The Power of Jewish Women Social Entrepreneurs

Image: Echoing Green
Image: Echoing Green

By Judith Rosenbaum and Joy Sisisky

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1890, Ray Frank, became the first woman to preach formally from a pulpit in the United States. A journalist from San Francisco, she had arrived in Spokane Falls, Washington, just before the holiday and was surprised to learn that the Jewish community there – bitterly divided among traditionalists and reformers – had no plans to hold Rosh Hashanah services. Challenging community leaders on this choice, she offered to deliver the sermon herself if a minyan could be gathered. A thousand people came together to hear this bold young woman preach – a historical moment that initiated the creation of Spokane Falls’ first synagogue and that launched Ray Frank on a new career as a community preacher and leader.

Last month, Dr. Laura Stachel, a Jewish woman social entrepreneur also from San Francisco, accepted a $1 million grant from United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. The award, the first of its kind by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, recognizes Stachel’s pioneering work providing sustainable solar energy to improve maternal and child health through the organization she co-founded and leads, We Care Solar.

You might wonder what this journalist and doctor have in common 125 years apart besides hailing from the same city.

Jewish women’s entrepreneurship dates as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. Documents preserved in stone and on papyrus record accounts of women who owned land and livestock, lent money, or served in more traditional roles as wet nurses or weavers though selling their own goods and contracting services.

Jewish women today continue to pioneer innovation-driven work that is changing the Jewish community and the world. Laura Stachel is one of many Jewish women social entrepreneurs whose work is funded by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and is being publically recognized for the first time in our community by the Jewish Women’s Archive. Working collaboratively, JWA and JWFNY are building a growing collection of the stories of Jewish women social entrepreneurs who have founded and lead nonprofit organizations serving the world’s most vulnerable women and girls, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Nepal to Peru.

These women are change-makers who are bringing a gender lens to the greatest issues of our time – from poverty to the environment – and spurring the world, including the international body of the United Nations, to solve them. Furthermore, while their backgrounds vary wildly by affiliation, age and geography, they are all inspired by their Jewish values.

Social entrepreneurs are defined by many similar characteristics – drive, ambition, humility. While women are often overrepresented in the field compared to other industries, they find themselves similarly disadvantaged in comparison to their male colleagues, with less access to capital, uncovering a host of conscious and unconscious biases on the path to success.

The Jewish Women’s Archive and Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York are proud to have this opportunity to showcase an important field in which Jewish women have a long tradition of leadership and accomplishment. As the Ashoka Foundation first noted and we modified, there is nothing as powerful as a new idea in the hands of a first-class Jewish woman entrepreneur. Now is the time to nurture and support these leaders: while they are in the midst of making great change in the world. They epitomize the redefined, modern-day preacher, casting light – like Ray Frank – onto the challenges of our world and daring us to take action.

Please visit jwa.org to learn more about these Jewish women social entrepreneurs and other Jewish women change-makers.

Joy Sisisky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York which works to advance the status of women and girls in the Jewish community and beyond through innovative, social-change grantmaking in the areas of economic security, leadership advancement, health and well-being and social entrepreneurship. Learn more about JWFNY’s Isha Koach Global giving circle funding Jewish women social entrepreneurs like Laura Stachel who founded and lead nonprofits serving the world’s most vulnerable women and girls here. For more information, visit: www.jwfny.org.

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a pioneering national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change. An educator, historian, and writer, Judith teaches and lectures widely on Jewish studies and women’s studies, and regularly publishes in both academic and popular journals and blogs.