NEW YORK (Nov. 7)
In 1924, Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi– a leader of the halutzic (pioneering) movement in Palestine (and later, wife of Israel’s second president) –sent an SOS to a friend in America. She had founded a women’s agricultural training farm in the stony hills outside Jerusalem. Now it urgently needed $500 for a well.
The story of the well is also the story of the founding of Pioneer Women — now a 50,000-member organization which will be celebrating its 60th anniversary at its 29th biennial convention, to be held in Israel November 11-20.
Yanait had dispatched the SOS to Sophie Udin, a member of Poale Zion, the Labor Zionist Organization of America. Poale Zion, although theoretically committed to women’s equality, did not practice it.
It was at this juncture that Udin, receiving the SOS about the well, organized a group of seven wives of Poale Zion leaders, who raised the $500 and sent it off. This group become the nucleus of Pioneer Women. After others joined, the group declared itself an independent Labor Zionist organization, and incorporated a year later under the name Pioneer Women.
Shortly after, Pioneer Women affiliated itself with Moetzet Hapoalot (Working Women’s Council of Palestine), now called Na’amat, an acronym of Working and Volunteering Women. Na’amat is today Israel’s largest women’s organization, with 750,000 members and a network of more than 1,000 educational, vocational, and social service centers. It is now, as then, dedicated to creating a more equitable society and establishing equal rights for women in it.
STILL DEVOTED TO ITS ORIGINAL IDEALS
As the organization prepared to mark its 60th anniversary, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked its national president, Phyllis Sutker of Chicago, if the organization is still devoted to the same goals, uses the same methods, and has the same kind of members as when it began.
"It’s a matter of great pride for us that, ideologically and philosophically, this is the same organization as when it started," she answered. "Pioneer Women is the practical expression of building the programs and institutions that will help make Israel the kind of equal and just society we want it to be, and to give women the opportunity to be significantly contributing members of this society."
All the programs of Pioneer Women since its inception, she said, have stemmed from its vision of the future of Israeli society, and its philosophy of women’s equality. "But you can’t be equal unless you have opportunities," she continued. Na’amat has provided them, initially via training farms, now through its vocational education, social services, legislative work and lobbying. And Pioneer Women has supported Na’amat in this work.
One significant difference with other American Jewish organizations that has continued to today, she said, is that Pioneer Women was "not established as a philanthropic organization."
While other Zionist organizations were established here to help Israel in specific programs, only Pioneer Women "was an outgrowth from the Israel scene to here — and the only organization that has a sister organization with the kind of numbers that constitute a women’s movement in Israel," Sutker said. Pioneer Women raises about $3 million annually toward the support of Na’amat.
In the U.S., Pioneer Women "is connected with the same issues as in Israel," Sutker continued. It supports legislation and initiates special action to promote equal rights for women, reproductive rights, day care, and social service programs.
Asked about the possibility of Pioneer Women’s becoming involved in Jewish day care in the U.S. as a way of reaching out to working mothers — one of its aims — Sutker said, this "would have been a natural thing to do if the needs in Israel were not escalating."
Pointing to Na’amat’s concern about having to close day-care centers in Israel because of the economic crunch, Sutker stressed that Pioneer Women’s "funds and energies need to be directed to Israel. The situation does not permit us the luxury of cutting down on that aspect and elevating another."
Na’amat, like other Jewish women’s organizations, is concerned about recruiting young working women, and working mothers, and providing some "incentive" for them to become organizationally active, and also responding "structurally" to the problem of time availability affecting women today, a subject the National Board has been studying carefully, Sutker said.
About one-half to one-third of the members of Pioneer Women are gainfully employed. "Working class women were the founders of Pioneer Women," Sutker said. Therefore, when women began returning to the workplace in the 1970′s, Pioneer Women did not have the same philosophical difficulties in dealing with this as did other organizations. "Working was not anathema to our women," she said.
THE MOST OBVIOUS CHANGES
The most obvious change since the early days of Pioneer Women has to do with the dramatic shift in the kind of work it supports in Israel and the people who are doing it, since the establishment of the Jewish State.
A series of articles in Pioneer Woman magazine in 1980, a condensation of the Yale University thesis of Nick Mandelkern (whose late grandmother was an early and long-term member), traced the organization’s evolution. According to Mandelkern’s thesis, Pioneer Women’s early members strongly identified with the halutza (woman pioneer). What seemed to be her "incredibly romantic, adventurous and free life excited their imagination …. women could only dream" about the "virtual equality" the halutza had achieved.
Pioneer Women, Sutker acknowledged, provided its members in pre-State days with a "vicarious experience" by enabling them to "help the women who were doing things in Palestine that they wanted to do there and couldn’t do here."
Asked whether today’s members could, in the absence of the halutzot, experience the same kind of spiritual satisfaction, Sutker said, "The fact that Na’amat keeps moving into new fields to meet new needs still gives us the feeling that we are pioneering."