Special Interview an Organization Called the Women’s Social Service for Israel

A women’s group that has managed to raise millions of dollars for its institutions in Israel while maintaining a low profile, has decided to go public.

“In some ways we have been a well-kept secret in the Jewish community, ” said Sally Scharman, president of the Women’s Social Service for Israel (WSS), in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The 35-year-old organization, which serves the elderly and infirmed in Israel, maintains 20 subsidized apartment complexes for the elderly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, two senior citizen homes in Tel Aviv, and a hospital for the chronically ill, the Lichtenstadter Hospital for Chronic Diseases in Tel Aviv.

WSS is the American fundraising arm of Sheruth Nashim Sociali in Israel, which was founded by Paula Barth in the mid 1930′s. Mrs. Barth, a German immigrant whose husband was the first president of Bank Leumi, began by organizing soup kitchens, “meals on wheels,” and subsidized housing for the waves of immigrants arriving in Palestine before World War II, according to Edith Jellin, vice president of WSS.

A TRADITION OF CARE WITH DIGNITY

Mrs. Barth began the tradition of working without much fanfare. She “never wanted publicity so that relatives in the United States didn’t have to see that their relatives (in Israel) needed food,” Mrs. Jellin said. Mrs. Barth emphasized care with dignity. Even today, residents at the homes in Israel are encouraged to bring their own furniture and belongings in order to personalize their rooms, Mrs. Scharman explained.

WSS is the only (organization) here that supports very important and high caliber support for elderly people in Israel, (and) focuses only on that,” Mrs. Scharman said. The institutions it maintains stress “individual needs and personal attention,” she added. “They are each small, not institutional. When you visit (one), you have the feeling that it started small and stayed small.”

The organization currently has around 250 members, though it used to have more than 800, according to Mrs. Scharman. It now receives “the bulk of its funds” from legacies plus annual fund-raising dinners, she said.

“The ladies are getting older, ” Mrs. Scharman explained. Many of the members are survivors of the Holocaust and almost all currently live in New York.

This, plus the group’s “insularity” and the fact that the members “stayed within themselves,” mean that the organization is losing members and not gaining any, said Dena Mendez. Mrs. Mendez is one of the leaders of the Young Associates organization, which was founded three years ago to help attract younger and newer members to WSS.

The younger group, which calls itself Gila, after one of WSS’s senior citizen homes in Israel, has provided a lot of the impetus behind the nationwide campaign that WSS launched for the first time recently.

“The organization is run very individually, which is its strength and its weakness, ” said Mrs. Mendez. She noted that the American organization has had only two presidents in its history — the founder, Rosi Michael, and Mrs. Scharman. “When these figures leave, there’s a gap,” Mrs. Mendez said.

The parent group is anxious to promote and work with the younger organization, Mrs. Scharman said. She said members were concerned about who would carry on their work.

Mrs. Mendez, like some of the other members of her group, first found out about WSS when her grandmother moved into one of its homes in Israel and she saw its work “first-hand,” she said. She thinks the attraction of Gila to people like herself, in their 20′s or 30′s, is that it gives them the chance to help and establish a link with older people in Israel.

Another appeal for some members of the younger group, which includes men, is that they can “work for a small organization, without the bureaucracy, ” Mrs. Mendez added. The money raised goes directly to Israel to be administered by the Israeli group. The American branch maintains a small office at 240 W. 98th St. in New York, but there are “next to no expenses here,” Mrs. Mendez explained.

Both Mrs. Scharman and Mrs. Mendez, the older and the younger leaders, emphasized the sense of “friendship” among the members of the organization and the “personal touch” stressed at the institutions it supports.

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