIZO’s award-winning youth village in Even Yehuda. Lazovsky turned around and offered him a big smile.
“My name is Tomer,” he said. “Last year I participated in this ceremony as a 12th- grade student and now I am in an officers’ course in the army.”
I watched as Lazovsky put her arm around him and listened intently to his story.
“For years I bounced around from school to school. Then I came here to WIZO and I finally found a home. This school gave me a sense of purpose. The staff here helped me believe in myself. Thanks to this school, I quit smoking, I improved my grades and soon I’ll be an IDF officer.”
“Who wants to play with Savta Rivka?” Lazovsky asked a group of adorable kids last month on a visit to a WIZO day-care center in Rehovot, just one of the 180 WIZO day- care centers across Israel. Within seconds, a swarm of three-year-olds surrounded her, instantly transforming her from World WIZO chairperson Prof. Rivka Lazovsky to “Savta Rivka.”
Seeing is believing
“Yonatan,” Lazovsky said to me one day in World WIZO’s Tel Aviv headquarters’ cafeteria as she delicately balanced a plastic tray while we waited in line for the salad bar. “You write beautifully, but you can’t understand WIZO by sitting behind a computer at a desk. You must go out and see it!”
WIZO’s 800 projects in early-age education, schools, youth villages, women’s empowerment programs, abused women’s shelters, and programs for the empowerment of girls and women, new immigrants and the elderly and coexistence initiatives throughout the country make WIZO a leading social services provider in Israel. With such a vast network, it would take years to visit every WIZO project, but shadowing World WIZO’s chairperson is a good place to start.
“Each WIZO institution is a world unto itself,” Lazovsky told me on a recent visit to Nahalat Yehuda, a WIZO youth village in Rishon Lezion that had the distinction of being the school with the highest percentage rise in student matriculation eligibility over the last year, a 100% increase.
“Many of the students who live and learn in our youth villages are at-risk youth,” Lazovsky explained. “They come from very difficult family situations. All a child needs is for just one adult to believe in them.” As for the secret to WIZO’s success, Lazovsky says the formula is simple, “We inspire them, we let them be creative – and we give them tools, support and room to grow.”
To illustrate, she cites some of the unique programs that WIZO schools and youth villages provide: the Firefighting Cadet Program, the Law Enforcement Cadet Program and the Veterinary Studies program, to name just a few.
Born and raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, Lazovsky was born with WIZO in her blood.
“My grandmother, when she lived in Vienna and later when she escaped the Nazis and fled to Uruguay, and my mother in Uruguay, were both WIZO leaders. So naturally, I was exposed to and involved in WIZO from an early age. In 1967, following the Six Day War, I fulfilled the Zionist dream and made aliyah and have been part of WIZO in Israel ever since.
“To be a part of WIZO is like being part of a big family chain,” she says, “a family that has relatives [members] throughout the world. A family chain with links to the past, but most important of all, a chain that will continue into the future.”
WIZO’s federations span 50 countries with over 250,000 active members worldwide. “One of the things that sets WIZO apart from other organizations is that we are truly global,” Lazovsky proudly says. “The WIZO haverot [members]around the world are our full partners in our blessed work here in Israel. When they visit Israel, they see and feel the beneficial impact of their great contribution to the well-being of those in our care. Working together, we can and will take WIZO to new and greater heights and for this I am deeply grateful.”
A century of giving
WIZO is a century old. Some 100 years ago in England, pioneering British Zionist women took a central role in the return to Zion. Led by Rebecca Sieff, Vera Weizmann and Romana Goodman, the wives of prominent Zionists and powerful personalities in government circles, they founded a “Ladies Committee” within the British Zionist Federation in 1918. This eventually became known as the Federation of Zionist Women, later British WIZO, and today WIZO UK.
“We are mindful that without the vision of our British Federation there would be no WIZO on an international scale as there is today,” Lazovsky said in her keynote address at WIZO UK’s centennial celebrations in London last month. While in England, Lazovsky met members of the British Parliament, including Dame Louise Elman MP, former Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles and Baroness Ruth Deech DBE. She presented WIZO’s work in championing women’s rights in Israel over the years and discussed WIZO’s great impact through its projects and services in that area.
“I was honored to be afforded the opportunity to address members of the British Parliament and to spread the news of WIZO’s important work regarding the status of women,” she said. “I explained to them that by empowering women, we are empowering ourselves. The MPs were very receptive and eager to learn from our experience.”
When addressing the MPs, Lazovsky spoke about WIZO’s shelters for battered women in Israel, which provide safety and security for women and children fleeing abusive men.
“Children who come to the shelters are either witnesses to the abuse or have been abused themselves,” Lazovsky said. “Many suffer trauma as a result. A main goal of the shelters is to prepare the mothers and children for an independent and violence-free life. To this end, the shelters provide group and individual therapies as well as academic tutoring. Mothers also receive legal aid and job training. WIZO instills self-confidence in these women and prepares them for the day after, when they leave the shelters for a new life.”
The newly elected chairperson of WIZO UK, “the mother federation,” Ronit Ribak Madari is a 49-year-old Israeli native who has lived in London for the last two decades and plans to drive her federation forward into its second century.
“Ronit is the right person at the right time and she will do, and is already doing, a wonderful job,” Lazovsky says. “She has enthusiasm, motivation and the WIZO spirit. In addition, she came up the ranks, as I did, through WIZO Aviv, which is a group for younger WIZO members, which I like to call ‘the generation of continuity.’ Madari also served as the representative of Aviv to the World WIZO Executive.”
When I mention that one of Madari’s goals is to bring unaffiliated Israelis living in the UK back into the fold by connecting them to WIZO, Lazovsky agrees emphatically.
“There are so many Israelis living around the world who love and support Israel but feel disconnected. The fact that we have new young leaders, like Ronit, who speak their language and know what it’s like to be an Israeli living abroad, can only help reconnect them to Israel. There is tremendous potential there.”
Lazovsky’s newest project is the establishment of a WIZO school and youth village alumni association.
“Every day, no matter where I go, when people hear that I am part of WIZO, they can’t wait to tell me how much WIZO changed their lives for the better. Now we want to enable generations of WIZO graduates to be able to reconnect with each other and give back to WIZO.”
One cannot seem to pick up a newspaper without reading about the achievements of WIZO graduates. Nikol Reznikov, an 18-year-old communications student who graduated last month from WIZO Nir Ha’emek in Afula was crowned Miss Israel 2018. She told the press she intends to use the media attention that comes with the title to help Israel’s less fortunate. Oshra Yosef Friedman, a graduate of WIZO’s CHW Hadassim Youth Village and WIZO’s Leadership Program for Women, was just appointed deputy director-general of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women. The appointment is the highest-ranking position within the Offices of the Government and National Authorities ever attained by a woman of Ethiopian descent.
Driven by volunteers
When we finally find time to conduct our interview, Lazovsky stresses one very important point.
“I am a volunteer,” she says. “Everyone on the WIZO Executive is a volunteer. We are a volunteer organization at heart. What is wonderful about WIZO is that any woman, anywhere around the globe, can become a volunteer and give of themselves to strengthen the people of Israel. We could not do what we do without volunteers. I call on more women to become volunteers and join us in our sacred WIZO work for the betterment of the people of Israel.”
“So, as a volunteer, are you paid in smiles?” I ask, quoting a popular WIZO slogan.
“Yes,” Lazovsky says, “but more than that – we are in the business of changing lives and futures every day!”
The writer is head of English content in the Publicity and Communications Division of World WIZO.