By Nancy K Kaufman
In 1893, Hannah G. Solomon, a visionary woman Jewish leader was invited to bring volunteers to the Academy of World Religions during the Chicago World’s Fair, but led a “walk-out” because when they arrived the job they were given was to pour the tea. Hannah G. Solomon returned to her native Chicago community of wealthy Reform Jews and declared: “Jewish women can do more than pour the tea.” Solomon decided she would organize Jewish women “to go into the world and do what their convictions demand. She believed then, and it is still true to this day, that Jewish women can take their particular Jewish values and put them into action in order to repair this very broken world. So, Hannah G. set about organizing groups of women into “sections” that would identify needs in their local communities and go about developing programs and policies that address the most pressing problems impacting on those communities.
Thus, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was launched and became the first open membership organization for Jewish women whatever their religious practice might be. Sections across the United States were formed and they created Jewish study circles for women to learn about Jewish values and to put those values into action by creating projects to aid immigrant women, children and families. NCJW’s first convention in 1895 was so successful that police had to turn away hundreds of women. The press, at the time, referred to it as an “epoch-making event.”
Since its inception, NCJW has been on the cutting edge of major social change in the United States and post-1948, in Israel as well.
At the turn of the last century, NCJW formed the Port and Dock Department at the request of the federal government to help find homes and jobs for the newly arriving immigrant women from Eastern Europe in an effort to prevent them from being trafficked and sold into prostitution. NCJW was the only NGO in the early years to actually set up an office at Ellis Island to provide on-site assistance as women and children got off the boats in New York. Their work was not only reactive it was also proactive. As needs were identified, policy initiatives were created to develop long-term solutions to vexing issues. In the early 1900s, for example, NCJW launched a social legislation campaign to address low-income housing, child labor, public health, food and drug regulations and basic civil rights. NCJW established the first “penny lunch” programs in public schools and the very first family planning clinics that gave way to the creation of Planned Parenthood. They organized the first Councils on Aging that resulted in national network of programs for senior citizens that provided recreation and relationship opportunities.
NCJW always combined direct community service with advocacy for state and national laws that supported women’s rights. To this end, NCJW women were actively engaged in the women’s suffrage movement and at the forefront of the campaign that resulted in the passage of the 19th amendment almost 100 years ago. Similarly, NCJW was at the forefront of the civil rights and civil liberties movements beginning with their “Freedom Campaign” to protect civil liberties during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. In the 1960s, NCJW forged a partnership with the National Council of Negro Women to develop Wednesdays in Mississippi.
NCJW’s work did not stop at the national level but extended throughout the world as NCJW in the United States became the model of the creation of the International Council of Jewish Women in dozens of countries across the world. While NCJW did not start out as a “Zionist” organization (Hadassah was formed 10 years after NCJW using a similar model but focusing only on Israel), it did become engaged with Israel beginning in the the 1930s and 40s as Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany and needed social welfare and financial assistance both in the Unites States and Israel. NCJW was well known for the work it did in resettling families coming to the United States during and after the Holocaust and provided safe havens and scholarship assistance to women trying to restart their lives.
NCJW’s Israel works started around the same time initially with the “Ship-a-Box program, which sent toys, books and educational materials to young holocaust survivors and impoverished Israeli children. This effort morphed into a very significant financial commitment with the creation of the Research Institute for Innovation in Education (RIFIE) at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1966. That provided early childhood and educational assistance to at-risk children from all segments of Israeli society, Major programs that were launched through this initiative include: HIPPY/Haetgar (Home Instruction Program for Pre-School Youngsters), MANOF and Yachad among many others. In 2001, NCJW endowed the NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University and continues to support that program to this day. The program has trained hundreds of feminist activists in women’s studies who are now making an impact all over Israel in women’s activism in both the NGO and academic arenas. In the 1990s, NCJW merged with the U.S.-Israel Women to Women Program which had been one of the very first donor giving circles of women giving grants directly to projects in Israel. As a result of this merger, the current-day “Israel Granting Program” was created that continues to give grants to cutting edge projects run for and by women. More recently, NCJW role away from traditional grant giving to Israel and created a cohort of 17 divers Israeli feminist leaders to “Connect for Impact” and thereby strengthen the feminist eco-system in Israel.
NCJW, for many years was a totally volunteer-driven organization that built its reputation and results because of the thousands of women who were not working out of the home and devoted their lives to NCJW giving countless hours of their time and expertise. As such, it prided itself on not being a “fundraising” organization and its board acted as an operating board not a governing board. At its height in the 1960s there were over 200 sections across the United States.
It was not until 2008 that the board recognized that with the changing role of women in the workforce and the need to professionalize its operations, it was time to reduce the size of the board and also transition to a governing board. In so doing they also decided to hire a professionally trained CEO. Thus, when I was hired in 2010, I became the first CEO in 125 years to lead this legacy organization. What I found was a dedicated staff, many of whom had been with the organization for 20+ years yet with little or no professional development, clear performance goals or evaluations. While NCJW was for much of its history one of the very few Jewish social justice organizations, the landscape changed dramatically in the last twenty years with many new organizations created to respond to the increasing desire for Jews to engage in universal social justice work through a particular Jewish lens. In fact, I, as JCRC director in Boston, was one of six founding members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable-JSJRT (along with AJWS, Jewish Funds for Justice/Bend the Arc, the Religious Action Center, AVODAH, and Progressive Jewish Alliance). Thirteen years later, the JSJRT now has over 50 member organizations all working to make social justice a more central part of Jewish life.
If NCJW was to survive in this competitive environment it, too, needed to reexamine its theory of change and how it could best realize its core mission of advancing social and economic justice for women, children and families while safeguarding individual liberties and rights for all. As a result, we embarked on a strategic planning process in 2015 and used it to re-envision where and how we could have the greatest impact in realizing our goals. After a nine-month comprehensive process, it was agreed that growing NCJW’s membership and the grassroots were essential (through the 60+ local sections) and increasing the capacity to impact policy change at the national and state levels were essential to effectively delivering on the core mission.
To this end, NCJW made the dramatic decision to maximize its resources and close its New York office while consolidating the staff in Washington DC to focus on policy change, grassroots advocacy and membership development. As a result of a two-year process, NCJW moved its offices to Washington in September of 2018 and new office space was secured. When I announced I would use this as an opportunity to “pass the torch” a search committee was formed and a nine-month process of search/transition began. In June, 2019 Sheila Katz began her tenure as CEO of NCJW Inc. Sheila represents the very best of the “next generation” of Jewish social justice leaders having been trained and risen to a senior vice-president position at National Hillel.
As William Bridges points out in his ground-breaking work on Transitions, organizations like individuals must change in order to grow. I decided to not be that person who stayed too long or failed to recognize the importance of passing the baton. As Bridges so clearly states: “Transition is the natural process of disorientation and reorientation that marks the turning points in the path of growth.” I chose to leave NCJW at this time in its long life and in my long career so that we could both continue to grow and use the transition as, in Bridges words, “a key time in the natural process of self-renewal.” I urge more Jewish communal leaders to do the same!
Nancy K. Kaufman was NCJW CEO 2010-2019 and JCRC Boston Executive Director 1990-2010.