Here are links to pages on jwa.org that have more information on the stops of the "Who Knew?" tour. Below these links is the text that appears in the printed program.
- Migration Westward – Western Pioneers
- The Great Migration – Rose Brenner
- The Great Migration – Lillian Wald
- The Great Migration – Lily Winner
- Religious Innovation – Ray Frank
- Jewish Women and Religious Innovation
- Religious Innovation – Sally Priesand
- Religious Innovation – Sally Gottesman
- The Struggle for Civil Rights – Wednesdays in MIssissippi
In 2004, artist Andrea Kalinowski combined personal writings, newspaper articles, and photographs to create a series of quilts for her Sante Fe exhibition Stories Untold: Jewish Pioneer Women, 1850-1910. The exhibit features the stories of nine Jewish women pioneers. One of them belongs to Fanny Bruck Brooks, a well-educated German woman who immigrated to New York with her new husband Julius in 1853 at the age of 16. A year later, the young couple left New York for Illinois to join a group heading further west. They arrived safely in California and settled in Marysville, where Julius opened a general store. Fanny gave birth to six children, two of whom died in infancy.
The Great Migration
Brooklyn-born, college-educated Rose Brenner was elected president of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1920. Established by Hannah Greenebaum Solomon in 1893 to do nothing less than “shape the destinies” of Americans, by the 1920s the NCJW was focusing its efforts on aid to immigrants. A life-long resident of New York City, Brenner had a special interest in the Jewish immigrants who settled in rural areas. Under her leadership, NCJW created a Department of Farm and Rural Work, which served Jewish families on nearly 3,000 farms in eight states. Numerous articles in JWA’s online Encyclopedia expand the story of NCJW and the women who were active in it.
One of the 16 women featured in JWA’s “Woman of Valor” exhibit, Lillian Wald had graduated from nursing school and was studying at the Women's Medical College in New York City when she was asked to teach home nursing and hygiene to immigrant women on the Lower East Side. There she saw how desperately New York’s largely Jewish immigrant population needed health care. Wald pioneered public health nursing — and coined the name of the profession to which she would devote her life. With financial support from many of the city’s prominent German Jewish families, Wald founded the renowned Henry Street Settlement House in 1893 and took up residence there. In 1905 alone, Henry Street nurses cared for 4,500 patients, the great majority of them impoverished immigrants. The Henry Street Settlement continues to offer social services, arts, and health care programs to this day.
Lily Winner was a 24-year-old stenographer in 1915 when she co-wrote a play, “Crutch,” which attracted interest from the Shubert Brothers, the nation’s most important and powerful theatre owners and managers. Within a few years, she was writing for liberal magazines, including The Nation. According to JWA’s “This Week in History” feature, the May 18, 1921, issue included her essay “American Emigrés,” which asked, “Why has America the ‘melting-pot’ failed to Americanize?” She argued that American businesses were eager for the cheap labor of immigrants, but that American society rarely offered a warm welcome to these workers. She condemned the mistreatment of immigrants in terms that make her one of the most progressive voices of her time.
Another of JWA’s “Women of Valor,” Ray Frank was the first Jewish woman to preach formally from a pulpit in the United States. During the High Holidays in 1890, she found herself in Spokane, which despite the presence of many affluent Jews, had no synagogue. She agreed to preach at the Opera House, delivering an impassioned sermon about the need for unity among Jews. Virtually overnight, Frank became a sensation in the Jewish world, and she would remain so until she withdrew from public activities after her marriage in 1901. Throughout the 1890s, she traveled up and down the West Coast, giving lectures and sermons, “officiating” at services, and on at least one occasion reading scripture. This “Girl Rabbi of the Golden West" blazed new paths for women in Judaism.
Today, when children in more liberal denominations may see women rabbis and cantors as the norm, when Orthodox communities are still wrestling with how or if women can be religious leaders, and when we hear concerns about the “feminization” of Jewish life, it’s important to remember the courage and conviction of American Jewish women whose actions transformed American Judaism over a few short decades. In our feature on “Jewish Women and Religious Innovation” you can hear an excerpt of an interview with one of these women—Hadassah Blocker. As a girl, she was not allowed to participate publicly in Jewish life. When her father, an Orthodox rabbi and Hebrew school teacher and principal, saw her interest in the bible, he encouraged her to learn how to chant Torah. In 1955 Blocker became the first woman to chant the Haftarah at her Conservative synagogue. Soon she was teaching other women how to do it. After many years of preparing adult women for bat mitzvah, she eventually had a bat mitzvah ceremony of her own.
JWA’s online exhibit, “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” includes the stories of 74 women who broke new ground in religious and secular realms. One of the best known is Sally Priesand. By the age of 16, she knew that she wanted to be a rabbi. With the support of her parents, she applied to Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish seminary in Cincinnati. Initially unsure what to do with her application, the seminary accepted her as a “special student” in the undergraduate program. Four years later, she won acceptance to the rabbinical academy. When she was ordained on June 3, 1972, she became America’s first female rabbi. Two years later, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was the first woman to be ordained in the Reconstructionist Movement. Amy Eilberg broke another barrier in 1985 when she became the first Conservative woman rabbi. Only in 2009, did Sara Hurwitz become the first Orthodox rabba.
The first bat mitzvah ceremony in America occurred in 1922 when the eldest of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s four daughters, 12-year-old Judith, read a passage from the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew and English and recited the traditional blessings that precede and follow the Torah reading. It would be many years before Judith Kaplan’s experience became commonplace. The struggle to define what that ritual would look like took place primarily in the Conservative Movement. By 1948, about one-third of Conservative congregations held some form of bat mitzvah ceremony. In 1955, the Conservative rabbis extended aliyot (the honor of being called to the Torah) to women. It took another 25 years for women to gain equality—including Saturday morning bat mitzvahs—in most Conservative synagogues.
One of JWA’s “Go & Learn” lessons includes letters from Sally Gottesman and her mother to the ritual committee of their temple requesting that Sally’s 1975 bat mitzvah be on a Saturday morning. Their groundbreaking request was granted.
The Struggle for Civil Rights
While many American Jews were sympathetic to the aims of the Civil Rights Movement, only a small minority took an active part in it. Several hundred—mostly young men and women, many of them Jewish—participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides or the campaign to register black voters during Freedom Summer in 1964. One of the most unusual efforts involved a small group of upper- and middle-class women who took part in “Wednesdays in Mississippi” (or WIMS), a project founded by an African American woman, Dorothy Height, and a white Jewish woman, Polly Cowan. In the summers of 1964 and 1965, teams of black and white women from the North flew to Mississippi on Tuesdays, worked for civil rights and African American education with teams of black and white southern women on Wednesdays, and returned home on Thursdays. Approximately 25% of the white women who participated in WIMS were Jewish.
JWA’s new social justice curriculum, Living the Legacy, focuses on the role of Jews in the Civil Rights and Labor Movements. Our example takes you to a lesson devoted to the little known story of “Wednesdays in Mississippi” and includes clips from a documentary film being made about the the project.