Welcome WIZO
Opening event, Wednesday June 17

Welcome WIZO

Women’s International Zionist Organization opens local branch

Galina Shenfeld, at left, and Mery Nathan have started a WIZO chapter in New Jersey.
Galina Shenfeld, at left, and Mery Nathan have started a WIZO chapter in New Jersey.

What’s WIZO, and why might it make you think of Julius Caesar?

Think about dividing a large territory into regions.

WIZO is not a shortened version of Dorothy’s magic-performing over-the-rainbow friend the Wizard of Oz, but the very serious and very successful Women’s International Zionist Organization. If you haven’t heard of it (and if you live in the United States, the odds are that you haven’t), that’s where the Julius Caesar part comes in.

Caesar, remember, famously wrote that “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” The founders of women’s Zionist organizations were even more ambitious than the conquerors of the French. They divided the world into just two parts. Hadassah — an organization you most definitely have heard of — got the United States, “and WIZO got the world,” Galina Shenfeld said.

That, of course, is not entirely true. WIZO does have a presence in this country, centered around New York and Florida. Dr. Shenfeld, who lives in Cresskill, and her friend Mery Nathan of Closter have decided to enlarge that presence by starting a WIZO chapter in northern New Jersey.

Young women work with children and teens at Nir HaEmek, one of WIZO’s youth villages in Israel.

As the two women explain it, the organization’s history and their own have become intertwined.

WIZO International’s mission, as its website puts it, is to “strengthen Israeli society by strengthening Israel’s people.” WIZO USA’s mandate adds to that core by working to strengthen the ties between Israelis and Americans by helping Israel’s most vulnerable children, women, and frail elderly people.

“WIZO has 250,000 volunteers and 50 chapters all over the world,” Dr. Shenfeld said. “It employs about 5,000 people in Israel. It is Israel’s largest social service organization, and the biggest Jewish women’s organization in the world. It provides not only money but also vocational work.” It also runs two shelters for abused women and programs for their children and for at-risk teenagers; its 800 or so projects in Israel include more than 180 kindergartens and 15 youth villages.

Vera Weizmann, shown here in Israel, worked with friends to found the Women’s International Zionist Organization in 1920.
Vera Weizmann, shown here in Israel, worked with friends to found the Women’s International Zionist Organization in 1920.

WIZO was created in 1920 by a group of British Jewish women that included Dr. Vera Weizmann, wife of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president. The group was a bit of a parvenu; Henrietta Szold had started Hadassah in 1912. The story goes that at the beginning of the 1920s, Vera Weizmann came to America, and Mrs. Szold said “Get out of my territory.” So the split was made, and both groups flourished.

WIZO USA’s office in New York was not averse to starting more chapters — the deal with Hadassah is over by now — but leaders waited for a spark to light the tinder they could spread. In Galina Shenfeld and Mery Nathan, they found their spark.

Dr. Shenfeld was born in Moscow, began her studies at Moscow Medical School in 1975, and graduated in 1981. The next year, she left Russia, stayed briefly in Vienna, and went on to Jersey City in 1982 with her husband, Boris, and her in-laws, Leopold and Maria. They had no relatives in this country.

“We were told that when you come to Vienna, you could call a cell phone number and ask for this man, who will help you.” That man worked for an “ultra-Orthodox organization called Rav Tov,” she said. What she did have was faith, which had been starved in the Soviet Union but raised its hopeful, hungry head as soon as she escaped. She also had her in-laws. “My father-in-law was legally blind and deaf, and a professor of math and philosophy,” she said. “He wrote an incredible book on the kabbalah of Spinoza and Maimonides, called ‘Mathematics and Philosophy of Maimonides and Leibnitz.’

“I wasn’t allowed to bring books out, but I put it under my clothes and pretended that I was pregnant.”

The Shenfelds found themselves in Jersey City, “a very old community, with an Orthodox shul, but we had no connection to it,” Dr. Shenfeld said. “And then we found Bris Avrohom,” the Lubavitch synagogue that works mainly with Russian Jews. “We connected with them.” The family — which eventually included five children — started to assimilate into American life. “When my first child was 2 years old, we lived in a project in Jersey City,” Dr. Shenfeld said. “We couldn’t afford anything. We looked for a Jewish school, and the only one around was the Yeshiva of North Bergen.” They were happy with the school — but then it moved. (By then, the yeshiva in Jersey City was just an outpost for the institution that since has become the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.)

Her husband, who had a doctorate in chemistry, at first couldn’t find a job because he was overqualified for the kinds of jobs that did not require a knowledge of English, she said, and their English was not yet good. Eventually, “he started to work at Manischevitz as a chemist. He read a lot of real-estate ads in the New York Times, so he went and became a commercial real-estate broker.

“By then my son was 3 years old, God sent us a couple of sales, and we could afford to buy a house in West Orange.” They sent their children to the Kushner Academy there.

“We went to the Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, but it was difficult because we still didn’t speak English, but we asked questions. The answers were always ‘Because we said so.’ That was not enough for a grown person. So we started searching.”

The result of that search was Chabad, as it had been in Jersey City. That is a world to which she still is connected. “What I learned is that what matters is how you meet the world, and the people in it,” she said. She went to medical school, and is president of a diagnostic facility, the Diagnostic Ultrasound Plus in Englewood Cliffs. Her children, David, Jessica, Michelle, Jeffrey, and Rebecca, are all are grown now — one is studying medicine at Sackler Medical School in Tel Aviv, one graduated from Cardozo School of Law, one is a real-estate developer, one has a master’s in psychology and works in the Bronx, and the youngest just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Now that her children are out of the house, Dr. Shenfeld knew she had to turn her prodigious energies to something else. That was when her good friend Mery Nathan talked to her about WIZO.

Ms. Nathan’s story, like Dr. Shenfeld’s, is about emigration and adjustment, but it’s set on a different continent. She was born in Chile, at the start of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “When I was one year old, in 1974, we crossed the Panama Canal in a boat.” Ms. Nathan grew up in Panama’s Jewish community and went to a day school. “My family always has been involved with WIZO,” she said.

Abused woman and their children can find shelter in the WIZO-supported Mayerhoff Day Care Center in Rehovot.
Abused woman and their children can find shelter in the WIZO-supported Mayerhoff Day Care Center in Rehovot.

She studied advertising and journalism in college, worked in those fields, and then went to Israel to consider aliyah. “I came back to visit my parents, and some of my parents’ friends told my sister, ‘There’s a guy…’”

That guy, an Israeli named Avi Nathan, became her husband. The couple decided to move to New York; Mr. Nathan and his cousins sold wholesale furniture, and for years the family owned a retail store in Edgewater.

The Nathans’ move was complicated by historic tragedy.

“We stayed in Panama for a year and a half, and then we came here with a year-and-a-half-old baby,” Ms. Nathan said. “We were supposed to get here on September 13, 2001.” Instead, they came a week later. “I remember flying in over New York City and looking down at that big cloud” that still covered the remains of the World Trade Center, she said. “It still was very gray.”

The Nathans now have two children, Ariel and Noa. Unlike the Shenfelds, who are part of Chabad, they do not belong to a synagogue. But the family’s understanding of itself as inextricably bound to the Jewish community is as strong as the Shenfelds’.

WIZO funds nursery programs for needy families in Israel.
WIZO funds nursery programs for needy families in Israel.

Ms. Nathan stopped working in the family store when one of her children developed some health issues, “but then I said, ‘I have to do something else.’

“I thought about WIZO for a long time, I mentioned it to Galina, and I just thought that if I talk about it, it will stay in the air.

“But Galina is so active! She is everywhere, and she knows a lot of people. So everything became a reality in less than a week.”

At first, Ms. Nathan’s sister, Yael Chamay of Closter, was part of the founding team, providing a great deal of the drive toward establishing a WIZO chapter in New Jersey.

Dr. Shenfeld, for her part, said she was drawn to WIZO because “the best way to receive is to give. Women feel fulfilled when they are giving. People in general, and women in particular, have a loving inclination to help others.

“When we thought about WIZO, we looked at Israel and we looked at New Jersey. They are nearly identical in their shape, and in their square footage — both are about 8,000 square miles. And the population is very near 7 million in New Jersey, and it’s similar in Israel. Per capita, we are making about $3,600 in Jersey and $3,500 in Israel.

A teenager in Nir HaEmek wears a WIZO shirt as he prepares to wrap himself in his tallit before davening.
A teenager in Nir HaEmek wears a WIZO shirt as he prepares to wrap himself in his tallit before davening.

“But as much as we are similar, we are not surrounded by enemies. No one is throwing bombs at us. We don’t have to go to bomb shelters. We didn’t have 12 major wars in less than 70 years. We don’t have to spend our money for ammunition, and we don’t have to prepare our children for war.

“So as much as we are the same, it seems that there is an urgency for people who live in New Jersey to help people who live in Israel. I consider that my children and Israeli children are the same. When I look at the kids in the IDF” — the Israel Defense Forces — “I see my children, who I have to protect and love and cherish.

“New Jersey has a very diverse Jewish community. We have Ashkenazis, Persians, Moroccans, Russians, Israelis, Latin Americans, Syrians, and many other kinds of Jews. If we will have a common denominator for the women in all these groups, we can unite them, whether they go to Chabad or Reform or Orthodox or Conservative. If we love Eretz Yisrael, we will be united, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds or any other differences.”

The Tel Aviv-based international organization gave the fledgling WIZO NJ chapter two projects. Neither is glamorous. Both matter in the real lives of real people. The group has been tasked with raising funds to renovate a shelter for battered women in Jerusalem, a distressed building that can house 15 women and their children. The other is to raise money to support a daycare center in Rehovot.

“Because WIZO has absolutely no history in New Jersey, before we do fundraising we have to raise awareness of our organization,” Dr. Shenfeld said. “So we will create a whole plethora of amazing events.

“The first one will be fundraising for the shelter.” It’s set for June 17. (For more information, see box.) “We will have speakers to bring awareness of domestic abuse in Israel.”

Domestic abuse certainly is not confined to Israel (and despite many people’s wishful thinking, it is far from unknown either here or there). “Last year, 10 women were murdered by their partners in Israel,” Dr. Shenfeld said. “That rate is very high for such a small country.”

At the meetings, a local attorney, Galit Moskowitz, will present a short talk about the women’s shelter, focusing on how it has protected women. “We know that it’s a gloomy subject,” Dr. Shenfeld said. To keep the audience from sinking into despair, Ms. Nathan and Dr. Shenfeld plan to entertain them. “We will play a wedding,” she said. “We will have five or six wedding parties. It will be a fashion show, but without any grooms.” Outfits will include ensembles for the bride’s mother and grandmother, as well as for bridesmaids and flowergirls. “The volunteers will be walking the runway and we will do it all with a sense of humor, with beautiful music.” They plan to work with local merchants, who will supply the food and swag.

The second event, which has been sketched but still must be fleshed out, will involve women of all ages and their children. The day will involve “a dinner honoring our grandmothers, because every grandmother has a story,” Ms. Nathan said. “We will gather a table of children and grandchildren around a grandmother, and will publish a book about it.”

Later plans call for a trip to Israel and an annual art and film festival in Jerusalem.

So what do we learn from all this? We see that it’s hard to start a small organization that competes directly with a larger one in a limited market. That’s true, it seems, of nonprofits as well as for-profit ventures. But we see, too, that passion matters, that being an underdog sometimes provides more fuel and more fire, and that there seems to be room in the United States for both Hadassah and the Women’s International Zionist Organization after all.

WIZO NJ presents a fashion show to raise money for a battered-women program in Jerusalem Wednesday, June 17, 7 to 9 p.m. For more information click here.

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