By Harriet P. Gross
Maybe there was something in the water that American Jewish women were drinking back in the 1920s. What other reason might there be for so much organizational formation?
Could it have been the shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in New York City, which killed so many young garment workers that galvanized them? Or perhaps the pioneering social work of Jane Addams, who highlighted the needs of so many needy American newcomers?
I was wondering as I lit my old chanukiah a week ago, on the last night of Chanukah, in the company of many, many other women. Together, we were ending our 2013 celebration of National Council of Jewish Women Greater Dallas Section’s centennial with “One Hundred Menorahs for One Hundred Years.” Believe me, it was a sight to behold!
Organizations come and go. Some, founded for a single purpose, lose their reasons for existence after accomplishing their initial objectives. But others, like NCJW, keep refreshing themselves. Change, it appears, is necessary for longevity.
A single strong woman may be the startup impetus. NCJW grew from the volunteer work of Hannah G. Solomon, who first galvanized her little group into collective action back in 1893 in Chicago. Our local women became part of her growing organization 20 years later, only looking backward to honor Hannah annually while moving forward with an array of social action projects to meet the changing needs of this community.
Hadassah was also inspired by one forceful woman. Henrietta Szold galvanized her group in New York in 1912 to promote Judaism in Palestine. Her organizational model was actually NCJW — local groups under a single national center, all focused on humanitarian service. Health care in Israel has long been Hadassah’s primary beneficiary, but its varied array of educational and social programs, as well as service projects keeps the local membership actively involved.
Another group celebrating 1913 as its centennial year is Women of Reform Judaism, formerly the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. The name change reflects a modern role far beyond the one-time relegation of women to the kitchens of organized Judaism. WRJ is now officially dedicated to “educating leaders, strengthening Jewish life and repairing the world.”
My own college sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma, was founded in 1913, and its longevity has also been powered by change, reflecting the growing equality in organizational life on campuses across the country. Today, Phi Sig points with pride to its open membership policy. There is no longer the pressing need for exclusively Jewish fraternal groups, which were, of course, first created because Jews were routinely excluded from the ones already in existence.
I remember my grandmother, raising her large family at the time these national groups were being formed and probably not even knowing they existed. She was always very busy doing volunteer work in her own very Jewish neighborhood: feeding the hungry, providing Passover matzoh to the poor, visiting the sick, burying the dead. And I think back to my own mother, who spent her term as sisterhood president showing her rabbi that the women of their congregation could do more than bake hamantaschen for Purim and have rummage sales to benefit the synagogue. In every generation, our women have been called to serve, and have answered that call.
In their memory, I pay tribute here to two fine women who made their final exits from our community in the very recent past. Jean Sturman, both a Dallasite and a Fort Worthian, devoted to Hadassah, helped countless others with her work at Jewish Family Service, and was the first (and so far the only) female president of traditional Congregation Tiferet Israel. Carmen Michael, psychologist and educator, devoted to NCJW, founded CHAI with its promise of perpetual care for adults with cognitive challenges, and served as president of Temple Emanu-El.
May the legacy of these good women inspire our strong and capable Jewish women’s organizations for at least another 100 years!