One recent Sunday lunchtime I gave a talk to a branch of WIZO (the Women’s International Zionist Organisation, for anyone who doesn’t know), up in Manchester. The city has several branches, this one was the Carmel WIZO, based in the Whitefieldsuburb of Manchester, which has a large and flourishing Jewish community.
I’m no spring chicken but I felt positively juvenile amongst these WIZO ladies and their husbands, mostly aged from 75 to 85. I wondered how they would react to my planned talk. They would doubtless be intrigued to hear the first part, revolving around my brave mother’s story as a rescuer of Jewish friends during the Holocaust in Hungary. But, er…the second half would be about my own racy exploits in the world of online dating. How could they relate to that? Would they be put off? Maybe even walk out in disgust?
Ha! I needn’t have worried. The audience not only enjoyed hearing about the (rather dodgy) internet dating scene, but afterwards several of the ladies bought copies of the candid memoir I wrote about it. What’s more, a few widows regaled me with their own recent dating disaster stories. There was the man who rudely drove off without a word from a rendezvous, too gutless even to make up an excuse; the oddball widower who proposed on the first date (after serving up an inedible dinner) because he didn’t like living alone; and I heard about the sprightly octogenarian lady who was delighted to bag a fifty-something ‘toy boy’, until bad health turned him into an irate stay-at-home requiring looking after. Oh dear.
It was great to see these game old gals still up for a bit of fun and keen to live life to the full. But even more impressive was their lifelong dedication to the WIZO cause: raising funds to support social welfare projects in Israel, in particular to help the country’s vulnerable children and mothers. Whilst milling around the buffet table I met Leslie Berkeley, who explained that his wife Valerie started Carmel WIZO back in 1956, aged 19. “Our own mothers were long-standing members of the Prestwich Women’s Zionist Society,” he told me, “and they urged Valerie to start a young-marrieds group to ensure continuity.” The result was Carmel WIZO, whose first function in December 1956 was selling dolls at a stall at the WIZO Bazaar.
The group celebrated its 60th anniversary last year and Valerie, now an elegant 80-year-old, was there at my talk. “And I’m here to support her as I have been doing since the beginning,” said a smiling Leslie.
At its height in the 1990s Carmel WIZO had 120 members; now it has 80 but only 15 are “active workers”, he tells me. As there is no new young-marrieds group in the offing, I wondered whether the community’s younger women had the same interest in campaigning for this Israeli cause. “They’re interested but seem to have less time due to work commitments.”
Another member there told me dolefully that unless they can recruit younger women the group will eventually peter out. But worldwide, WIZO appears to be thriving. It has 250,000 members in over 40 countries and organises events to encourage youthful participation. Its Aviv Seminar for women aged 25 to 45 is held annually in Israel and aims to help women take on leadership roles in their own WIZO branches back home and “become part of our powerful international sisterhood”.
Today’s young people could learn an awful lot from elderly stalwarts such as Valerie and the other ladies I met in Manchester. Not just about long-lasting commitment (whether to a cause or to a relationship), but about the beauty of looking outwards and giving of oneself to others, rather than being self-obsessed as today’s “selfie generation” undoubtedly is. No disadvantaged child’s life is going to be improved by sharing on Instagram your bikini-clad selfies from a beach in Ibiza, or by posting a photo of your fancy lunch on Facebook. Let’s not even talk about all the teenagers preoccupied with their own body image, or the student “snowflakes” who flee to their “safe spaces” whenever an unpleasant subject hoves into view.
The stupefying narcissism displayed by much of today’s youth is as far removed from the actions and achievements of those steadfast WIZO members as it is possible to be. I salute them and their venerable organisation as it nears its centenary in 2020.
Monica Porter is a freelance journalist and author.