1862 – 1944
From 1893 to 1916, Sadie American and the National Council of Jewish Women were virtually synonymous. As one of the founders of the council, its first corresponding secretary (1893–1905), and later the paid executive secretary of the organization (1905–1914), American functioned as executive director, organizing local sections across the United States, representing the group at national and international meetings, and taking care of the routine work that building the organization required. In addition to these national duties, she also served as president of the council’s New York section and was instrumental in establishing the organization’s reputation as an effective agency for assisting Jewish immigrants. Yet her years of work on behalf of the organization were not without controversy. She resigned as executive secretary in 1914 and severed all ties with the council in 1916.
Sadie American was born on March 3, 1862, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the only child of Oscar American, a German immigrant and successful merchant, and Amelia (Smith), a native of New York. Educated in Chicago’s public schools, she received a high school diploma, but, by her own account, was not allowed to attend college. Virtually nothing else is known of her personal life. She noted in an autobiographical sketch written about 1916 that she was involved in volunteer social service work as a young girl, but stated that as an adult family illness prevented her involvement in public work for many years.
American’s intensive participation in both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations began in earnest in 1891. In that year, she became a member of the organizing committee of the Jewish Women’s Congress, which was to be held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (the Columbian Exposition). The purpose of the congress, organized by fellow Chicagoan Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, was to emphasize the role of women in American Jewish religious life, and to lay the groundwork for a national organization of Jewish women that would work to overcome Jewish illiteracy and inspire women to greater religious activity.
American was one of the most enthusiastic advocates of a national organization. The organizing committee chose her to deliver the final paper on the last day of the congress, calling for the formation of a national organization named—after some parliamentary maneuvering—the National Council of Jewish Women. Hannah Solomon was elected president by acclamation; Sadie American was elected corresponding secretary. This was the beginning of her council career.
But the National Council of Jewish Women was not American’s only commitment. In the Jewish community, she became a club leader at the newly established Maxwell Street Settlement, working with young Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and she began to teach Sunday school at her own congregation, Sinai Temple. In the wider community, she became a member of the Women’s Club of Chicago and eventually chair of its committee on permanent vacation schools and playgrounds. She wrote two papers based on her research. She was also a vice president and director of the Illinois Consumers’ League, and president of Chicago’s League for Religious Fellowship. In short, her involvement in the National Council of Jewish Women represented only a small part of her commitment to furthering the progressive social reforms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
For the twenty-three years she was active in the council, American was a forceful, articulate spokesperson on behalf of the organization. The minutes of the triennial conventions, beginning in 1896, reveal the depth of her influence. She reported at length on her efforts to organize sections, told of the extensive correspondence she engaged in with Jewish women around the country as groups sought to become council affiliates, and detailed the statistics that showed the growing membership. All of these activities revealed her dedication to the council’s success. For many Jewish women in the United States and Europe, she was the National Council of Jewish Women. On many occasions, she traveled both across the country and abroad to represent the council at other meetings of both Jewish and non-Jewish women’s organizations.
In the last half of 1900, American left Chicago and moved to New York City with her mother. Her father did not accompany them; by June 1900, he was a patient in the Eastern Illinois Hospital for the Insane in Kankakee. American was soon involved with the council’s New York section and became its president in 1902, a position she held until 1916. During her tenure as president, the New York section instituted immigrant aid programs that helped moved the national organization’s focus away from religion and into social welfare. As she had in Chicago, American devoted much of her time in New York to civic organizations.
As the years passed, however, American became a figure of controversy because of her opinions and her personality. She was first attacked for her support of Sunday Sabbath observance, but members still reelected her as corresponding secretary at the 1900 triennial convention. She then came under increasing criticism for her sometimes brusque manner and autocratic style. A growing number of council members felt that she had become a liability rather than an asset to the organization. But despite this opposition, American was reelected corresponding secretary at both the 1903 and 1905 triennial conventions and appointed executive secretary in 1905. She held the latter position until the 1914 convention in New Orleans, when she could no longer deflect the criticism of her actions and her manner. Rather than face a constitutional change that closely circumscribed the position of executive secretary, she resigned. She continued to serve as the New York section’s president until 1916, when her term ended and she was defeated for reelection.
Without American’s organizational skills and articulate advocacy of the National Council of Jewish Women’s purpose, the group would have disappeared in its infancy, as did many other women’s organizations early in the twentieth century. Sadie American passionately believed in the founding ideals of the council: that a group of Jewish women could come together to promote Jewish observance as well as social service. When the promotion of Jewish observance became too controversial, she helped council leaders to see that philanthropic service to the Jewish and non-Jewish communities would be the organization’s most important contribution to American life. She had a strength of personality that made many people uncomfortable, but it was this strength that enabled her to accomplish her life’s work.
Sadie American died in New York City on May 3, 1944.
“The Movement for Small Playgrounds.” American Journal of Sociology 4 (1898–1899): 159–170; “The Movement for Vacation Schools.” American Journal of Sociology 4 (1898–1899): 309–325; “Phases of Modern Education: XI–Vacation Schools.” Education 26 (1906): 509–518, 614–623.
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Elwell, Ellen Sue Levi. “The Founding and Early Programs of the National Council of Jewish Women: Study and Practice as Jewish Women’s Religious Expression.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1982.
Obituary. NYTimes, May 4, 1944, 19:3.
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