A very elderly lady by the name of Erna Patak arrived in the UK at the end of the Second World War to recover from the effects of four years in a concentration camp before going to settle in Israel which she had longed to do all her life…

Jewish Women’s Week is unique in the UK and was born out of an idea from Czechoslovakian WIZO for a Jewish Women’s Day. During the two years she was in the UK, Erna Patak acted on her idea. She thought it should take place during one week in spring when every Jewish woman in the land would be asked to make a special effort for the benefit of women and children in Israel.

On 11 May 1947 Rebecca Sieff addressed the Union of Jewish Women, the League of Jewish Women, the Mizrachi Women and the B’nai Brith at Woburn House. This address was also sponsored by the Ladies’ Guilds of the United Synagogue, Federation, Sephardi and Liberal Synagogues. Jewish Women’s Week had been called ‘Operation Unity’ and had proved to be an enormous success. Mrs Sieff said that she did not think it had a counterpart anywhere in the Jewish world. Practically every London district and Provincial Jewish community, large and small, had participated in the united effort to raise funds for immigrant women and children in Palestine. Jewish Women’s Week was set to become an annual event with more careful arranging of house-to-house collecting in future years. The Organising Secretary of the first Jewish Women’s Week was Miss Olga Braham. £50,000 was raised. A point of interest here is that the Jewish Chronicle cost 4d.

The country was subdivided geographically and tackled as a military campaign – hence the leader of a group of collectors is called a Captain. At one point it was suggested that the titles of Colonel and General and other ranks should be used. Happily this idea was discarded because it would have meant that the most important job – that of collecting – would have been done by the ‘Privates’!

In those days, when most women did not work outside the home donations were literally pennies from their housekeeping money, making it all the more amazing just how much was raised. The Ministry of Transport was generous enough, during the continuation of petrol rationing, to allocate a very small allowance to the Federation for the JWW captains to ferry the cash to Head Office. How did the women manage such a campaign in the days when few people had home telephones, there were no widely available photocopiers and the only way of duplicating information sheets was by a stencil copying machine?

On 10 April 1956 Jewish Women’s Week was launched at the Empire Rooms, Tottenham Court Road when it became known as ‘Operation Doorstep’. Mrs J.C. Gilbert and Mrs W. Samuel were the co Hon Secretaries

On 7 May 1957, 500 women gathered at the Empire Rooms for a tea to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Jewish Women’s Week. They had a birthday cake and ten ladies were asked to light the ten candles. Tina Bloch, who was in the Chair, drew a parallel between the ten candles and the ten years, beginning in 1947 with the first candle which had given a “Passport to Freedom” to so many immigrants.

At the Jewish Women’s Week Rally at the Adolph Tuck Hall on 3 July 1957 Mrs Samuel told those present that “The reward for good work is more good work” and thanked the enthusiasm of the Mizrachi women and the Ladies’ Guilds. She reminded them that Erna Patak had said “Through personal contact the Jewish woman could do what the written word could never do”.

Throughout the 50’s and 60’s the Campaign was never able to reach that magic figure of £50,000 but eventually by 1973 it raised £55,000. In 1974, under the chairmanship of Lillian Lennard a target of £100,000 was set but the final total was £62,000. By 1980 it was climbing steadily and by the time Lillian retired in 1983 it had passed £100,000.

Lord and Lady Jacobowitz very kindly opened their home for a coffee morning every year to thank Captains and collectors for all their hard work and this was continued by Lord and Lady Sacks.

At the 40th Anniversary of JWW in 1987 over 150 Jewish Women’s Week Captains enjoyed a sparkling birthday party complete with birthday cake and champagne at WIZO House in London. There was a special prize of a year’s free subscription to the Jewish Chronicle awarded to the London and Provincial Captains with the largest percentage increase over the previous year’s collection and each Captain took home a special party bag containing her JWW writing paper and ‘marching orders’. £158,000 was raised that year.

A musical soiree was held at the home of Sir Sidney and Lady Lipworth to celebrate The Golden Anniversary in 1997. Eileen Jacobs, a past chairman of JWW hosted a ‘Golden’ coffee morning and sculpture exhibition at her home. Susan Cresswell and Sylvia Kopelowitz who were chairmen at the time set a rather ambitious target of £500,000 that year. Incredibly they raised £321,379.

By 2007 donors were being encouraged to Gift Aid their donations. Collectors were also asked to encourage donors to double their previous year’s donation for the Diamond Anniversary of JWW and £272,395 was raised.

In 1947 Rebecca Sieff had hoped that the Campaign would last at least ten years in order to help the thousands of refugees start a new life in Israel. Little did she or even Erna Patak realise how long their dream would continue. Three years ago, Jewish Women’s Week celebrated with yet another Tea, this time at the Mansion House in London to celebrate its 70th anniversary. In those 73 years it has raised close to £10 million – an amazing feat for a door to door campaign!

Now, in 2020, in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jewish Women’s Week has had to adapt in these unprecedented circumstances. We are so proud of our captains and collectors up and down and across the country. They may not have knocked on doors, but instead have dropped letters through letterboxes, called and emailed people. As a result, we have more phone numbers and email addresses than ever before. We raised over £156,000 against the odds with many people starting their collections late because of the lockdown. Jewish Women’s Week has maintained its status as one of WIZO UK’s major annual fundraisers. We found that as a lot of events couldn’t happen this year due to social distancing, people decided to donate more to JWW. The campaign will definitely be keeping some of these changes going forward. The collection methods need to be conducive to modern households’ lifestyles. The JWW team looks forward to working with volunteers so JWW can continue to flourish.