JWRC: Eleanor Leff Jewish Women's Resource Center
The Eleanor Leff Jewish Women’s Resource Center (JWRC) of the National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section, maintains an extensive collection of materials by and about Jewish women and creates Jewish programming with a feminist focus. The JWRC was founded in 1976 to document and advance the modern Jewish women’s movement. In addition to a library and archival repository about Jewish women, the JWRC has sponsored workshops, formed study and self-help groups, and held various events revolving around personal, religious, cultural, and political concerns of Jewish women. The JWRC was established by women who were active in the Jewish feminist movement and who wanted to document the emergence of feminism in the context of Judaism.
The JWRC originated as the New York Women’s Center, which was founded by students affiliated with the Jewish Feminist Organization (JFO) who were interested in exploring what it means to be both Jewish and female. They envisioned a center that would appeal to as many college women as possible, “women who are certain of their identity as Jews but not as feminists, as well as feminists who are coming to terms with their identity as Jews.” In so doing, they changed the name of the JFO College Project to the New York Women’s Center and officially opened in October 1976.
The Women’s Center aimed to “enhance the education and self-growth of Jewish women and to become an educational, social, and resource center which would bring together Jewish women of different ages, backgrounds, and beliefs.” Toward this end, the Women’s Center offered a wide range of seminars and workshops, including such topics as the impact of Jewish feminism on daily living and zero population growth versus Jewish survival. A Jewish “womanschool” held classes on Jewish law, women in the midrash, female heroes in Jewish folklore, and a practicum on ritual skills. In addition, a women’s prayer group met regularly.
The Women’s Center shared information and offered assistance to Jewish women who had specific requests or needs pertaining to their feminism and/or Judaism. Its growing collection of books by and about Jewish women was housed in volunteers’ apartments. By the end of 1977, the library had become an integral part of the Women’s Center, and programs were planned in conjunction with the development of its resources. At about this time, a decision was made to change the name of the Women’s Center to the Jewish Women’s Resource Center.
The JWRC received some financial support from grants, donations, and membership fees but lacked a centralized location. Its two directors, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin (a founder of the original library) and Rabbi Carol Glass, approached the 92nd Street YM-YWHA for space, and subsequently the library was moved there. A publicity brochure described the scope of the collection and noted that the JWRC’s main focus would be “customary and innovative rituals, as well as programming on aspects of history, sociology, art, and folklore of Jewish women.” Ongoing self-help groups included one for female rabbinic and cantorial students and another for women who had miscarried.
In 1982, the National Council of Jewish Women offered a permanent home to the JWRC, and it became one of New York Section’s community services. Over one hundred years old, New York Section is a multifaceted membership organization. Through education, advocacy, and outreach, it provides direct services to those in need and offers educational and enrichment programs for children and adults. Both organizations were greatly enriched when the JWRC became a project of NCJW.
Reporters, parents, professors, students, scholars, rabbis, and laypeople contact the JWRC for information on all aspects of Jewish women’s lives. It is a clearinghouse for books, dissertations, journals, prayers, ceremonies, liturgies, midrashim, study guides, and conference proceedings. Also included are the archival materials containing the official records of the JWRC, which document the correspondence and programs from the 1970s to the present.
As part of its ongoing programs, the JWRC sponsors lectures, author receptions, and conferences, and publishes a poetry annual by Jewish women. The first biennial conference, held in 1983, marked the dedication of the JWRC as a project of NCJW New York Section and celebrated the tenth anniversary of the first National Jewish Women’s Conference. Subsequent conference topics have included “Sarah the Matriarch,” “Jewish Women in the Arts,” and “Di Froyen: Women and Yiddish.” Other innovative programs have included an annual celebration of the biblical character of Ruth, a Jewish lesbian support group, and an annual feminist Tu B’Shevat seder. The JWRC also publishes works by Jewish feminist writers and sponsors the annual Jewish Women’s Film Festival. Constantly growing, the library currently has over fifteen thousand items, including books, dissertations, and liturgies for feminist ceremonies and rituals, such as naming ceremonies for girls, bat mitzvah and egalitarian wedding ceremonies, and feminist seders. In addition to being a comprehensive repository in the United States for materials by and about Jewish women, it is catalogued in such a way as to allow research on hundreds of topics pertaining to Jewish women, and so serves as a national and international resource for browsers and scholars. The Jewish Women’s Resource Center has always maintained that there is no monolithic female Jewish community, but that there is strength in the process of learning, sharing, and studying together as women.
Cardin, Nina Beth. “Presentation to the Board of Directors of the National Council of Jewish Women New York Section.” Papers, Jewish Women’s Resource Center, September 1982; Eisner, Rosalyn T. “Application for Recognition of Exemption.” Papers, National Council of Jewish Women Archives, NYC, Jewish Women’s Resource Center, 1977; Hyman, Paula. “The Rise and Continuing Impact of Jewish Feminism.” Conference at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, NYC, April 1991; Rogow, Faith. Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893–1993 (1993).