For anyone tracking the history of British Jewry over the past six decades, the Jewish Women’s Week records might be a good place to start.
It is 65 years since the first group of Wizo women knocked on doors with a collection box, establishing the tradition of a May fundraising week in aid of the charity’s work in Israel with vulnerable women and children.
Still the only Home Office-authorised door-to-door collection within the Jewish community, its 2012 volunteers have been pounding some different pavements to their grandmothers — Wizo groups in places such as St Anne’s, Belfast, Hull and Swansea are struggling to survive while new committees are popping up in districts such as Welwyn and Shenley.
Allocated around two dozen houses and armed with leaflets, a brown envelope and a persevering smile, volunteers go out in all weathers. The in-house joke is that it always rains during JWW and that has certainly been the case this year.
The hope is to at least match the 2011 total of £230,000, much of it donated by lifelong contributors.
It may be an anachronistic fundraising method in an age of online sponsorship and celebrity-studded dinners. But according to Melissa Redbart — who has been collecting for nine years and is area captain for Elstree and Borehamwood — the personal touch can be profitable.
“It is very effective,” she says as she makes her round on leafy Deacons Hill Road. “The doorbell goes and the woman says: ‘It’s that time of year’. It’s embedded, it’s a routine.” Certainly the women answering doors to Mrs Rothbart require little explanation before reaching for their wallets.
An online drive was tried a few years ago, but it never got off the ground, adds Joanna Wulwik, a collector with more than 30 years’ experience and now the JWW chair. There is a mail-out to communities where there are no longer women able to collect — for example, Leicester.
But as Mrs Wulwik points out: “You can put a letter in the bin but you can’t bin the collector.” The camaraderie built up by meeting the same people every May and being invited in for a coffee and a chat could not be replaced. “That’s why it takes me so long.”
However, there is no answer at several addresses, a reflection that more women today are out at work.
This requires some collections to be made on evenings or on Sundays — sometimes volunteers will go back to a house four times. With many women having to juggle professional and domestic lives, it is also more difficult to attract volunteers.
But Mrs Redbart — mother of two boys under the age of 10 — has brought friends on board. “The older generation has had enough and the dynamics have changed,” she reports. “But people have seen their mothers do it, so they will do it too.”
In the data protection age, volunteers must rely on local knowledge and mezuzah-spotting. “It’s a case of knowing of movements in your road — who has got divorced, who has passed away. We do research and we update our lists.”
Gated properties and blocks of flats also present a headache. And areas where the community is widespread require volunteers to collect by car.
In Elstree, not everyone wants to contribute. “It’s every excuse under the sun,” says Mrs Wulwik. Some people claim they have “put money in the box” (there is not a Wizo one), others claim to be out of cash, or ask to be removed from the JWW database.
“People don’t necessarily want to give to a Jewish charity and there are so many causes and sponsored walks or cycles.” Five years ago, the amount JWW generated was on the rise: “We thought we might break through the £300,000 mark. Then the recession hit. We are seeing smaller donations and this week I have already had people drop out or be able to give only a fiver.”
Yet for all the frustrations, Mrs Redbart remains an enthusiastic advocate of the JWW model. “It works. I can’t stress enough how much it works.”