Major Jewish womens group sets up shop in Bay Area

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One of the world's largest Jewish organizations has finally set down roots in Northern California.

Founded 76 years ago and now flourishing in 50 countries spanning five continents, the Women's International Zionist Organization has launched a San Francisco chapter.

The chapter already has nearly 60 formal members, though it has not yet sent out fliers and has held only four meetings, said Hillsborough resident Ronit Melamud, who is forming the group.

Melamud said she is "really stunned" by the chapter's early success. On Tuesday, May 13, Israeli Michal Modai, WIZO's international president, will help kick off the local chapter at a luncheon in Hillsborough.

Like its other chapters in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego and Washington, D.C., WIZO's San Francisco branch has no office of its own. Members meet and work out of private homes.

The local chapter's first project involves raising money for an abused women's shelter in Israel. New WIZO branches will open in central and south Israel within the next few months.

While she does not expect the San Francisco group to raise a great deal of money so soon after its inception, Melamud said members will continue to focus on one fund-raising effort at a time.

With neither extensive experience nor steady backing, she added, the local chapter won't yet be able to initiate a new Israel-based project of its own. Instead, it will work toward funding services and facilities other WIZO chapters have already begun.

"We'll try to maintain what's already there, for the time being," Melamud said.

Although WIZO has some 250,000 members worldwide and is the only Zionist group with consultative status at the United Nations, the group did not begin operating in the United States until the early 1980s.

National vice president Ariella Delaney explained that until then, WIZO maintained a "gentlemen's agreement" with Hadassah, in which the two groups chose their territories. Hadassah operated in America; WIZO managed the rest of the Jewish world.

But by 1982, Hadassah and WIZO each wanted to expand into the other's domain. The groups also found themselves taking on different, noncompeting areas of social concern: Hadassah focuses on medical care, while WIZO provides services for youngsters and the elderly.

WIZO funds day-care centers, schools and battered women's services. The organization is also trying to advance women's status in Israeli society and to strengthen bonds between Israel and world Jewry.

WIZO currently faces a challenge in the form of large numbers of Jews immigrating to Israel from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union over the last few years. The organization is working to provide education for immigrant children and to help adults learn Hebrew and find jobs.

A disproportionate number of arrivals from the former Soviet Union are single-parent families, Delaney noted.

She added that WIZO has focused so much effort on abused women and children that "we have, unfortunately, become experts" on the subject. Group members advise various American agencies who are setting up shelters similar to WIZO's.

Currently WIZO San Francisco's mailing address is 339 Alberta Way, Hillsborough, CA, 94014. Membership costs $36. For information on the group or the May 13 luncheon, which will be held at the home of a WIZO member, call (415) 344-8878.