The leaders of the new movement were Vera
, Romana Goodman, Edith Eder, and Henrietta Irwell. Rebecca Sieff was the first president of WIZO and held this office until 1963, then becoming honorary life president until her death in 1966. At the time of WIZO's establishment, the British administration in Palestine had just been established and the new Russian regime had given rise to considerable Jewish emigration from Russia that was expected to turn to Palestine. The women Zionist leaders felt that since the women immigrants, even more than the men, would have to adjust to a new way of life, they should be prepared and trained. It was felt that women Zionists throughout the world would be more sensitive to this task than the Zionist movement in general and that therefore a special women's organization was needed. WIZO's original program of activities was divided into three categories: professional and vocational training for women, with special emphasis on preparation for agricultural pioneering; education of women to relate to their society as informed and civic-minded citizens; care and education of children and youth.
During the first 20 years of its existence, WIZO had its headquarters in London and built up a network of federations throughout Europe (with the exception of the U.S.S.R.) and in most other countries of the world (except the U.S., where
already existed). The headquarters were then transferred to Tel Aviv. In 1970
was elected president, serving until 1996. During her term of office, WIZO was established in the U.S. in 1981. In 1996, Michal Modai, former chairman of the executive of the Israel Federation and of the World WIZO Executive, was elected president of World WIZO. Helena Glaser, chairperson of the WIZO Israel Federation, was elected chairperson of the World WIZO Executive.
After World War II the number of federations was considerably reduced, since the communist bloc and most of the Muslim countries were excluded, but this was soon counteracted by the gradual reopening of the European federations, some of them actually on the heels of the liberators.
By 1996, with the end of the cold war and the opening up of the communist bloc, WIZO had renewed activities in Hungary and the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), both in 1990, and groups had also been started in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Furthermore, in 1981, after reaching an agreement with Hadassah, it also started working in the United States, where it has a dynamic, constantly growing federation.
WIZO's quarter of a million members are organized in 50 federations throughout the world in the following countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium and Luxembourg, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Curacao, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Great Britain and Ireland, Greece, Guatemala, Holland, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zaire, and Zimbabwe.
WIZO is recognized by the UN as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and as such has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
WIZO is a member of the
*World Zionist Organization
and of the
*World Jewish Congress
and is on the executive of both. It is also on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency.
The highest governing body of the movement is the world WIZO Conference, which meets every four years in Israel, determining overall policy and approving the budget and activity reports. It is composed of representatives from all the federations according to the size of their membership. The conference elects the president of World WIZO and the World WIZO Executive which is composed of 50 members: 25 members resident in Israel (most of them heads of the World WIZO departs that run the various WIZO institutions and services in Israel) together with heads of the 25 largest Diaspora federations. The executive elects the chairman and treasurer. WIZO is a non-partisan organization of volunteers, both at the leadership and grass roots level.
Of all WIZO's federations the Israel federation is by far the largest, with close to 100,000 members organized in 145 branches in all parts of the country. While the Diaspora federations concentrate mainly on Jewish and Zionist education, strengthening the bond with Israel and fundraising to help finance WIZO's work in Israel (and also to some extent social and educational projects in their own countries), the Israel federation works directly with and on behalf of the local population, including those of the minority communities. It defines its aims in these fields as follows: to advance the status of women, defend their rights and achieve gender equality in all fields; to combat domestic violence; to assist in the absorption of new immigrants and to contribute to family and community welfare, with special emphasis on single parent families, women, children, and the elderly.
Status of women has always been a priority of the Israel federation. The Equal Rights for Women Law of 1952 was passed on the initiative of then WIZO Israel chairman Rahel Kagan, who represented the organization in Israel's first Knesset. Today, WIZO remains active in this field.
World WIZO, too, has in recent years become active in promoting women's rights and the federations work in close cooperation with other women's organization's in their own countries and are represented on all national and international bodies dealing with women's affairs. The movement participated actively in the UN's conferences on the status of women in Mexico, Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing.
In addition to advancing the status of women, the main aims of the entire movement are, nevertheless, focused on Israel and remain largely what they have been ever since the organization's beginning: to provide for the welfare of infants, children, youth, and the elderly. While during waves of mass immigration, the stress was placed on immigrant absorption services, today the most urgent need is deemed to be combating violence in the family. All WIZO's services and institutions in Israel are set up after close consultations with government and local authorities and have their full cooperation.
The following description of WIZO's 800 institutions and services in Israel presents a clear picture of the condition and needs of the population of Israel.
EARLY AGE CARE AND EDUCATION
WIZO's 234 day institutions serve 15,000 infants and small children and include day care centers, special multi-purpose day care centers for high risk children, toddlers' homes, pedagogical centers, after-school centers, therapeutic child centers, toys and games libraries, and four residential family units (Neve WIZO).
FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH
Catering to 34,700 older children and youth are 11 schools and youth villages and 78 youth clubs.
The schools, which were among WIZO's earliest projects, were established originally either to train girls and young women for a pioneering agricultural life or to provide a home for child survivors of the Holocaust. Today, these day and boarding schools provide vocational, agricultural, and artistic training at a variety of academic levels, ranging from special education to a post–high school level college of design. The student populations consist of both native Israelis and new immigrants; outstanding students as well as low achievers; children from well-established families and welfare cases.
Also in this category are a shelter for girls in distress (Beth Ruth), facilities for the rehabilitation and advancement of marginal youth, and remedial army preparation courses for drop-out girls.
FOR WOMAN AND FAMILIES
WIZO has two shelters for battered wives and a half-way house project; four centers for the prevention and treatment of domestic violence; hot lines in Hebrew, Russian, and Amharic, for battered women; a rape crisis center and hotlines; and 28 legal advice bureaus on family matters (also dealing with specific problems of new immigrant women and single-parent families. Beit Heuss is a recreation home with supportive workshops for women and couples with a common problem.
Assistance is given in immigrant absorption, including special services on caravan sites.
For the elderly there are 100 clubs and sheltered employment facilities as well as a Parents' Home.
Other WIZO services are vocational training and advancement for women, summer camps for needy mothers of large families, and care for families of war victims and single-parent families.