International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on the accomplishments of women collectively, and for appreciating, on an individual basis, the achievements of women who have realized so much on behalf of causes dear to them. For Susan Weikers, her cause, first and foremost, has always been Israel.
Susan was three years old when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence. She was six when the legendary prime minister launched Israel Bonds before an electrified audience of thousands at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Over ensuing decades, those seminal events came to shape and define the Baltimore native’s life. Her passion for Israel led Susan down a path that has taken her to the Jewish state over 100 times, while her enthusiasm for Israel Bonds resulted in a groundbreaking appointment as the first woman to serve as national chair.
A Life of Pro-Israel Activism
Susan was prepared for her life of pro-Israel activism in myriad ways: being mentored by titans of the American Jewish community; receiving inspiration from icons of Israel; and developing a warm friendship with the always forward-looking Shimon Peres.
And, like other influential Jewish leaders born prior to World War II or shortly thereafter, Susan viewed Israel not only through the prism of its singular status as the world’s only Jewish state, but also through the horrors of the Holocaust.
Thus, Susan’s story has its origins in Hitler’s rise to power, when her father, then a teenager, was able to leave Germany as Jews were being humiliated and abused, but prior to the implementation of the Nazi campaign of mass extermination. Members of her father’s family were less fortunate, and perished in the Holocaust.
Her father arrived in New York, met the woman who would become Susan’s mother, and moved to Baltimore, where Susan was born. She grew up in a Zionist home, and, as a teenager, “I became aware that I loved being Jewish. I saw it as becoming an essential part of my life.”
Susan went to Israel for the first time in 1968 to meet her father’s brother, who escaped Nazi Germany and made his way to Palestine. She holds vivid memories of that initial trip, particularly going to Jerusalem.
“It was so exciting. It was in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, and the Western Wall plaza had not yet been built. I had to walk over rubble to reach the Kotel. When I touched the ancient stones,” Susan recalls, “I felt something deep inside me.”
A Commitment to Leadership
As her feelings for Israel intensified, Susan absorbed the commitment to leadership imbued in her by her parents, “who always had a desire to do more. They taught me that you weren’t just here for yourself. You were going to buckle down and become something bigger than yourself.”
She became active in the Baltimore Association, the equivalent of the Jewish Federation, and was subsequently recruited to Baltimore Israel Bonds, co-chairing an initiative aimed at career women. She was invited to a national Women’s Division cabinet meeting in New York to discuss the success of the new venture, where she met Alice Peerce, an Israel Bonds icon who was the organization’s first Women’s Division chair. “She took me under her wing,” Susan says, “becoming a second mother and mentor.”
Alice introduced her to Bonds titan Sam Rothberg, a participant at the founding Israel Bonds conference convened by David Ben-Gurion in 1950. Susan remembers being “in awe of his dignity, presence, and fierce belief that we were privileged to participate in this magnificent effort.”
Motivated to emulate the example set by giants like Alice Peerce and Sam Rothberg, Susan set her sights on shattering the glass ceiling, which, she attests, “exists not only in corporations, but organizations as well.” Her first Israel Bonds national leadership role was Women’s Division chair. She then ascended to national campaign chair, becoming the first woman and youngest person to hold the position. As national chair, Susan spoke before audiences around the country, sharing her fervor for Israel and Israel Bonds. “Speaking came easily.” she explains, “because I loved the subject.”
“I Pinched Myself in Disbelief”
Israel Bonds was Susan’s introduction to leaders exemplifying the greatness of Israel. “I pinched myself in disbelief upon meeting the legends – Menachem Begin, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and so many others.” Bonds was also the catalyst for a decades-long friendship with Shimon Peres, whom she admired as “a true visionary who never stopped dreaming.”
Most especially, it was through Israel Bonds that she met her husband, the late Saul Volchok, a fellow participant on a Bonds delegation to Israel. “What attracted me to Saul was his heart,” she reflects. “I knew we would have a wonderful life together.”
Decades on, Susan’s remarkable Israel Bonds journey continues. She serves on the international board of directors as treasurer – again, the first woman to hold that position – and is chairing the organization’s year-long celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary.
The celebration culminates in October with an international delegation to Israel. She is particularly enthusiastic about participation from the next generation of Bonds leadership. Her goal, Susan emphasizes, “is to impart to young people the story of Israel Bonds, as previous leaders did for me. I lived the history of this organization through them, and I hope to do the same for future generations.”
(Photos courtesy of Susan Weikers)