Emunah’s roots go back three quarters of a century. The movement emerged from two sources – OMEN – Women’s Mizrachi, founded in 1925 and Irgun Hapoalot HaIrgun HaMizrachi, which was established in 1935 under the leadership of Tova Sanhedrai-Goldreich. Tova Sanhedrai-Goldreich ז”ל, already active in public life from early youth in Poland, was at the helm of the organization for fifty years. In a parallel political career she rose to be Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. From Tova’s memoire we learn of the origins and development of the movement.
In those days many women who had come without families would be looking for a proper lodging or a day’s work. I am often asked what I best remember about those early years of the state. My answer is always the same. I recall the difficult economic situation, which faced all of us and the solution, which we found by setting up our employment office. Our network, which included branches in Haifa, Jerusalem and Petach Tikva, would solicit any type of employment for our women from the ‘established’ settlers.
Often we would pressure a member of Hapoel Hamizrachi, who himself was having trouble making ends meet, to take on one of our new immigrants to do housework, such as cleaning and baking. ‘Every Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew’ was a point we emphasized time and time again, and it was their job to employ our members.
At the same time, Hapoel Hamizrachi opened inexpensive kosher restaurants for those who were out of work. Here one could receive bread and soup for almost nothing. To complete the circle we organized Batei Halutzot. The first one was opened in Haifa and subsequently in Bat Yam, Yaffo and Jerusalem, as well as in other parts of the country. They provided lodging, food, employment and even nurseries for their little children.
Responding to the Needs of the Moment
Our motivation during those years and, in fact, the driving force which characterized our movement until the present is the desire to respond to the needs of the moment. All through that difficult period our energies were exhausted by coping with the daily frustrations and trauma of life.
Statehood Heralds a Turning Point
The establishment of the state had a profound effect on our women’s movement, and May 15th 1948 witnessed a turning point in its activities. While previously dedicated to coping with immediate emergencies, it now adopted a more coordinated plan of action to provide care and education for women of the country, particularly new immigrants from the Arab countries and their children. So while members rushed to provide linens and other comforts for families who escaped from the Jaffo-Arab snipers before the War of Independence, this type of emergency work soon ceased to be the focus of their attention.
One of the major projects was caring for newborn infants in Yemenite families, recent immigrants to the country who, for lack of suitable housing, were quartered temporarily in tents in transit camps, ma’abarot. Our organization established a live-in nursery in Kfar Pines for those children. Scrawny and undernourished when we first took them they were to become healthy and well cared for in our center. Their parents were absolutely amazed.
But we were not only interested in the children. The mothers were having great difficulty in coming to grips with a new society and culture. They were, by and large, illiterate even in their native tongues and unfamiliar with the types of food, or common household goods available here. An additional problem was their general lack of knowledge of traditional Jewish life and practice, an important element in the development of the Jewish State.
Helping to Absorb a New Population
For these women we organized evening courses on religious life, how to organize a kitchen and household, as well as in Hebrew and Bible. A somewhat unanticipated problem was the husbands’ resistance to their wives seeking even this elementary education. One husband who finally consented to his wife leaving the house at night for study sessions could not be persuaded to allow her to purchase a pencil and notebook.
At this time we established sister organizations in the U.S. and Canada, and they became partners in all of our work. In principle, our dual targets for the care of women and children have remained 30 years later the major beneficiaries of the organization’s services. With the passing of time the children have grown up and are better educated than their mothers. So now we conduct bi-weekly classes for mothers, in addition to an annual Bible meeting, and a summer session at a resort area far from their homes and daily lives.
The Children of Tehran
Naturally the country’s pre-occupation with the problems of Aliya had long-term social and political repercussions. When European children from the Shoa were sent to Tehran, the various Israeli political parties dispatched representatives to entice them to come to Israel and adopt their particular ideology. The secular and anti-religious sections fought most aggressively in this struggle. We decided to focus on the one-and two-year olds. We requisitioned some empty buildings at a Hapoel Hamizrachi kibbutz in Pardes Hanna and established the Neve Michael orphanage.
We entered the political arena as well, pressing for the inclusion of women’s rights in every contract drawn up by the Keren Kayemet, the Jewish National Fund, with Hapoel Hamizrachi.
Building the Foundation of a Religious Zionist Education
In 1956, when it was still easier to get from Jerusalem to New York than to Eilat, we decided to set up a religious nursery in Eilat. Naturally when Eilat’s mayor heard of our plans he vigorously opposed them. We learned of a religious soldier stationed there and prevailed upon him and his wife to open a nursery in their home. It did not take long before he was asked to stop on the grounds that this was a ‘political’ matter, and men in uniform are barred from taking sides in political issues. We then transferred the nursery to a rented apartment despite the mayor’s protests. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby we paid 1500 lirot to the Municipality and they would maintain it. The nursery grew into a first grade, and then to a full eight classes. Today Eilat boasts a religious elementary and high school.
We accomplished the same thing in Pardes Hanna. By using a nursery school as a foundation, religious education was made available to all. In addition, we established two schools, Elisheva, a vocational school, and another to train nursery and kindergarten teachers.
While we were working to promote religious life in Israeli society we were also striving to strengthen ourselves from within. For the first time since our establishment in 1935, we undertook a restructuring of the organization when we merged with the Mizrachi-Omen movement.
The late Rabbanit Herzog was a leading proponent of this merger in response to the frequently raised questions “In this small country is there really a need for TWO separate religious women’s organizations with similar ideologies. Wouldn’t a combination of talents and membership be considerably more powerful?” Thus in 1959 the Tnuat Haisha Hadatit (National Religious Women’s Organization) was formed. Naturally, there were some disadvantages and problems at first. As a women’s organization we failed to get a women’s committee on the presidium, for Mizrachi-Omen did not include working women. Even though we hoped that a special department would be established, this has never materialized.
The Origin of World Emunah
However, the advantages were immediately apparent. The merger instilled a new momentum and sense of purpose in the movement. An extensive public relations campaign resulted in the opening of sister organizations in eight countries and the establishment of World Emunah in 1977. Now we became an organization for the Jewish people.
Each country was given a challenge, the building of a special project, be it a school, nursery or similar institution. The result has been a large number of impressive building projects throughout the country. These buildings contain teacher-training schools, secondary and vocational institutions and over 200 nurseries and day-care centers.
How are Emunah programs and projects funded? Initially we totally depended on Poalei Hamizrachi. When contemplating a new program or project we would await the approval and distribution of funds from their treasurer. Emunah no longer wanted the general party to determine our list of priorities. Emunah broke away and became an independent body where we would make the financial decisions.
While the administrative framework underwent a change, the basic philosophy remained the same. Today, the list of programs and projects is submitted to World Emunah affiliates, together raising the necessary funds for Emunah Israel. None of these programs and projects would be possible without the unwavering support and generosity of thousands of donors worldwide.