Life & Culture

Seeing Wizo take care of business


Take five socially-conscious movers and shakers, place them under the wing of an international women’s movement at the forefront of social action in Israel and show them its work at first hand. That was the aim of Wizo UK for the winners of its inaugural commitment awards, recognising contributions to women in the workplace, entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and commitment to Israel.

The prize was a trip to Israel where a diverse itinerary covered a tiny fraction of the 800-plus social welfare projects the charity’s international groups support. And as entrepreneur category winner David Altschuler put it at the end of the tour — when eyes had been opened to undiscovered sides of Israel and stomachs impossibly filled with hummus — the experience had been “inspiring”. The group’s visits to Wizo’s vocational institutes, women’s and children’s refuges, foster homes and “resilience” programmes for kids resonated with the One to One Children’s Fund co-founder’s vision of tikkun olam.

Karen Mattison, 45, was chosen for the women in the workplace prize, having endeavoured through her TimeWise Foundation to change the face of flexible work and highlight the role that women play in socially-sound businesses.

As Mattison sat in Rainbow House, a Haifa vocational school sponsored by Wizo UK that provides beauty therapy training to more than 400 disadvantaged people between the ages of 18 and 45, her response was one of awe and delight. “This kind of work is phenomenal,” she said, amazed at the number of graduates who found full-time employment — some even setting up their own salons. “I can’t believe the amount of people who get jobs after studying here. You would never see anything like this in the UK.”

For self-proclaimed “goyish” Israel supporter Chas Newkey-Burden, author of the popular OyVaGoy blog, every project visited served to enhance his connection. Newkey-Burden — winner of the commitment to Israel award — was “humbled” by those he met at Jerusalem’s Rebecca Sieff Centre, the flagship project for children, and Ahuzat Yeladim boarding school in Haifa, the country’s biggest centre for young people with behavioural problems. Among them were volunteers who themselves came through Wizo projects and had emotive stories to tell. “They’ve really encouraged me to up my game,” he said.

They've really encouraged me to up my game

Long-time Rainbow House volunteer Ruth Galili told the group that despite having spent her childhood years in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she felt like a “winner. I have 11 great-grandchildren and I’m alive. I am far from poor.” Another who left a lasting impression was Goodei Abara, a 35-year-old Ethiopian who has spent the past three years running women’s empowerment groups for Wizo. Having left Ethiopia aged nine — with an arranged marriage impending — she said she had been a “woman long before I was a child”.

But it was Ahuzat Yeladim director Yossi Saragossi whose comments struck a particular nerve. The infectiously energetic Saragossi reported that the boarding school catered for more than 100 children aged between seven and 18 with behavioural issues. Pupils, many of whom arrive through a court order, are quickly provided with tailored educational and therapeutic programmes.

“We try to give the child everything,” he said. “From shoelaces to education to after-school activities. Our goal is to have the child fully functional by the age of 18 so they can enter the army. That means they have a place in society.”

For Altschuler, whose philanthropic interests lie in supporting youngsters in disease-ridden and war-torn places, “seeing projects like these underlines how much better we can do”. For Wizo’s other winners, Joel Minsky, 26, and Alex Gold, 29, the tour brought inspiration from the socially minded outlook of Israel’s biggest businesses. Honoured for their side-projects in corporate social responsibility at KPMG — where they arrange volunteering for Jewish Care — the twentysomethings enjoyed meeting representatives of Wizo partners El Al, Tamares Hotels and Bank Leumi.

“There is a big misconception that CSR has to be a structured activity,” Minsky said. “But you can easily fit it into your working day. We found Bank Leumi’s support of Israel’s social welfare really inspirational.”

Those from Wizo UK joining the winners included Maureen Fisher, who came up with the idea for the awards as a way to demonstrate the charity’s continuing relevance. “We also wanted to show that Wizo has respect and appreciation for people who give back and strengthen society.”

Redolent of a global Women’s Institute — but with added emphasis on communal care and chopped herring — the organisation is a worldwide behemoth, with groups in more than 50 countries fundraising for its work in Israel. Nicknamed the “Mother Federation”, the UK organisation was founded in 1918 by Rebecca Sieff and Vera Weizmann, who wanted to do something about the horrendous conditions affecting families in the Palestine territory. They were determinedly all-inclusive, an intent that persists today. Where the world decries Israel for a supposed “apartheid” mentality, Wizo’s work is an example of a country catering for all citizens.

At Rebecca Sieff, for example, the party was reunited with Khaled Tawafra, a Muslim graduate of its cookery programme, who came to London for the commitment awards ceremony. He said his Wizo-sponsored visit had been “the most terrific experience. It changed me as a person.” Last year, the UK federation raised £2.1 million for projects in the region.

However, the mission was far from exclusively about Wizo. On the Wednesday afternoon, after an emotional visit to a shelter for abused women, the Wizo party found themselves in the front row of the Knesset’s viewing gallery when David Cameron made his first address to the Israeli Parliament. There was palpable pride when the Prime Minister told MKs: “I have grown to appreciate the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish people to my country and to the world. That sense of understanding has shaped my determination to remember the past, my commitment to Israel in the present and my hopes for Israel’s future.”

At dinner that night, they met Yoni Peres, the son of Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Wizo is a wonderful organisation for Israel,” he told them, adding that he had a particular British interest: “I support Chelsea.”

For Mattison, visiting sites such as the Neve Wizo foster homes — which provide full parental care for more than 30 children in Herzliya — affected her on both a personal and professional level. “As a parent, you can’t help but connect. Seeing where these children eat, live and sleep really brings it alive for me. But giving children and young adults the skills to be self-sufficient speaks to my work interests. My mum was always a part of Wizo. Coming here now has made it all so real.”

For their final night in Israel, the award winners and UK leaders met Israeli Wizo luminaries. World Wizo chair Rivka Lazovksy praised Wizo UK as “role models and these awards have really encouraged people to know about the way Wizo is changing society. Each winner is so full of quality. We can all relate to that feeling of doing meaningful work.”

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