Yiddishe Froyen Asosiatsiye-YFA (Jewish Women's Association)
A women-led, explicitly feminist organization, the YFA, the Yiddishe Froyen Asosiatsiye (Jewish Women’s Association), was founded in Poland after World War I. Based in Warsaw, its initiators were Rokhl Stein, who became its chairperson, Leah Proshansky, and Puah Rakovsky, who had called for the establishment of such an organization in her 1918 pamphlet, Di yidishe froy. In contrast to the Bundist YAF (Yidisher Arbeter Froy), which came into being in 1925, the YFA was middle-class in its membership, independent of all political parties though not apolitical, and Zionist in its orientation. It joined WIZO, the Women’s Organization of the Zionist movement, immediately after the latter’s founding in 1920 and served as its Polish section. YFA’s goals included organizing women to secure economic and political rights as well as equal opportunities for education, and providing assistance to the vast number of needy among Polish Jewry.
Few organizational records have survived the destruction of the Holocaust. However, the YFA published two newspapers: a weekly, Di froy, and a monthly, Froyen-shtim (Women’s Voice). Four issues of the former and two of the latter survive, respectively from April–May 1925 and May and August of the same year.
These publications proclaimed the organization’s ideology: the self-empowerment of women and the recognition that Jewish women faced particularly difficult obstacles. Di froy explicitly stated that Jewish women, who were establishing their own organizations, needed their own paper. Froyen-shtim suggested why, stating that “the doors of the Yiddish press are for us women closed with seven locks....” Di froy pointed out that Jewish women confronted interwoven gender and national concerns. “The Jewish woman,” it announced, “must conduct a double struggle as a woman from an oppressed and persecuted people.” In a more radical tone Froyen-shtim asserted, “In the creation of new ways of life the woman must everywhere take the same part as man.” Both papers noted that general communal and political institutions regularly subordinated women’s issues to their other goals, which they considered more important.
The two newspapers combined general cultural and political themes with specifically Jewish issues. Framing its message to appeal to a broad audience, the YFA defined the modern Jewish woman as one who would be familiar with the cultural and political issues of the day but still immersed in the traditional values of “the sweet, beloved Jewish home.” Consequently, its publications surveyed the political and economic demands of women and their role in literature, art, music, sport, and fashion. Affirming the importance of the family, they wrote about matters of childrearing and hygiene. They also addressed the question of the AGUNAH, the chained wife unable to marry because she could not acquire a valid Jewish divorce or whose husband had disappeared, and the issue of the struggle for female suffrage in Palestine.
The full extent of the YFA’s activity is unknown. A surviving mimeographed circular letter of the organization, dated December 1928 and signed by its secretary, Puah Rakovsky, who had served in the position from 1921, depicts the social action projects that it sponsored. During the summer it ran camps for children and youth; throughout the year it administered a home for more than fifty poor children and provided vocational courses to enable young girls to become economically self-sufficient. It also pursued international contacts in dealing with abandoned wives. As an organization that saw education as central to the empowerment of women, the YFA also provided instruction in Jewish history and literature, Polish literature, and sociology, and ran well-attended literacy courses for illiterate women “of the lower classes” as well as public lectures on politics and current events. It also sponsored Palestine-centered work; vocational courses, for example, prepared women for aliyah to Palestine. The YFA also succeeded in securing a seat on the committee within the Palestine Commission of Polish Zionism that determined eligibility for immigration to Palestine. The circular letter called on YFA’s members to become more involved in the organization’s activity.
It is not clear how long the YFA survived. By 1929–1930 it had grown considerably in membership, with branches throughout Congress Poland and also in eastern Poland. Aside from the YAF, the Bund’s partisan organization, the YFA, was the only large Jewish women’s organization in Poland. In her memoirs Puah Rakovsky explicitly mentions working for the organization in 1932. Its existence, not mentioned by any historians until the mid-1990s, demonstrates the impact of feminism on a segment of Jewish women in Poland in the interwar years.
YIVO Archive, Poland-Vilna Archive, Warsaw; Di froy; Froyen-shtim; Rakovsky, Puah. My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman: Memoirs of a Zionist Feminist in Poland. Bloomington, Indiana: 2002; Hyman, Paula E., Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women. Seattle: 1995.