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Women: How American Jewish Women Made Contributions to Jewry and the World

by Blu Greenberg

When 23 Jews arrived on these shores from Recife, Brazil in 1654, Governor Peter Stuyvesant immediately wrote to his Dutch West India Company bosses requesting permission to ship back to their point of origin these "members of a deceitful race" who threatened to "infect and trouble this new colony."

But why did Stuyvesant, who had in fact allowed other Jewish immigrants to remain, sound the alarm bell with this group? Among this new set of immigrants, for the first time, were Jewish women. The few Jewish traders who had come earlier were apt to take non-Jewish wives for lack of their own kind; sooner or later, these men would disappear altogether as an ethnic entity. But the arrival of Jewish women meant families, nesting and community, which would in turn enable other Jews to follow. The presence of Jewish women in 1654 signaled that Jews were here to stay.

And stay they did. From that handful of immigrant women, we have flourished to this day, when a Jewish woman sits on the Supreme Court, serves as governor of a state, owns a Forbes 400 company, wins the Nobel Prize in medicine and presides over an Ivy League college; when Jewish women create and head national general and national Jewish organizations, serve as rabbis and cantors of major American synagogues, distinguish themselves in the two houses of Congress and as mayors of major American cities; reach the pinnacle as leaders in fashion, literature and the arts; achieve fame in sports; and a time when an Orthodox woman has stood with public pride for many months while helping her husband run for an office infinitely higher than governor of New York. In three and a half centuries, we have come a very long way. Not only is it one of the most glorious chapters of Jewish history, but the work of Jewish women has richly enhanced American life in every imaginable arena.

It would take space far greater than a newspaper allows to detail the contributions of the many hundreds of Jewish women of the past 350 years who stepped forward in some extraordinary fashion, led the way, rose to the occasion or responded to the necessity at hand: Rebecca Gratz, who created and taught in the first Jewish Sunday school in Philadelphia in 1838, out of which grew an entire system for educating and maintaining the identity of millions of future Jewish children; Hannah Solomon, a fashionable Chicago club woman who answered the call to represent Jewish women at the World's Fair in 1893, and went on to create the National Council of Jewish Women, a progressive social reform movement that did not cut itself loose from its core of Jewish identity; Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, the first and still the largest Women's Zionist organization; Pauline Newman, Fannia Cohn and Rose Pesotta, who founded the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which set labor standards for thousands of female factory workers sewing shirtwaists in hot tenement rooms and on high floors of unsafe buildings; Betty Friedan, the founding feminist who authored "The Feminine Mystique," creating a movement that changed not only the lives of individual women but also the world; Sally Preisand, ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1972 to become the first woman rabbi in America; Rosalind Yalow, an Orthodox woman who developed a technique to detect hormones and enzymes and received the Nobel Prize for it; Bella Abzug, who was voted into the U.S. Congress largely on her feminist platform; Shoshana Cardin, the first woman to head a major, gender-inclusive Jewish organization; and Cynthia Ozick, a Jewish author and essayist of broad recognition and great fame. For each of these woman whose stories we know, there are a hundred others like her who also led the way.

It is also likewise impossible to speak of the thousands of nameless women who made enormous sacrifices to make Jewish America a place for their families and their cohorts. We can barely tell of the great masses of women who daily housed, fed and clothed family relatives crowded into two-room tenement apartments until such time as the newer immigrants could make their own way; wives and widows who ran furniture stores in smalltown USA or mom-and-pop drugstores in the Bronx; women who scrimped and saved and bought no new clothes for themselves in order to educate their children at Harvard; women who kept kosher kitchens — in places where kosher food was not available for 1,000 miles; the women who organized the three-week boycott in 1902 against kosher butchers in protest against the high prices of kosher meat. These women were not only family and community builders, but also creators of the fabric of society. And though it may have been the men who made the decisions, it was women's daily work that carried out the agenda.

One of the most interesting developments of American Jewish women's collective work was the voluntary association. Indeed, while extraordinary women leaders were far greater in number than the few mentioned above, and while many women made sacrifices as individuals and many others brought their Jewishness to secular and civil causes, it was the Jewish women's auxiliaries and sisterhoods, and later the women's nationally federated organizations, that engaged the interest of great numbers of women and provided the vehicle for women's energies outside of the home.

First came the synagogue sisterhoods and ladies auxiliaries, more commonly entitled "female benevolent societies," borrowing the term used for Protestant women's church groups that served as a model for Jewish women's organizations. Christian women doing good was not the only model; most of the Jewish women emigrated from Jewish communities where tzedakah was highly-developed, the powerful concept of helping one's own deeply ingrained and the chesed societies well-organized. But it was the American experience that enabled Jewish women to form female groups, and these grew in function and stature over the centuries, leaving a real mark on American Jewish life.

During the first century of American Jewish life, Jews still felt their minority status profoundly. Laboring under deep memories of anti-Semitism in the places they had left, communities felt an added responsibility not to have members of their faith — especially poor or needy women and orphans — become a burden on society. In many of the charters or mission statements of these auxiliaries are phrases such as "care for the indigent," or "to help our needy country-people to become self-supporting."

Other tasks included "Taking the bride to the marriage canopy," or helping brides plan their weddings and prepare their future homes, as well as the formation of the chevra kadisha, the women's holy burial society. Indeed, many of the older Jewish cemeteries in America are testimony to the work of women of the 19th century who bought the plots, kept the records and did all manner of work related to synagogue burial societies.

When "their own" were not engaged in the mighty struggle of resettlement, women's organizations would indulge themselves in purely social events, such as staging fashion shows and playing cards. But for the better part of their history, and for the larger focus of their work, sisterhoods were bent on helping others. As time went on, many even expanded their care to include the general neighborhood, not only to members of their own faith or immediate community.

In the process of doing good, women gained much from these associations: They offered a great process of socialization for women who had suffered the loss of extended family relationships that nurtured them in Europe. These societies and auxiliaries created a protofamily in which immigrant women learned to become Americanized, democratized and acculturated. They also learned to run for office, hold elections, vote democratically, pay dues, keep budgets, take minutes, write bylaws and follow organizational procedures. Considering that in this era wives still were given weekly allowances by their husbands, these were tremendous steps forward. In the camaraderie of their joint work, women also learned about fashion and child-rearing, which contributed further to their acculturation. All this held them in good stead a generation later, when they would begin to form national women's organizations.

At the turn of the 20th century, men's organizations increasingly began to federate into national ones. Women's auxiliaries were invited to join, but it posed a challenge to women's autonomy and independence of thought and action. In some instances, women accepted and were absorbed into the new organizations. In others, they formed women's "branches" or "leagues" of the men's groups, particularly the denominational ones. Yet, in other instances, women formed separate organizations, and it was these groups that left their greatest mark on women and on community.

While each national women's group is different, the stories of formation are similar. They were a mix of social welfare, activism, education and social programming. Of course, many differences remained: Some organizations were religious in orientation, while others were oriented toward Zionist state-building, political action or social justice issues.

With the advent of feminism, and the opening of up of the workplace, the character of Jewish women's organizations underwent change, mostly erosion. Of late, however, women's organizations report a comeback, a combination of restructuring to meet new needs of women and the staying power of the functions they served from the outset: a structure enabling one to perform acts of loving-kindness and bring justice to those in need, an entity for fulfilling the desire to take care of one's people, a locus of Jewish identity and expression, and a sub-community for women's bonding.

American Jewish women have always been characterized by another outstanding quality — education. Jewish women, like Jewish men, placed extraordinary value on higher education. Consequently, they have traditionally been the best-educated female cohort group in this country, bar none. When feminism opened the door to advanced educational and career opportunities, Jewish women were able to step right up and assume the high-level training and careers waiting for them.

Finally, in this most recent generation, Jewish women have taken one more turn in the process of their development. Jewish women in America have come full circle, from the Americanization of immigrants to a deepening of Jewish religious expression as native American Jews. While much remains to be done, women have taken up ritual and prayer, religious leadership and Torah study — to the extent that this is the most Jewishly well-educated generation of women in all of Jewish history. In the process, Jewish women have increased the ethical and spiritual quotient of Judaism itself.

Jewish women in America have been on an incredible trajectory through time, a 350-year journey that has challenged them and enlarged their lives. In turn, American Jewish women have made an enormous contribution to Jewry, to humanity, indeed to the world.

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Sources: Reprinted with permission of the Forward , (March 12, 2004)