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Esther Ruskay speaks at founding of NY section of National Council of Jewish Women

May 9, 1894

When New York City's section of the National Council of Jewish Women met for the first time, on May 9, 1894, the evening's speaker was Esther Ruskay. Born in 1857, Ruskay had been a member of the first graduating class of Normal College (now Hunter College) in 1875. She became known as a leading advocate for Jewish traditionalism, but was widely respected throughout the Jewish community, even becoming the first woman to speak from the pulpit of Temple Emanu-El, New York's flagship Reform synagogue.

In her 1894 speech, Ruskay castigated those who saw Judaism as out of step with modernity and particularly those who looked to deracinated movements like the Ethical Culture Society for spiritual and ethical guidance. At a time when many Jews were criticizing Judaism as increasingly irrelevant and seeking to Americanize Jewish practice, Ruskay held firmly to tradition. In the same speech, she urged that Hebrew be taught regularly to Jewish children "in the same spirit of educational fervor" as was given to training in Latin and Greek.

Ruskay pushed the early National Council of Jewish Women (founded in 1893) to focus its efforts on strengthening Judaism. She successfully urged the Council to commit to protecting the Jewish Sabbath and respectfully but firmly challenged the NCJW leaders from Chicago who believed that Judaism could be sustained with a Sabbath observed on Sunday. A frequent contributor to the English-language American Jewish press and the New York Sun, Esther Ruskay believed that adherence to traditional Jewish observance could vitally enrich life lived amid modern societal demands. A collection of her writing was published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1902 under the title Hearth and Home Essays.

Ruskay was instrumental in the founding of the New York Educational Alliance, the Young Women's Hebrew Association, and the Vacation Home for Girls. She died at age 53 in 1910.

To learn more about Esther Ruskay, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: This Week in History for November 15, 1896 and Feburary 6, 1902; Modern Jewish Family in the United States; Through the Year: Celebrated Esthers; National Council of Jewish Women;

Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 968-979, 1193-1194; Esther Ruskay, Hearth and Home Essays (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1902); personal correspondence from John Ruskay to JWA, September 2004.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Esther Ruskay speaks at founding of NY section of National Council of Jewish Women." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/may/09/1894/esther-ruskay>.