Thoughts on the National Council of Jewish Women

Jewish life is filled with Jewish organizations. There are so many of them it’s a surprise that the keyboards of those of us who work in the Jewish world don’t constantly need the J keys replaced. Everything is Jsomething, somethingJ, or someJthing.

Even with all these groups, though, we should be sure to remember the National Council of Jewish Women. It’s been chugging along since the late 19th century — not the 20th century, mind you, but the 19th. Its origin story is that its founder, Hannah Solomon, who was part of the Jewish community in Chicago, was asked to gather a group of women to help create the Chicago World’s Fair, the 1893 Colombian Exposition. (Talk about origin stories — that’s the fair that provided the background for “The Devil in the White City.”)

Ms. Solomon was enraged when she learned that the support she and the women she’d enticed into the project were expected to undertake such vital tasks as provide coffee for the important people — the men. So she and those other women took their very real organizing skills and passion for social justice and channeled them into the formation of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Since then, the group has worked for progressive causes, when they were in fashion and when they were not. It’s soldiered through all sorts of changes in politics, cultural assumptions, and demographics.

Here, there are groups in northern New Jersey and Rockland County; they’ve consolidated over the years, but they’re still going.

The Bergen County section just gave us some sad news. Its co-president, Jane Abraham of Teaneck, died on March 13. It’s the first time that the section has had to cope with the death of a sitting president.

Ms. Abraham had a long career, both as an employee and a volunteer; she worked at UJA-Federation of New York, and then, once she retired, she devoted herself to advocacy through the NCJW. She also worked with Age-Friendly Teaneck and Bergen Reads. “She was an exceptionally talented organizer, analyzer, clarifier, and speaker, and a masterful leader who inspired and motivated,” the NCJW said in a statement marking and mourning her death.

I was not lucky enough to have known Ms. Abraham, but when I read about her, I recognize her, and the NCJW she advocated and worked for, as one of those intellectually sturdy, stalwart women, those way-pre-social-media women, who put their heads down and fought for what they believed in. Women who came of age right after the war, and then were young parents during the Vietnam era, who were faced with social injustice and enormous turmoil and the rethinking of everything they had known, with wild excitement and upheaval and possibility and fear.

The women who gravitated toward NCJW kept their sense of injustice and of possibility alive, and I am grateful to them. They actually did help change the world.

We mourn the death of Jane Abraham and hope for the continued life of the National Council of Jewish Women.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)