Women of valor creating a new tomorrow

Helena Glaser talks to the ‘Post’ about her presidency of WIZO ahead of its conference in Tel Aviv.

Helena Glaser 311 (photo credit: Courtesy WIZO)
Helena Glaser 311
(photo credit: Courtesy WIZO)
Outgoing WIZO President Helena Glaser has spent her eight-year term doing a difficult job with grace and charm. She has worked tirelessly to improve the status of women and children here, and has led more than 250,000 volunteers in 50 federations across the globe in supporting Israel.
“We are essentially a women’s social movement. Above all, I’m a Zionist – and an optimist,” the elegant and eloquent Glaser says in an interview at her office at WIZO headquarters in Tel Aviv last week. “But I’m also a realist. And being a realist means knowing that it’s not going to happen if we’re not going to do something about it.
“Take the current hot issue of hadarat nashim [the exclusion of women.] WIZO cannot stand by idly when women in Israeli society are pushed aside and discriminated against.”
Some 800 women from 40 countries are gathering in Tel Aviv this week for WIZO’s 25th Enlarged General Meeting (EGM), at which they will elect a new president and consider future strategies. These women invest a great deal of effort in being emissaries for Israel in their home countries. The conference will address WIZO’s challenges in its 10th decade, and is titled “Creating a new tomorrow.”
WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization founded in England in 1920, is dedicated to the advancement of women, the welfare of all sectors of Israeli society and the encouragement of Jewish education in Israel and the Diaspora.
“I think that the issue of social justice – the focus of last August’s mass protests in Israel – has been at the core of WIZO since the start,” says Glaser. “Social justice is helping children who grow up in development towns and in poor neighborhoods get on an equal footing with other children, especially when it comes to education. People always say the army is the big melting pot. I say why not start much earlier?
“And I’m happy to say that we’re still doing this good work, at hundreds of daycare centers for children and places like the WIZO Nahalal Youth Village, which bring together children from all walks of life. For me, this integration is very important. And is it not social justice?”
Glaser, who was born in Romania in 1946 and made aliya with her family in 1951, lived in the US from 1960 to 1970, and began volunteering for WIZO in Tel Aviv in 1971.
The climax of her career came when she was unanimously elected at the 36th World Zionist Congress in June 2010 to be the first woman to chair the Zionist General Council. She is married to Ami, a retired psychiatrist, and has two children, Yitzchak and Dana, and three grandchildren, Idan, Inbal and Lior.
“After volunteering for so long – I don’t receive a salary – it’s time for me to take a bit of a break and spend some time with my family,” she says, smiling.
Asked to recall the highlights of her presidency, Glaser answers without hesitating: “Meeting and helping abandoned children and battered women always made my day. I used to come home and cry and feel terrible, and I would say to my husband, Ami, ‘How do such terrible things happen?’ But I know that it was because of WIZO’s embrace that they managed to survive.”
WIZO has 40 branches throughout Israel, operating shelters for victims of domestic violence and helping about 14,000 children via 800 institutions, 200 daycare centers, as well as nine schools and youth villages.
Glaser accepted the Israel Prize on behalf of WIZO for its special contribution to the State of Israel in 2008.
Asked how WIZO is coping with the economic slowdown and budget cuts, Glaser says: “First of all, we always try to streamline, which is part of good management. We must be efficient; we are a movement that provides services, but we are also a business responsible for 5,000 paid workers, and every first of the month there is money in the bank to pay them. But we are always trying to find a way to do things better, especially when it comes to working with local municipalities.”
As for her advice to the next president of WIZO, she pauses for a moment before saying: “I think that everyone can do something, but if you’re part of an organization or its leader, you can do much more. I’ve always been a strong advocate of community centers to counter domestic violence, and especially including men in this process, which the feminists were initially very opposed to. But I believe I was right, and today there is even a center in Ramat Gan named after me!”
Finally, Glaser issues a plea for younger women to join WIZO both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
“We must strengthen our Jewish and Zionist identities. All Jewish organizations have plans on how to bring young Jewish people closer to Israel. In our organization, we are working hard to promote young women, to bring them in. It’s part of my speech [to the conference] on Monday.
“We need to make better use of the extraordinary social network that WIZO has in place to enlist young members who will be the next generation of leaders.”