Our story begins in New York in the late 1920s. In 1928, a group of Jewish volunteers from the United States decided to support the Jewish Yishuv in the Land of Israel by establishing a philanthropic organization called WLI – Women’s League for Israel. The organization was intended to establish a place of residence for new immigrant women who came to Israel on their own without professional training and without knowledge of the Hebrew language. They thought, and rightly so, that the beginning would be a very difficult. Thus, as they left the ship, the women were absorbed into the “pioneering homes” of WLI, sharing their lives with others who, like them, faced the challenge of integration in Israel.
They worked and earned a living, learned a new language, knowledge of the land, life skills, the history of Jewish life and general culture.
The port city of Haifa was selected for WLI’s first home – “Beyt Chalutsot” (meaning: “house of female-pioneers”). When a young woman arrived, she was surrounded by an atmosphere of warmth and friendship which encouraged her growth and independence.
The Haifa Home opened in 1932, and was filled immediately. One year later, Hitler came to power and shortly thereafter, WLI could not meet the demands of all the young refugees streaming into Palestine. Even though WLI was still in its infancy, plans were made immediately to enlarge the Haifa Home by adding a third story and to build a similar Home in Tel Aviv. Soon after its completion (1936), the Tel Aviv Home was enlarged (1938) and WLI undertook to build a similar shelter in Jerusalem (1943).
The first inhabitants in the Jerusalem Center were young orphans, brought out of war-torn Europe through Teheran into Israel. Next to be sheltered were destitute and broken survivors of the Holocaust. Thanks to the warm care of WLI’s directresses and staff, these tortured young women were nursed back to health and given back the dignity each human being deserves. Due to the desperate need for space, and despite the expansion of the three existing buildings, arose the necessity of erection of a fourth Center in Netanya.
During the War of Liberation in 1948, the Homes served as headquarters for CHEN, the Women’s Army Corps. The broadcasts of Kol Yisrael in Jerusalem were relocated to WLI’s Home when the original station site was lost in the battle.
A generation of trained minds had been murdered in the Holocaust, and the new State was desperate for academicians. Then Women’s League pioneered a partnership with The Hebrew University on projects to improve the welfare of students. WLI endowed a Chair in Sociology and built the first dormitories for female students on the Givat Ram campus. WLI also built a student cafeteria. As enrollment increased, so did the need for a student center, to serve as a focal point for extra-curricular activities. WLI met this need with a three-building complex, including a gymnasium.
Rehabilitation and vocational training continued to be a necessity. Many young female refugees from the USSR needed re-training. A second generation was growing up in Israel, underprivileged socially and economically. The Israeli Government asked WLI to expand facilities in Netanya and initiate a National Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Center coupled with an Evaluation Center. WLI added a third story and made room for new dormitories and classrooms.
Also in Netanya compound, WLI and the Ministry of Labor and Welfare have established in 1950 the ‘Ora’ workshop – a protected hand weaving workshop for blind women, aimed at the rehabilitation of the women through the performance of productive work and a chance to lead an independent life despite their limitations.
June 1967 witnessed six days that changed the State. Because of the war, Jerusalem was reunited. Jews could once again pray at the Western Wall, and Mt. Scopus – the original site of The Hebrew University – was again accessible. WLI immediately responded to the call that Mt. Scopus be rebuilt, by building a three-winged dormitory on this campus.
Following the tragic Yom Kippur War in 1973, WLI established the WLI Scholarship Fund at The Hebrew University for qualified and needy students. Priority went to those whose studies were interrupted by the Yom Kippur War, with an extra priority for those disabled in battle.
On July 4th, 1976, Israel startled the world with the daring rescue at Entebbe. Lt. Colonel Yehonatan Netanyahu lost his life saving the hostages. WLI promptly established a memorial scholarship in his name. In 1985 The Hebrew University told of the “brain drain” periling the future excellence of HU’s faculty and asked WLI to help combat the problem. WLI answered by funding a Lectureship in Nutritional Science at Rehovot.
In Haifa, WLI established the Family Therapy Center in cooperation with the Ministry of Social welfare in Haifa University. The program, helping hundreds of problem families over the years, was very successful, and gave rise to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Center with social workers in Haifa, Holon, and Tira counseling abused women and children. WLI pioneered The Meeting Place for Troubled Families, originally set up in Haifa and expanded to Tel Aviv and Netanya. Children of divorced parents met with the non-custodial parent under the supervision of a social worker. WLI’s Meeting Place in Haifa was the prototype for all such programs in Israel. Haifa housed the Central School for Social Work, offering computer training courses and preparation classes for pre-college tests.
In the Jerusalem Center, WLI maintained the National Library of Social Work, a vital research facility for students and experts in the field from all over the country. Along with a section of the Institute for Productivity, WLI offered many of the same courses available in Haifa. WLI was also involved with Meital – a group counseling sexually abused women and children.
Tel Aviv, the largest of WLI’s buildings, had the largest dormitory and was home to the Committee for Outstanding Immigrant Artists, the National Self-Help Clearing House, and Rom Pratt, a group working with learning disabled adults. Tel Aviv had a satellite Family Therapy Center that counseled troubled families, and a new Meeting Place for divorced parents and children.
The Netanya Center offered the most varied schedule of courses, ranging from a four-year vocation high school, a school for dental technicians and assistants, and another one for cooking and culinary arts. Also in Netanya, WLI offered after-school programs for elementary school children and volunteers for Meals on Wheels. There were also branches of the Central School for Social Work and The Meeting Place.
Nowadays, more than 70 years after the realization of the Zionist project and the establishment of the State of Israel, and after years of supporting, mainly through its strong bond with the Ministry of Labor and Welfare, WLI returns to its core activity. It is providing a home to women and men who need it and funding higher education and vocation, which serve as a stepping stone to self-efficiency and entering the world of research and science.
The Pioneer Home in Tel Aviv serves as a dormitory for students and young Jews from around the world who come to Israel through “The Israeli Experience,” sponsored by the Jewish Agency. The building in Haifa was sold, and the one in Jerusalem was handed over to “Yad Izhak Ben Zvi,” an organization which is devoted to the research of the history of the Land of Israel.
WLI continues to contribute to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem through its student scholarship fund. In 2008, WLI founded a 1.5-million-dollar fund to award scholarships to outstanding BA students. In 2017, WLI founded another 1.4-million-dollar fund to award scholarships to outstanding graduate students Each year, WLI grants approximately 40 full scholarships to students.
The story of Women’s League for Israel is ever changing. Each Center has functioned during the years as a place for community group meetings, instruction courses, concerts, lectures and Ulpan classes for new immigrants. WLI is accessible, and its administration is flexible. WLI is a small organization that can respond promptly and efficiently as the need arises. WLI is known in Israel as “Ligat Nashim” or “LENI.” It is well known because it is in the mainstream of social services and is involved with the education and social well-being of many Israelis, newcomers and Sabras alike. The devoted, enthusiastic, and committed volunteers in America make all these achievements possible.