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Literature Scholars in the United States

by Suzanne Klingenstein

At the start of the twenty-first century, women of all classes, races, and ethnicities are so fully integrated into American literary academia that it is astonishing that, as little as a century ago, the idea of a woman professor teaching, for example, the novels of George Eliot or Henry James to a roomful of young men and women was inconceivable. In all highly literate cultures, secular and religious knowledge used to be the domain of men, while women were in charge of the practical side of daily life and, in the upper classes, of certain social matters.

In this regard, Jewish culture is no exception. Despite the premium Judaism places on literacy and learning, which in some instances persuaded fathers to teach their daughters and husbands to instruct their wives, the motto among observant Jews remained until fairly recently, a meydl darf nisht lernen [a girl need not study]. While European gentile culture considered women intellectually inferior to men, Jewish culture argued that God designed woman to be man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18). Women relieved men of domestic chores, and, in Eastern Europe, women often contributed to the family income.

The disturbing attitudes of gentile culture toward both Jews and women, which have only recently begun to change, are responsible for the late entry of Jewish women into colleges and universities. For those Jewish women who sought admission to institutions of higher learning and became the first female Jewish humanities professors, their struggle against Jewish tradition caused many to turn away from Judaism as the source of an intellectually vibrant and spiritually meaningful life.

The first generation of Jewish women professors, especially those in the field of literature, consisted of militantly secular women from a variety of Jewish social backgrounds (labor, socialist, Yiddishist, Zionist, immigrant, and mercantile). They had two things in common: a love of Western literary culture and an ignorance of the Jewish intellectual tradition, its major texts, authors, and debates. While many Jewish women in literary academia were familiar with the most popular ritual and cultural expressions of Judaism, such as the blessing of candles on Shabbat, or the prohibition against pork and shellfish, none had been educated to locate the specific practices of observance within the framework of an intense and ongoing intellectual discussion spanning two millennia, a discussion carried on, until very recently, exclusively by men.

Ignorance of Judaism’s intellectual underpinnings, coupled with a vague emotional appreciation of certain Jewish customs, ranging from hamantaschen on Purim to latkes on Hanukkah, is the single unifying feature of an otherwise extraordinarily diverse group of individuals—Jewish women in literary academe—whose history as a group this article, paradoxically, attempts to sketch.

Overall, the integration of Jewish women into literary academia is much more closely linked to the history of women than to the history of Jews in American universities. The sequence of integration runs roughly as follows: White Protestant men of Anglo-Saxon descent grudgingly accepted Catholic men before accepting Jewish men as colleagues and instructors of English literature. Jewish men, in particular, were ready to open academe further by hiring women, who in turn agitated for the integration of other minorities, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and gays. The history of Jews in American academia shows a significant gender bias; whereas Jewish men were discriminated against as Jews, Jewish women had difficulties not as Jews but as women. The reason for the difference is that Jewish men and women entered the field in different generations—men during the 1920s and 1930s, women during the 1950s and 1960s.

Until the early 1930s, white Protestant men dominated the study of literature. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a few white Protestant women, often educated at elite women’s colleges, struggled into the field. They achieved recognition and full professorships in the early years of World War II, as their male colleagues either volunteered for or were drafted into the army. At the same time, a handful of Jewish men were finishing their dissertations in literature. If these Jewish scholars secured jobs at all at top schools during the late 1930s, their appointments were due to special circumstances. Most of them, however, were hired either in the early 1940s to fill vacancies created by America’s entry into the war or right after the war to help satisfy the enormous demand for college teachers created by the GI bill.

Among the soldiers returning from the European and Pacific theaters were Jews who had started college in the late 1930s, became interested in literature, but graduated without much hope of being able to pursue an academic career in the humanities. Drafted into the United States Army or Navy upon graduation, they now returned to American campuses to find that a few Jews had broken through the ethnic barrier to become professors of English and American literature. Encouraged by these appointments and convinced that the equalizing experiences in trenches and on battleships had undermined the prejudices against Jews they had encountered during their college days, they enrolled in graduate English programs. As teachers, they attracted the third generation of male Jewish literary critics entering college in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the first Jewish women were enrolling in graduate literature programs and the first sizable number of young Jewish women were starting college. While the men of that generation, receiving their doctorates in the late 1950s and early 1960s, secured jobs without too much effort, their female colleagues faced many problems, not only as women in academe, but also in the culture at large as women who did not wish to be homemakers.

This diverse group of women scholars, born in the mid-1920s to mid-1930s, were more often than other women raised in either all-girl families or as the oldest daughter, or they were the only child. One of the most prominent members of this group was Carolyn Heilbrun. Born in 1926 as the only child of affluent parents who had cut themselves off from their Jewish past, Heilbrun, early on, wanted to find out the nature of other people’s identities. Her resource was the biography section in the local branch of the New York Public Library. Heilbrun received her B.A. from Wellesley College in 1947, and went on to pursue graduate studies in English literature at Columbia University with Lionel Trilling. She received her M.A. in 1951 and completed her Ph.D. in 1959. After a brief teaching stint at Brooklyn College, she joined Columbia’s School of General Studies, the university’s adult extension school. Throughout the 1960s the School of General Studies was the only gateway for women scholars to academic careers at Columbia.

Until the beginning of the women’s movement in the early 1970s, women did not figure distinctly in Heilbrun’s scholarship or detective fiction, which she has been publishing under the pseudonym Amanda Cross since 1964. Feminism enabled Heilbrun to analyze and name the problems she had faced throughout her career at Columbia. Her insights transformed her literary criticism, as well as her mysteries, and Heilbrun became one of the most outspoken early feminists in literary academia. Judaism, however, did not influence Heilbrun’s work as an intellectual, cultural, or religious force. Nor did Jewishness have a place in her writing, with the exception of a few remarks about Trilling’s descent and her own, and some oblique allusions in her Theban Mysteries and A Trap for Fools. Carolyn Heilbrun died on October 9, 2003, a suicide.

For Carole Kessner, however, Heilbrun’s junior by six years, Jews had always been as important as women. Born into modest social circumstances in Jewish Brooklyn, Kessner’s role models were firmly anchored in Jewish culture. Her American-born, athletic father raised his two daughters like sons in every respect, except in Judaism. As a result, Kessner did not pursue her Jewish education and abandoned observance. “I could not go to an Orthodox shul,” she remembers, “because the fact that it was not egalitarian turned me off, and I simply could not deal with my father’s ‘Don’t rip the paper on shabes! ... God will punish you.’ Reform was horrendously attenuated, and Conservatism was nothing, neither here nor there.” Kessner, who eventually found her home in the Reconstructionist movement, turned into a secular but culturally identified Jew, a decision that her college of choice reinforced. In 1949, Kessner enrolled in the second graduating class at Brandeis University, where she became attached to her English professor Marie Syrkin, a writer and secular Zionist.

The ideals and ideology of the 1950s, however, were stronger than Syrkin’s example, and in 1953, shortly before graduating, Kessner married and quickly had three children. Confined to her home in a New York suburb, Kessner became increasingly depressed. She resolved to go back to school. Joining the literary vogue of the time, she studied Milton with Miriam Starkman at Queens College. But Kessner did not get excited about her intellectual venture until she met the Yiddishist Joseph Landis, who encouraged her to drop the high art of Milton for the analysis of the down-to-earth Jewish immigrant novel before 1917. This topic allowed her to examine and validate her own cultural history. Gradually, she discovered that her strong, smart, yet pragmatic immigrant grandmother was one in a long line of independent Jewish women who had created successful lives for themselves. Energized by a gallery of self-reliant, creative Jewish women, from the seventeenth-century memoirist Glueckel of Hameln to Marie Syrkin and Cynthia Ozick, Kessner pursued an academic career specializing in Jewish American literature.

Kessner’s efforts at transforming literary research into cultural rootedness were duplicated by other women born during the 1930s, who published their first books on Jewish American literature during the 1970s. Among them are Evelyn Avery, Dorothy Bilik, Sarah Blacher Cohen, S. Lillian Kremer, Ellen Schiff, and Ann R. Shapiro. Interestingly, none of these scholars was able to get a position at an Ivy League, seven sisters, or similarly prestigious school. If one desired entry into that enclave during the late 1960s and early 1970s, one was not supposed to dabble in “parochial” (i.e., ethnic) research, but was compelled to demonstrate intellectual seriousness by pursuing mainstream scholarship in the Western literary canon.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, like many other Jewish women, rose to the top of literary academia during the 1980s. Born in 1932 and raised in the Bronx, New York, Smith believed, even as a little girl, that her “destiny was going to be one of autonomy and intellectuality.” At the age of fourteen, she enrolled at Hunter High School in Manhattan, which was then still largely Jewish and famous for accepting only the smartest girls. She went on to City College, where she met Richard Herrnstein. Married in 1951, she followed her husband to Harvard a year later. Having then two more years of college to finish, she applied to Radcliffe, but was turned down. “Well, you have an excellent record,” she remembers the dean saying, “but I see here that you are married. I am afraid we are only interested in serious students.” Smith applied to Brandeis University. The brand-new university, founded in 1948 by secular Jews, represented to her a “ferocious, ambitious, unapologetic intellectuality.” Hunter High School and Radcliffe College cultivated the ideal of the mellow, elegant, feminine intellectual. This was a gender ideal at Hunter and a class ideal at Radcliffe. The ideal woman at Brandeis—irreverent, pioneering, exuberant—was the exact opposite. Faculty and students reveled in displays of brilliance to a degree that Radcliffe and Hunter would have considered crude.

At Brandeis, “I could be an intellectual,” Smith recalls. “And as a woman I didn’t feel I had to apologize for being smart, or hide it. ... I could be everything I was without worrying.” She enjoyed her teachers, among them Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, and J.V. Cunningham, who were contentious, rudely charming, and determinedly plebeian. Jewishness, which Hunter High School and Radcliffe worked hard to ignore in their sizable Jewish student body, stopped being an uncomfortable issue for Smith. She was among Jews whose religion was brilliance; to be brilliant was to be Jewish.

Smith graduated in 1954, earned a master’s degree in 1955 specializing in Renaissance poetry, and in 1962, just before finishing her doctorate, got a job at Bennington College, another irreverent, iconoclastic institution that suited her well. Divorced, remarried, and divorced again, Smith developed into one of academia’s leading literary theorists. In 1980, she was hired by the University of Pennsylvania, and a few years later, was invited by the academic iconoclast Stanley Fish to join his avant-garde English department at Duke University. Having come of age intellectually before the rise of ethnic particularism in the late 1960s and of feminism in the early 1970s, Smith is one of a handful of prominent Jewish literary women scholars (among them Dorrit Cohn of Harvard University and Marjorie Perloff of Stanford University) whose work has not been influenced by their cultural identities or gender.

Such detachment became virtually impossible for the Jewish women of the next generation, born in the 1940s, who were swept up in the women’s movement at important junctures in their lives. They entered academia as energetic assistant professors in the mid-1970s, and with their experimental feminist literary criticism, published in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, revitalized and gave direction to a profession that had become exhausted and disorganized in the aggressive scrambling for employment and tenure during the late 1960s. This first generation of feminist literary scholars, specializing in British and American fiction, includes Elizabeth Abel, Nina Auerbach, Nina Baym, Judith Gardiner, Susan Gubar, Florence Howe, Annette Kolodny, Nancy K. Miller, Naomi Schor, and Elaine Showalter. With books such as Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (1978), Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America (1978), Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (1975), A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), these scholars rewrote literary history by resurrecting neglected women writers and postulating an independent female literary tradition. However, Jewish women did not figure in these works.

As women scholars became more established, smaller groups began to crystallize that were interested in particular aspects of women’s identity, such as class, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference. What is remarkable about these subgroups is that the closer their members were to the centers of academic power, the less they identified themselves as Jews or made Jews their topic of study. One group of poets, composed of Jewish women such as Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who were affiliated with a university but not defined by it, would readily acknowledge the impact their Jewish parents, childhoods, and experiences, however attentuated, had had on their identity formation. Members of a group at the opposite end of the spectrum, the high-powered Jewish women scholars devoted to questions of lesbianism and bisexuality (for instance, Marjorie Garber of Harvard University and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick of Duke University), find questions of Jewish identity irrelevant to their academic pursuits.

As Bonnie Zimmerman, a specialist in lesbian fiction, wrote, many gay Jewish women find themselves in an antagonistic relationship with Judaism, despite the creative mediations proposed by poets like Adrienne Rich or scholars such as Evelyn Torton Beck. Zimmerman’s description of her own intellectual development is representative of that of many young Jewish feminists. Born in 1943 and raised in Chicago in a secular family hyperconscious of who was and who was not Jewish, Zimmerman confessed that she, too, made note of women who were:

I am proud that so many of the world’s greatest intellectuals and artists have been Jewish.... I am pleased that so many of the founders and stars of the women’s movement—Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Andrea Dworkin—are Jewish.... I remember when I first began to notice the disproportionate number of Jews in every feminist or lesbian group of which I have ever been part....

But as a feminist and lesbian in the 1970s, it never occurred to me that being Jewish might mean something more than a cultural curiosity, that it might matter to my politics and my scholarly work. (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, pp. 205–206)

While Judaism in the abstract—already insignificant for most assimilated American Jews—was not an issue for the early feminists, its social and cultural remains became the focal point of personal antagonism, as Zimmerman attests:

To me, brought up in a strongly cultural, but not religious, Jewish family, Judaism represented the ties that bound me to family, the traditional role of women, compulsory heterosexuality, and the structure of patriarchy. To a certain extent, I had become a feminist and embraced my lesbianism in order to break those ties and establish my own adult identity. Judaism reeked of the past, of childhood, of strangling bonds and expectations. Judaism represented the secondary status of women. (p. 207)

While some feminists identified Judaism with the oppressive, patriarchal social structures in their personal environments, others identified it with the materialism and hypocrisy of their rich 1950s suburbs. Marjorie Garber, for instance, who grew up in an affluent area on Long Island, reacted strongly to the intellectual vacuity of the people in her neighborhood. “I was surrounded by extremely well-dressed, wealthy people,” she recalls, “who read the transliterations on the other side of the Reform prayer book. With the passion of a rebellious sixteen-year-old, I declared this to be hypocritical. I was an absolutist and wanted nothing to do with it.” She experienced her parents only as “culinary Jews,” since the activities that defined her home as Jewish were “Passover and other celebrations that had food attached to them.” Hence, Garber thought of the world of the Jews and the world of the intellect as completely dissociated. “It took me a long time,” she confesses, “to free myself from the feeling that the world of the Jews was an anti-intellectual world and to realize that the world of culture and scholarship was full of Jews.”

For many feminist literary scholars, however, Judaism did not arouse animosity. For straight women, in particular, as Nancy K. Miller explains, Judaism and Jewishness often became a matter of indifference, once gender provided a satisfying answer to the nagging question of identity:

With my conversion to feminism in the early 1970s, the aimless questing about “who I was” and “what I would do” shifted away from the marriage plot and moved into the new categories of “theory.” Being “different” stopped being a matter of personal anguish and became a question about gender and sexual politics. Suddenly there was a language for understanding the malaise of identity.... At the same time, the Jewish question disappeared from the horizon. To the extent that it had always been tied to the wars with my parents, and that my prolonged adolescence seemed finally at a close, Jewishness no longer figured among my conscious concerns. (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, p. 161)

For some Jewish literary scholars of that generation, on the other hand, questions of gender and social justice could not override or erase a preoccupation with Jewishness and Jewish experience. These scholars were, in some way, touched by the Holocaust. Although issues of the feminist and left-liberal political agenda dominated the foreground of their academic lives during the 1970s and 1980s at the expense of overt Jewish identification, they were nevertheless intensely aware of the upsetting events in recent Jewish history. For reasons of psychic sanity, their direct or indirect experience of the Holocaust was stored in what the physician Lewis Thomas called the attic of the brain. During the 1990s, however, as this generation of scholars was turning fifty and sixty years old, some of them were beginning to retrieve the burden of the past.

Literature professors born in Europe during the 1930s who had made their careers primarily in foreign language and comparative literature departments rather than in English and American studies began to publish memoirs of their experiences. Most notable are the books by Ruth (Angress) Klueger, emerita professor of German at the University of California at Irvine, and Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French at Harvard University. Klüger’s weiter leben: Eine Jugend (1992) describes her childhood in Vienna and her deportation first to Theresienstadt and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Suleiman’s Budapest Diaries: In Search of the Motherbook (1996) reveals her childhood in Budapest and her wartime survival, hidden with Christian farmers in the Hungarian countryside.

For a few Jewish literary scholars, their Jewishness was never in doubt and they managed, in ways even more pronounced than the scholars of Jewish American literature, to combine their intellectual, social, and political commitments as Jews with careers in academia. This is particularly true for professors of Yiddish literature, such as Ruth Wisse and Anita Norich, who began their studies in the English departments of, respectively, McGill University and Columbia University. Their scholarship helped to establish Yiddish studies as an academic discipline.

While Yiddish was spurned by top academics during the 1970s and 1980s as a parochial backwater and the domain of nostalgic amateurs, Israel was even more shunned among progressive literary women scholars, since feminists tended to identify with the Palestinians as the oppressed. Shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967, however, when a young Israel, radiant with victory, was at the apex of its strength, the country was attractive to assimilated American Jews, shell-shocked by the Vietnam War. Yet few literary scholars actually went there and stayed. Miriyam Glazer did. She recalls:

In 1968, I left the chaotic rebellion of my generation in the States for Jerusalem, in search of something more. I imagined a brief and romantic expatriation: Jerusalem after the Six-Day War would be my version of Paris in the 1920s.... But Israel for me was more than a respite; it was an awakening, a revelation. In the radiant air of Jerusalem, the biblical past felt alive in me as in the stones. Perhaps most important of all, among the vastly varied beauty of the Jewish people ... my own American-bred internalized stereotype of who Jews are dissolved. I felt I belonged. My very body felt different. (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, p. 440)

When Glazer was offered a job at the fledgling English department of Ben-Gurion University, she accepted. “To me, that offer meant a beckoning to participate in the pioneering national dream of ‘building a state’: I would help the desert culturally to bloom. I would bridge my world of English literature with the destiny of the Jews. I ceased being an ‘American expatriate,’ and stayed at Ben-Gurion for eleven years” (p. 440). Other American women scholars, such as Hana Wirth-Nesher, one of Lionel Trilling’s last doctoral students, and Emily Miller Budick, who married a Zionist, moved to Israel and built distinguished careers at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, respectively.

Budick and Wirth-Nesher are part of the generation of women scholars born in the late 1940s and 1950s who attended college at a time when the first generation of male Jewish critics, like Trilling, was at the zenith of its power and a second generation of Jewish men, who were much less guarded about their Jewish descent than their precursors, was beginning to establish itself in literary academia. Men like Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, John Hollander, Stanley Fish, and Sacvan Bercovitch became role models for their Jewish students, because they made it possible to talk about Jews in their literature courses. Budick’s testimony, summing up her post-1960s college experience, is particularly illuminating:

One of the first requests made of us by Professor Colacurcio in his undergraduate survey of American literature at Cornell was that we not, please, repeat the error of Sacvan Bercovitch’s students at Columbia. Bercovitch’s students, Colacurcio reported, were under the strange illusion that the Puritans were Jews. Colacurcio insisted that he himself did not think that they were Roman Catholics. It was not until some years later, after I had heard Bercovitch lecture at Cornell and had read The Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) and The American Jeremiad (1978), that I understood just what Colacurcio meant. But by the time we were only a few weeks into Colacurcio’s survey, I knew exactly what Colacurcio meant about himself. Colacurcio’s Puritans were sacramental symbolists of dazzling incarnationalist powers. They came to inform the whole of my vision of American literature. They weren’t, however, to captivate me so completely as Bercovitch’s “American Israelites,” his “Jewish” Puritans.

The ethnic revivals of the 1960s and 1970s, galvanized by the Civil Rights movement and black power, might themselves have forced me to rethink my Jewish identity. But it was Bercovitch, sensitive to the ways in which ideology constructs the sociopolitical sphere of everyday discourse (let alone literary texts), who returned me to a specifically Jewish American consciousness, a consciousness, that is, of the inseparability of my American and Jewish identities, as if America were, indeed, the only promised land there ever was, or was ever meant to be. (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, pp. 221–22)

In later years, having moved to Israel and thus gained distance from America, Budick explains that she would gradually begin to understand Bercovitch’s skepticism about the seductive machinations of American ideology. Skepticism, “mistrust of national authorities,” and distrust of established social structures and traditional values certainly characterizes the generation of literary scholars who were born in the postwar era and entered early adulthood during the 1960s. When that generation ascended to professorships and other leadership roles in American colleges and universities, it brought about changes undreamed of by the previous generation. Not only did advocacy for the integration of minority scholars into literary academia become mandatory, but the concept of “minority” itself was expanded to include not only categories such as race, ethnicity, or gender, but also sexual orientation (gay/lesbian, bisexual, and, most recently, transgendered), whereas, tellingly, the category of class was dropped.

The extraordinary diversification of the literary faculty was matched, if not topped, by the astounding diversification of the literary canon during the 1980s and 1990s. Any author and any text (including advertisements and television soap operas) could become the subject of instruction and scholarship, and methods of interpretation ranged from feminism and psychoanalysis to deconstruction and new historicism. It is, perhaps, not surprising that Jewish scholars, both men and women born during the late 1930s and 1940s, were among the most ardent advocates of diversification. According to a survey conducted by Susan Gubar, many of them considered themselves as being “by definition and by blood, on the side of the oppressed,” defined Judaism as a “passionate moral outrage at injustice,” and thought of being Jewish as being “positioned by ... heritage already on the left” (Rubin-Dorsky and Fishkin, p. 27).

For the subsequent generation, born in the 1950s and trained as scholars during the late 1970s and 1980s, the opening of academia to all and everything meant great opportunities—the pursuit of whatever one fancied—but also posed great challenges, namely, how to distinguish the fad from the worthwhile, the con artist from the real thing. Today, Jewish women can be found in all niches of traditional literary academia, that is, in departments of English, American studies, and foreign languages. But they have also begun to infiltrate a domain that is as new to secular academia as women scholars themselves are—Jewish studies.

Secularism, feminism, and attrition through assimilation have worked together to open Jewish academia to women. While in the religious institutions of reform and conservative Judaism women are becoming cantors and rabbis, in secular academia, women have advanced from reading Jewish American fiction to “engendering Holocaust memoirs” to producing vibrant, often feminist, psychoanalytic, or poststructuralist scholarship, not only on modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature (e.g., Naomi Sokoloff, Janet Hadda, and Naomi Seidman), but also on rabbinic texts as well (e.g., Talya Fishman and Dvora Weisberg). Rabbi Meir’s brilliant wife Beruryah, as the writer Cynthia Ozick once put it, “was known to speak satirically of those rabbinic passages which made light of the intellect of women” (Ozick, p. 22). Two millennia later, her daughters are proving that she was right.

Bibliography

Klingenstein, Susanne. “‘But My Daughters Can Read the Torah’: Careers of Jewish Women in Literary Academe.” AJH 83 (June 1995): 247–286, and Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930–1990 (forthcoming), and Jews in the American Academy, 1900–1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (1991); Ozick, Cynthia. “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question (A Vindication of the Rights of Jewish Women).” Lilith 6 (1979): 22; Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey, and Shelley Fishkin, eds. People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity (1996).

How to cite this page

Klingenstein, Suzanne. "Literature Scholars in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/literature-scholars-in-united-states>.

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