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Before her 70th birthday, celebrated recently, World WIZO chair Tova Ben-Dov's daughter asked her what she wanted.

"I asked for a scholarship for two children," Ben-Dov said. "This present made me the happiest. I would like to believe my children would have been helped in this way had they been in need."

Ben-Dov embodies the essence of one of the largest women's organizations in the world, one that accounts for about a quarter of a million volunteers in Israel. Those abroad engage in fund-raising and those in Israel operate and maintain about 800 projects for infants, children, girls, women and the elderly. The administrative and leadership roles are also filled by volunteers, as has been the case for the organization's 88 years of work.

Despite past glory, the group is facing threats and challenges that will be discussed at the 24th convention of the Women's International Zionist Organization that opens today in Tel Aviv. About 1,000 women from around the world - including India, where a branch opened recently - are expected. The convention is considered to be one of the first events in celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary.

Opting out of politics

The organization's history, to a large extent, reflects the history of Israeli women and the spectrum of their traditional roles in society - pioneer, mother, caregiver, schoolteacher. It is also an expression of women's ambivalence concerning their place in a patriarchal society that lives by the sword.

"We've never been a movement of especially feminist women," World WIZO president Helena Glaser said. "We've helped women in difficult situations - single mothers, mothers caring for many children, new immigrants, battered women - and we have nurtured and trained women for work and creativity."

WIZO did, in fact, have a more clearly feminist spell. The chair of the organization in Israel, Rachel Kagan, who signed Israel's Declaration of Independence, was elected to the first Knesset in 1949 on behalf of WIZO and served in the position for about two years. She initiated the Women's Equality Law but at the end of her term the organization decided to stay out of party politics, focus on voluntary activity and act from the outside to change laws and improve the status of women.

Not everyone is pleased with this historic decision.

"They removed a large segment of liberal, middle-class women from the political game and pushed them into unpaid philanthropic work. They won't act for social change because they come from the heart of the consensus and they don't want to threaten the ways of the world," says Dr. Esther Herzog, a feminist activist and a lecturer at Beit Berl College.

Even sharper criticism came bout a decade ago from then-prime minister's wife Sarah Netanyahu after a visit to the organization's institutions. In an article entitled "The Aunties from WIZO," Netanyahu wrote: "In an organization like WIZO, every woman with a famous husband is an asset." Her words aroused the ire of top people in the organization.

To a certain extent, WIZO came by this image honestly. The organization was established in England in 1920 by the likes of Rebecca Sieff (the wife of Lord Israel Sieff, a founder of the Weizmann Institute and Marks and Spencer) and her friend Vera Weizmann (the wife of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann). Raya Jaglom became president of the organization in 1970, a position she held for 26 years. She relates that when she became treasurer in 1956, she went to borrow 150,000 Israeli pounds from Discount Bank to fund salaries for the organization's workers. Danny Recanati, one of the bank's owners, said he would lend her the money because, if the organization did not repay its debts, he would get it from her husband, Yosef, a well-known philanthropist.

Learning at the 'laundry club'

Ben-Dov began working for WIZO when she was 27, after moving to Herzliya Pituah in the 1960s.

"A woman knocked on the door and asked if I had ever heard of WIZO and whether I knew how to bake a cake. She told me there was a meeting and that I should make a cake and come," she said. "I went and I saw amazing women - not money nobility, nobility who did things. They said to me, 'Our boys in the north need [kerosene heating] stoves and khaki blankets.' I went to houses in Herzliya and I collected stoves. We volunteered in distressed neighborhoods. Then I became chair of the committee for women's training. All voluntarily.

"I was not made to sit at home and be a lady."

In 1924, the organization in Jerusalem opened a boarding facility for young children whose parents were unable to care for them. In 1927, WIZO established the first creche in Palestine. Volunteers paid home visits to pregnant women to advise them on nutrition and health and established soup kitchens and centers for clothing distribution.

In 1955, WIZO called an emergency conference to discuss how it could help absorb the waves of immigrants. Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion gave them four pieces of advice: teach the immigrants to love their homeland, work for brotherhood and for uprooting divisions in the nation, educate your husbands to be tolerant and your children to be pioneers and make the desert bloom.

And so it was. WIZO volunteers set up creches in immigrant transit camps, taught women how to care for children, gave them professional training, set up boarding schools for immigrant children, adopted immigrant locales and set up a rest home for mothers of many children where, for the first time, the women ate food that someone else had cooked for them.

Caring for battered women was not immediately obvious. "I remember that when Michal Modai [later a president of WIZO] began to talk about battered women, Raya [Jaglom] got angry at her and said, 'Don't talk about that abroad. We won't succeed in raising money,'" relates Ben-Dov, who says she sees WIZO as an agent for change. It used to be that it trained women to use typewriters; now it is training single mothers to use computers.

Ben-Dov recalls how she negotiated with heads of the Arab sector to let WIZO women teach sewing in the villages.

"They knew that we would not teach the women to sew mini-skirts and so they agreed. We bought the women sewing machines to sew at home and earn money," Ben-Dov said. In the 1960s, they also brought sewing machines to Ma'alot and the women sewed sheets and towels to be sold to the army and hospitals.

WIZO also opened "laundry clubs." While women waited at the laundromats for washing machines to finish a cycle, they studied Hebrew, cooking and nutrition. A kindergarten teacher kept the children present occupied while their mothers learned.

"Once, we brought a singer with an accordion to the club," relates veteran WIZO activist Shula Broide. "I saw a woman sitting by the washing machine. I went over to her and said, 'Come on, we're going to have some fun.' So she answered, 'I'm having fun here. I'm sitting and the machine is working.'"

No longer unique

Over the years, WIZO's efforts have been matched by other organizations. At the end of the 1970s, Matnas community centers opened around the country, providing meeting places and leisure activities that had previously been provided by WIZO and other associations. WIZO has to contend with increasing competition and dwindling government and public-funding sources. Donations from abroad continue to flow in, but they have recently been affected by the dollar's weakness.

"They send us money," Ben-Dov said. "But we have a deficit of NIS 4 million."

WIZO is currently caring for 13,500 young children at its day-care centers and 5,000 older children at its schools and youth villages. It is seeking partnerships with other women's organizations in order to maximize funding sources and aims to break the glass ceiling that impedes women's advancement. WIZO has tried to train women in political leadership courses, but beyond limited achievements at the municipal level, there has not been much success. In the meantime, Glaser said she thinks it is necessary to reserve places for women on the lists of all political parties.

"We in WIZO are perhaps more open and feminist than we used to be," Glaser said. "But it must not be forgotten that we are living in a country where defense tops the agenda and there are women who trust men more than they trust other women."