Among the army of Jewish charity workers, no one could deserve long-service medals more than “the girls” of Southgate Wizo.
For more than half-a-century, they have met fortnightly in each other’s north London homes to plot ways to raise money for Israel.
They were mothers in their 20s and early 30s with young children when they started. Now a few are great-grandmothers in their 80s.
“I had never been out of the house before without my husband,” said Kathy Pinner, one of around a dozen at the inaugural meeting in May 1963. “I didn’t know what I had let myself in for. After the first meeting, I thought I’d never go again. Then I met a friend in the street and she came along. Somehow it became routine.”
Bazaars, supper quizzes, dinner dances, barn dances, fashion shows – they have done them all, even a “disco with a difference” (the disco didn’t show up). Once, they put on their own version of South Pacific — South Persia — for Purim.
Another time, they performed as the Wizo Wobblers. “Six or seven of us dressed in little skirts with high heels did a cabaret,” recalled Eve Lewis. “We called ourselves Wobblers because we thought we were fat but, looking back, we weren’t.”
One or two other charity committees may claim similar longevity, but none probably has such a record of unbroken activity. Once a fortnight, husbands had to take a back seat. “They knew they had to babysit on Monday night,” said founder and president, ex-teacher Sylvia Morris.
The group was known as Southgate Aviv (meaning “spring”). Until one day the powers-that-be at Wizo decided their spring days were over and they had to drop the name. “We were dumbstruck,” said another original, Shirley Levinson.
One or two of those originals have sadly passed on and a few have made aliyah. The now 25-strong group soldiered on, despite the occasional creaking limb, according to Mrs Morris. Over the years, they reckon to have raised more than £1 million.
On their regular Monday nights, they hear guest speakers or a musical recital and plan one of their three main fundraising functions each year. The next is a summer lunch with Julie Burchill, whom Mrs Levinson recruited in a taxi during a Zionist mission to Israel. “She’s outrageous and very outspoken,” she explained to general approval. When the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, they sprung into action to open a charity shop for a week and have repeated the venture at other times of crisis for Israel. But charity fairs and shops have their occupational hazards — Carole Gillow’s leather coat got stolen — or accidentally sold — and the odd shoplifter has had to be collared.
“There was a woman who stole a pair of pyjamas from a shop,” recalled chairman Shirley Mulkis. “It was sticking out of her bag. Shirley [Levinson], looking at me, told her, ‘You don’t want to argue with her, she’s got a terrible temper’. I wouldn’t say boo to a goose but the woman threw the pyjamas back at me. Afterwards, one of the neighbours who knew the woman, said: ‘You were very lucky, she’s been done before for assault’.”
Every year, they take part in door-to-door collections for Jewish Women’s Week. “Southgate is a very hilly area and the hills seem to have got steeper,” said Mrs Morris.
Members remain committed to the cause, their survival as a group she believes partly attributable to its democracy. “We decided that nobody would be chair or any other position for more than two years at a time.”
Though they have relaxed the rules in their latter years. “The only way we have deviated is that if someone says they’ll do an extra year, we don’t say no. Our secret is that we have remained good friends. We care about each other.”