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American Jewish Congress

by Stuart Svonkin

Women have played an important part in the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) since the organization was first established after World War I. American Jewish leaders originally convened a Jewish Congress in December 1918 in order to represent the interests of the war-torn Jewish communities of Eastern Europe at the postwar peace conference. Although AJCongress organizers hoped to create a vehicle of American Jewish unity, from the outset the AJCongress movement drew its strongest support from the ranks of American Zionism and from within the Eastern European immigrant community. This constituency probably contributed to the AJCongress’s acceptance of women’s involvement. While women in the more established and genteel German Jewish community tended to conform to the same model of middle-class domesticity as their non-Jewish counterparts, many Jewish women from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States with a tradition of active participation in the marketplace, the family economy, and the politics of the Jewish labor movement.

The leadership of the AJCongress also helped to encourage women’s participation. Fully committed to the democratic idealism of progressive politics, AJCongress leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Louis D. Brandeis were strong supporters of women’s rights, especially female suffrage. Moreover, as champions of greater democracy in Jewish communal life, AJCongress advocates could not have excluded women without provoking accusations of hypocrisy. These commitments were evident during the election of Jewish Congress delegates in 1917, in which Jewish women enjoyed the right to vote and to run as candidates—three years before American women gained the unrestricted right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment.

The original American Jewish Congress was disbanded in 1920, after receiving the report of its delegation to the peace conference in Versailles. Immediately thereafter, the organization was reestablished on a permanent basis under the leadership of Stephen S. Wise. During the 1920s, the AJCongress devoted most of its modest resources to aiding Eastern European Jewry and advancing the Zionist cause.

The rising tide of political antisemitism in Europe and the United States during the 1930s brought new challenges for the AJCongress, which quickly joined other American Jewish communal organizations in the fight against fascism. Early in this critical decade, in 1933, Louise Waterman Wise founded the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress. Like her husband, Stephen, Louise Wise was a leader of the AJCongress and a progressive reformer. In 1914, she had organized the Child Adoption Committee of the Free Synagogue, the first agency specializing in Jewish adoptions. The Women’s Division she established and led was dedicated to the same objectives as the general division of the American Jewish Congress: the protection of Jewish rights at home and abroad, the advancement of American democracy, the elimination of racial and religious discrimination in the United States, the enhancement of Jewish identity, and the promotion of Zionism.

Many of the officers and members of the Women’s Division were married women who worked outside the home as unpaid volunteers. Louise’s daughter, Judge Justine Wise Polier, who became president of the Women’s Division shortly after her mother’s death in 1947, was an exception. She enjoyed a long and successful career on the benches of the Domestic Relations Court of New York City and the New York State Family Court. While the New York metropolitan area and its environs remained the center of organization and leadership, over the years AJCongress women launched local chapters in a wide range of cities, including Albany, Hartford, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami Beach, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Norfolk, Virginia. During the postwar period, when increasing numbers of American Jews left the cities for the suburbs, chapters of the Women’s Division blossomed in the bedroom communities outside of New York City, Boston, Newark and other urban centers.

During the 1930s and 1940s, members of the Women’s Division dedicated themselves to helping the victims of Nazi aggression in Europe. After Hitler came to power in Germany, Louise Waterman Wise transformed three townhouses owned by the Jewish Institute of Religion into refugee houses, which furnished food, temporary shelter, educational programs and other necessities of life to thousands of Jews fortunate enough to reach the United States. Beginning in 1939, Women’s Division volunteers sewed and knitted clothing and blankets for refugees, wounded soldiers, and civilians in Europe. AJCongress women also helped to administer a foster parent program, through which American Jews could help to provide food, clothing and medical care to Jewish children in Europe who had lost one or both parents during the war. In order to support the American military effort, Women’s Division members sold United States war bonds. In addition, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the refugee houses in New York City was converted into a defense center, which offered accommodations, meals, recreation and training courses to American servicemen.

After 1948, AJCongress women turned their energies toward the new State of Israel. In cooperation with the Israeli government, the Women’s Division sent large shipments of toys and educational materials to the Jewish state, where these goods were in short supply. Women’s Division members across the United States continued to produce clothing, which helped to clothe young Israeli immigrants. By the end of the 1950s, when this effort was superseded by the growing strength and productivity of the Israeli textile industry, American Jewish Congress women proudly claimed to have shipped over 90,000 children’s garments to Israel. Women’s Division members also worked on behalf of the Jewish state by selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of Israel Bonds and playing a prominent role in the annual campaigns of the United Jewish Appeal.

At the same time, AJCongress women sought a direct and personal connection with the Jewish state that material aid and fund-raising could not supply. In 1954, the AJCongress Women’s Division established the Louise Waterman Wise Youth Center in Israel. The youth center, intended as a memorial to the founder of the Women’s Division and her lifelong dedication to child welfare and Jewish nationalism, was constructed in western Jerusalem, not far from the grave of Theodor Herzl. Working closely with Israeli officials, the youth center offered special programs designed to help new immigrants adjust to Israeli society. Young Jews originally from North Africa received special instruction in English, mathematics and other subjects under the center’s auspices. In addition, the center furnished lodging for American Jews visiting Israel, provided leadership training for young Israelis and housed educational and cultural projects for Jewish and Arab youth. Within a relatively short time, the programs of the Louise Waterman Wise Youth Center expanded to include thousands of Israelis and non-Israelis each year.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Women’s Division began to sponsor tours to Israel for AJCongress members and their families. These trips, like the youth center, were designed to strengthen the emotional bonds between AJCongress members and the people and land of Israel. Participants in the Women’s Division tours met Israelis from all walks of life, including government officials, educators, well-known cultural figures and leaders of the Arab community. Their itinerary included visits to kibbutzim, schools and universities, the Knesset, factories, Arab and Druze villages, and a wealth of religious and archaeological sites. Women’s Division members especially enjoyed the opportunity to observe the programs of the Louise Waterman Wise Youth Center on a firsthand basis. In addition, these trips generally included excursions to a series of European cities, where AJCongress members toured sites of Jewish historical and cultural importance and conferred with European Jewish leaders. Women’s Division leaders hoped that these personal interactions with Israeli and European Jews would enhance AJCongress members’ commitment to the concept of klal Yisrael, or Jewish peoplehood.

As devoted Zionists, AJCongress women took direct action when they perceived a threat to Israel. During the 1964–1965 World’s Fair in New York City, AJCongress members, including Women’s Division vice president Jacqueline Levine, were arrested for picketing an anti-Israel mural at the Jordan Pavilion. After the Six-Day War in 1967, as American Jews became even more ardently committed to assuring Israel’s safety, Women’s Division officials concerned themselves with battling the influence of anti-Israel propaganda on Jewish college students. At the same time, the Women’s Division called for negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors aimed at establishing a permanent peace in the Middle East.

On the home front, the leaders and members of the Women’s Division dedicated themselves after 1945 to advancing the AJCongress’s liberal civil rights program. During the late 1940s and 1950s, AJCongress women organized rallies to muster public support for the enactment of state legislation against discrimination in employment, public accommodations and education. Justine Wise Polier and other Women’s Division officials assumed leadership positions in national and New York state committees established to fight residential segregation. Women’s Division members were also active in state and local civic organizations dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination in the public schools. During the early and mid-1960s, officers and members of the Women’s Division took part in civil rights marches and lent material support to the African-American civil rights organizations leading the freedom struggle in the Deep South. In communities across the country, AJCongress women worked through local school boards and civic organizations to implement tutoring, job placement and voter registration programs.

Women’s Division members similarly lent their strength to the AJCongress’s campaign to expand protection for civil liberties. During the postwar anticommunist crusade, local chapters of the Women’s Division sponsored demonstrations to protest measures, such as the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act (1952), which violated fundamental principles of due process. Women’s Division members were especially active in their local communities as champions of the AJCongress’s fight to keep the public schools free from religious sectarianism. During the early 1950s, Women’s Division members in New York mobilized parents, community activists and civic organizations against the state’s program of released-time religious instruction. While they were ardent supporters of federal aid to education, AJCongress women instigated letter-writing campaigns against measures that extended federal support to parochial schools or otherwise conflicted with strict separation between church and state.

In conjunction with their commitment to civil liberties, the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress maintained a long tradition of involvement in issues of peace and international relations. Like their counterparts in the AJCongress’s general division, Women’s Division members were stalwart supporters of the United Nations. Women’s Division representatives worked closely with the American Association for the United Nations and lobbied the United States Government to ratify various UN treaties and conventions, especially those that promised to protect human rights. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Women’s Division helped to organize letter-writing campaigns against nuclear testing, the arms race and the antiballistic missile program, and urged that tax dollars allocated for nuclear weapons development be redirected toward education and other domestic social programs. At the same time, AJCongress women became increasingly concerned about the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Women’s Division leaders and other AJCongress officials took an active part in conferences, protest rallies and mass meetings designed to focus attention on Soviet antisemitism. In cooperation with other organizations, the Women’s Division pressured the United Nations to consider Soviet antisemitism as a human rights issue.

Their commitment to international peace and human rights prompted many AJCongress women to become vocal opponents of the war in Vietnam. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Women’s Division issued a series of resolutions calling for peace. Members of the Women’s Division, including Jacqueline K. Levine, who chaired the AJCongress’s National Peace Committee, played an important part in the agency’s antiwar efforts. Leaders of the Women’s Division urged AJCongress members to write letters to President Lyndon B. Johnson, members of Congress and United Nations ambassador Arthur Goldberg protesting the bombing campaigns in Vietnam and calling for an end to the war. In 1967, the Women’s Division collaborated with the Americans for Democratic Action and SANE in a petition drive demanding peace negotiations. Women’s Division members, including the organization’s top leadership, took part in numerous antiwar demonstrations throughout the duration of the war.

During the 1960s and 1970s, partly as a result of their participation in the civil rights and antiwar movements, AJCongress women joined in the fight for women’s equality. Since the 1930s, the Women’s Division had served as an effective vehicle for social and political action. Its members, however, had consistently emphasized that their particular role was to build support for AJCongress policies and programs on the community level, through local school boards, as participants in parent-teacher associations, and especially in their capacity as mothers. By the 1960s, women within the AJCongress—like women active in other Jewish community organizations—increasingly rejected this separate sphere and demanded equal power and responsibility in Jewish communal life. In 1966, Women’s Division president Virginia Snitow led a successful effort to gain a small but significant increase in representation for Women’s Division members on the AJCongress Executive Committee. At the same time, Women’s Division leaders, including Virginia Snitow and Jacqueline K. Levine, called for greater women’s participation in other communal agencies, such as the President’s Conference of Major Jewish Organizations and the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJFWF), which were largely, if not entirely, male-dominated.

AJCongress women faced several obstacles, however, in their struggle for equality within the Jewish community. First, positions of authority were frequently awarded to wealthy donors, who tended to be successful businessmen. Second, some women were ambivalent about their traditionally separate position within the American Jewish Congress and the organized Jewish community as a whole. While women activists increasingly wanted to play an equal part in the policy-making process, some were reluctant to sacrifice the valuable ties they had established within separate women’s divisions, auxiliaries and organizations. Over time, however, Jewish leaders came to recognize that it would be difficult to attract younger Jews—both women and men—to communal organizations segregated by sex, and that the relegation of women to separate auxiliaries directly contravened the principles of liberty and equality upon which their agencies were founded. As a result, beginning in the 1970s, efforts were made to bring greater numbers of women into leadership positions within Jewish communal organizations. In 1972, Naomi B. Levine, who had previously served on the AJCongress’s legal staff and as director of the Women’s Division, became the agency’s first female executive director. Jacqueline K. Levine, who began her long career in Jewish communal service by joining the AJCongress Women’s Division, moved on to leadership positions with the AJCongress, the CJFWF and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

Women within the AJCongress also pushed the organization to take a strong stand in support of women’s rights within the broader society. Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Women’s Division issued resolutions from its biennial conventions that called for the total elimination of discrimination against women in employment, education, housing, politics, civil law and jury service. The Women’s Division advocated strong enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination by sex as well as by race and demanded the enactment of state laws mandating equal pay for equal work and the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. Both the Women’s Division and the AJCongress as a whole took an uncompromising position in favor of reproductive freedom. AJCongress officials called for the repeal of all laws restricting women’s right to choose and took special note of the unfair impact of anti-abortion laws on poor women. After the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade (1973), AJCongress leaders expressed their strong approval of the ruling and testified before Congress against measures intended to nullify the decision. In more recent years, the AJCongress has joined with other Jewish communal and religious organizations in political demonstrations in defense of reproductive rights.

Throughout the postwar period, AJCongress women worked to sustain Jewish identity and culture. During the 1940s and 1950s, the AJCongress sponsored studies to determine the most effective methods for helping Jewish children to develop psychologically sound self-images despite the presence of antisemitism in American culture. Programs developed by the Women’s Division emphasized mothers’ responsibility for transmitting Jewish values to their children. Members of local chapters organized study groups, holiday parties, music festivals and other special activities dedicated to celebrating and imparting Jewish history and culture. Even as they became more active in the broad social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, AJCongress women confirmed their long-standing commitment to Jewish continuity. In the late 1960s, the Women’s Division, the AJCongress’s Commission on Jewish Affairs, and the Herzl Institute cosponsored a School for Jewish Parent Education, one of several programs designed to stem the tide of assimilation among Jewish youth by providing instruction in Jewish religion, history, music and art.

The Women’s Division was discontinued as a separate section after approximately fifty years of service. The AJCongress’s support for women’s rights and feminism within the Jewish community has continued, however, under the auspices of the Commission for Women’s Equality, which was founded in 1984. Among its many projects, the commission has worked to create an international network of Jewish feminists, to serve as a vocal advocate for abortion rights, and to raise consciousness within the Jewish community about domestic violence, pay equity and other issues of particular importance to women. Feminist Centers established by the AJCongress in various cities have become a forum for exploring women’s equality within the Jewish religious context.

Bibliography

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Fishman, Sylvia Barak. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community (1993).

Frommer, Morris. “The American Jewish Congress: A History, 1914–1950.” 2 vols. Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1978.

Glanz, Rudolph. “The Eastern European Jewish Woman.” In The Jewish Woman in America: Two Female Immigrant Generations, 1820–1929. Vol. 1 (1976).

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Svonkin, Stuart. “Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Intergroup Relations Movement from World War to Cold War.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1995.

Urofsky, Melvin I. A Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise (1982).

Waldman, Lois. Telephone interview with author, August 29, 1995.

Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress. Papers. American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass.

How to cite this page

Svonkin, Stuart. "American Jewish Congress." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/american-jewish-congress>.

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