Clara Goldberg Schiffer was born in Brockton, MA, into a family of poor immigrant eastern European Jews. She attended public schools in Brockton and Roxbury. Her intellectual interest started young.
She was smart. There is an extended family dispute about whether she got her brains from her mother Rebecca or her father Nathan — it was clearly both — and she worked hard. She got into Radcliffe, a great achievement for a poor Jewish girl.
She graduated in history, government, and economics with a cum laude degree. She remained committed to Radcliffe and the intellectual opportunity it gave her ever after. She turned that intellect to a lifelong interest in information and a commitment to social justice.
A few years after college she took the new Civil Service exam and came to Washington in the New Deal. Starting at Farm Security, she quickly moved to Social Security, and work on policies and programs related to workers, women, and eventually children and health. She earned a Masters in economics from George Washington University in 1939 with a thesis on domestic workers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, she was involved in one of the government workers’ unions. In 1940 she married our father Benjamin Schiffer, also a New Deal employee of the Federal Power Commission.
From the time we were young, we knew that our mother worked to make a difference. She thought she’d stay home when I was born, but returned to work shortly thereafter, and stayed at paid work through [my sister] Nancy’s birth. Her work at a place called the Children’s Bureau was a mystery to me at age six, but I knew it was important. Later, after Susan and then Alan were born, she became a “professional volunteer” for the League of Women Voters, the Mental Health Association, and other social action groups.
Though she lived in a city where voting first for president and then for other office was precluded, for many years she voted absentee at her mother’s house in Dorchester Mass. so she could participate in the political process. A vivid memory is the first presidential election I had any knowledge of where in third grade I was one of the only people in my class “for Adlai,” and I simply couldn’t understand how a candidate my family backed could lose.
She grew up poor, with a strong intellect and interest in school and learning. She grew up Jewish — indeed she read Hebrew — really better than we did — and was always proud of it — and she thought an effective government could make life better for people. She faced discrimination overtly as a Jew and less overtly as a working woman. Although she didn’t speak of it this way, those experiences sensitize people to what fair treatment is. We knew that to be fair was important, to work for improving the world an essential task.
Her commitment to social justice continued, in large ways and small, throughout her life.Clara funded people to come to the United States to visit in ways that she hoped would broaden their horizons and roles in their home countries. She paid attention to Israel and wanted peace there. In retirement she worked to achieve better treatment for women in prison and for aging women in particular.
She also took up exercise and, with her great trainer, pumped iron at home… She was immensely proud of her children and grandchildren, and encouraged any interest we had in social justice. She herself was still going to meetings and supporting causes until shortly before she died in April 2009.
A Jewish teaching sums it up well – you are not required to complete the task, but you are not free to withdraw from it. Our mother knew she had to take care of herself in order to be able to carry out her social justice commitment of improving the world for herself, her family, and others. Her death means she will not finish this task, but she certainly embraced it fully.
Adapted from eulogy given at Clara Schiffer’s funeral on April 6, 2011.