Paean to a Troublemaker: Barbara Dobkin

by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

In March 2005, JWA held its first New York gala—So Laugh a Little: An Evening of Jewish Women's Comedy Honoring Barbara Dobkin. The Spring 2005 issue of Re://collections continued the celebration of our inimitable Founding Chair, and her visionary leadership and remarkable support of JWA. We are grateful to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, renowned feminist author—and dedicated fan of Barbara—for the special profile that follows.

In Frank Capra's classic film, It's a Wonderful Life, we meet the Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, as the small loan company he inherited from his father has gone bust. Convinced he's a complete failure, George is about to commit suicide when his guardian angel intervenes and through flashbacks shows the modest, unassuming George what a profound impact he has had on the people of his town and how sad and dismal the place would be had he never lived. The movie, replayed on TV every Christmas, is about the power of a single person to transform the destiny of others. Which reminds me of the wonderful life of Barbara Dobkin.

Thankfully, Barbara is not remotely suicidal but she is unassuming and almost maddeningly modest about her achievements. (She once yelled at me for calling her an "honoree" at a luncheon for US/Israel Women to Women after she'd taken great pains to describe herself as a "facilitator" or some such.)

Nevertheless, without benefit of celluloid flashbacks or angelic intercession, I want to consider the projects that might never have come to fruition, the work that might never have been accomplished, the people who would never have been energized, inspired, or supported, had Barbara Dobkin never been born.

Thank heavens she was born, on December 17, 1943, to a Modern Orthodox mother and an agnostic father, in Baltimore, Maryland, where the family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue with separate seating for women but no mechitzah. When I ask about her childhood, out pours a breathless gush, part Jewish memoir, part adolescent angst. "Everything I couldn't do was connected to growing up female and Jewish in Baltimore," she says. Her grandfather owned a wholesale groceries business that failed. Her father worked for the city. Her mother was a social worker. Barbara Berman attended Hebrew school, graduated from Forest Park High, where she was president of her class, played cello in the all-state orchestra, fought a weight problem all her life (she calls herself a "chunkette"), wore falsies, and never knew anyone who wasn't Jewish.

She was also, it seems, a feminist from birth, keenly aware of what was being denied her simply because she was a girl. Her brother got a bar mitzvah, she didn't get a bat. She had to report her whereabouts while he could roam freely and do things she couldn't, like drive on the highway. "I had to be the good one," she says.

And she was, in the sense that she met a nice Jewish boy at Marietta College (Ohio), where there were precious few to choose from, and married him right after graduation. Their meeting was not exactly a feminist's dream. When Barbara showed up as an incoming freshman, two sophomore machers flipped a coin for who could date her. Eric Dobkin, who was treasurer of the Jewish Student Union, won the toss.

Thus began a relationship of more than 40 years that has survived upheavals in gender politics and world politics. Married in 1965, Barbara and Eric had two daughters: Rachel, born in 1968, and Jessica, 20 months later.

Motherhood, satisfying and engaging as it was, did not stop Barbara from becoming involved in the issues she believed in. Eric was hired by Goldman Sachs and has never worked for anyone else, but Barbara, in keeping with the female convention of the time, followed him to wherever his job sent him and, in Mary Catherine Bateson's lovely phrase, "composed a life" along the way.

(Pause mid-flashback to thank Goldman Sachs for its generous remuneration and for transferring Eric to places where Barbara's talents could find meaningful expression. Freeze frame—with halo—on Eric for supporting her in her determination to spend a good part of his earnings on social justice and systemic change.)

When they lived in Philadelphia, she became active in the National Organization for Women. In Highland Park, Illinois, she worked with the League of Women Voters on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, most memorably on a campaign called "Pounds Away for the ERA" in which women raised money by losing weight. Once, she cancelled a family vacation to Disney World because Florida failed to ratify the ERA. When Eric was transferred to New York, the family moved to Scarsdale where Barbara became president of the high school PTA, ran the capital campaign to build the New York State League of Women Voters headquarters, and provided start-up funding for Center Lane, Westchester's only center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and gender-questioning adolescents.

She got turned on to Jewish issues when UJA asked her to host a fundraising dinner at her house. "I didn't realize I also had to pay for the dinner and give a contribution," she says, describing her metaphorical mikvah, the beginning of her immersion in the Jewish world. When the family moved to Manhattan, she became even more plugged in.

In 1982, Goldman Sachs made Eric a partner, and the Dobkins started a foundation. Only Barbara's words can do credit to what happened next: "Everything he put in, I put out. His work was his life so he left it to me to decide where to give and how much."

So Barbara has a lead role in deciding how the Dobkin Family Foundation apportions the funds it grants each year. She functions not just as a donor but an activist and advocate. She teaches women about money and power. She believes charitable giving is an opportunity for change-making and her philanthropic decisions have literally transformed the landscape of feminist philanthropy, and put Jewish feminism on the map in concrete and dramatic ways. So listen up, Frank Capra: Had there never been a Barbara Dobkin, these extraordinary projects, if they existed at all, would not be where they are today:

  • The Jewish Women's Archive, conceived and nurtured by Gail Reimer whose dream of retrieving, preserving, and honoring Jewish women's history was nudged toward reality by Barbara's enthusiasm, got a $25,000 seed grant from Barbara more than ten years ago and this year received a $5 million lead gift towards JWA's Fund for the Future campaign.
  • Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project of the JCC in Manhattan, which acts as a catalyst for change in the Jewish community in order to create an environment that is inclusive of women and responsive to their needs and experiences, was started with a million dollar seed grant and is fully funded by the Dobkin Family Foundation.
  • Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a research and policy-making initiative that aims to bridge the gender gap in Jewish communal leadership was launched by Shifra Bronznick with a million dollar grant and the Dobkin Family Foundation continues its support.
  • The White House Project, which aspires to put women in the power pipeline and prepare the country for women in top electoral office including the Oval Office, got a start-up gift of a million dollars. Barbara, a member of its board, continues to give the Project support annually.
  • One can see Barbara's philosophical priorities in action in those projects and all the others that receive Foundation grants. Each in its own way is striving for tikkun olam (the repair of the world), and several, not incidentally, have the word "Women," "Jewish," or "Justice" in their names. Any person or family seeking cues to enlightened philanthropy need only look to Barbara's giving choices.

It's difficult to quantify the combined constituencies and individual beneficiaries of all her life-enhancing, visionary philanthropy. But it's not hard to see the values and the world view at the root of her giving. I'd wager that no other Jewish woman with Barbara's resources has deployed them more mindfully, effectively, or with a greater consciousness of their impact on the future.

What's more, she does feminist work in a feminist fashion, in collaboration with two of her most devoted friends. Nancy Schwartz Sternoff, her grants advisor, doesn't just watch the money, she serves as Barbara's eyes and ears in the philanthropic community, brokers, leverages, and makes matches between grantors and grantees—and never turns down a meeting. Carole Kessler, her personal assistant and general factotum, is the perfect gatekeeper, a fierce guardian of Barbara's privacy, and a world class organizer of chaos. (As everyone eventually discovers, Barbara never returns phone calls, but Carole always does.) Until 2002, the women worked out of Barbara's apartment. Now they operate from classy digs on Fifth Avenue surrounded by the breathtaking art, crafts, first editions, ephemera, memorabilia, and artifacts, by and about women, which Barbara and Eric have been collecting with great care and diligence.

I've often noted how closely the work of the Jewish Women's Archive dovetails with the focus of Barbara's collection. She appreciates JWA for collecting women's history, for its Women of Valor posters and the resources it provides for Women's History Month, for the oral history project which harvests the personal stories of ordinary women, and for the bi-annual journal, Re://collections, in which this profile first appeared.

"If people really knew what Jewish women have done throughout history it would be hard for anyone to tell a JAP joke," says Barbara, referring to the legacy of the women represented in the astonishing holdings in her collection. I'm thinking of an Emma Lazarus first edition, a Susan B. Anthony letter, a Woman Suffrage Party flag, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Woman's Bible, several items relating to Eleanor Roosevelt, a Votes for Women doll, suffrage playing cards, and letters from the anarchist, Emma Goldman.

"I love Jewish women radicals," Barbara tells me, though the first item she ever bought—and still one of her most treasured possessions—is The Jewish Cookery Book, published in 1871. (If you ever need a recipe for "Nice Butter Soup," or find yourself stumped on "How to Boil a Turkey," ask Barbara.)

"Women's history has rounded out everything for me," she says. Most of her Jewish women's collection will eventually go to JWA to round out everyone else's understanding, too. Barbara Dobkin has been called many things—smart, tough, indefatigable, funny, brusque, brave, outspoken, and audacious. Which brings to mind this axiom: "Most societies make the mistake of honoring their live conformists and their dead troublemakers."

Wisely, the Archive honored this troublemaker at their March 14th, 2005 benefit while she's still very much alive and the surprise is, she let them. On second thought, her approval could have been predicted. This is a woman who, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, "would pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, and oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of the Jewish Woman's Archive." She would even violate her own humility.

I've violated it again by celebrating her "wonderful life" in this profile.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a writer, lecturer and activist, is a founding editor of Ms. Magazine and the author of nine books, including Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America. Her most recent titles are Three Daughters, a novel, and Getting Over Getting Older, a memoir. Pogrebin serves on the boards of the Women's Studies Program at Brandeis University, the Women in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School, The Author's Guild of America, and the Free to Be Foundation.

A Letter from Gail Reimer

from Gail T. Reimer, Executive Director, JWA

JWA—and my relationship with Barbara Dobkin—got off to a serendipitous start. I was the "local panelist," recruited at the eleventh hour, to participate in a conference being held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was 1995; the panel topic, "Jewish Women Transforming Community."

While I might have been the "local," my vision for transforming community was not at all local and it immediately captured the heart and mind of the intrepid chair of the panel—yes, Barbara Dobkin. Barbara and I quickly discovered that we shared a vision of a Jewish community in which women would be included in our people's history. What we talked about for the next nine months was how to create an institution that would recover and protect the record of Jewish women's lives from loss and invisibility.

Nine months is a typically healthy gestation period but without Barbara's involvement, encouragement and generosity, the Jewish Women's Archive might not have been born for years. Initially, the grand idea occupied a small reality—a computer and telephone in my house. But within one year, an impressive group of talented women had joined us, we had hired our first staff person, moved into a real office and held a three-day strategy session to set an ambitious course for the future.

By year two, top scholars in Jewish history and women's history had joined our academic advisory board. Several of the larger Jewish foundations began supporting our work with significant grants. M.I.T. joined with us in the development of an innovative virtual archive.

With Ma'yan, we produced the first poster in a beautiful series about notable Jewish women and distributed the posters—for free—to thousands of schools, synagogues, libraries and community centers across the country. And hundreds of Jewish communities and institutions took up our call to acknowledge Women's History Month and use it to celebrate the rich legacy of Jewish women.

Over the past nine years, our commitment to scholarship has led us to sponsor research to uncover the remarkable achievements of hundreds of women. Our passion for teaching has led us to design new educational materials and to train hundreds of teachers. Our dedication to creating access to the stories of Jewish women has led to innovative exhibitions, publications and the JWA website that engage many thousands of individuals daily.

Today, almost exactly ten years since Barbara and I met, our shared passion for uncovering women's history and chronicling their stories has not abated. The early success of the Jewish Women's Archive has only strengthened Barbara's conviction that our work does—and must—transform our community. She and Eric have made a remarkable lead gift to the JWA Fund for the Future campaign that challenges all of us to do more. Thanks to them, the rest is not history. It’s the future—a future in which I hope you will take part.

From Nicki Newman Tanner

from Nicki Newman Tanner, Chair, JWA Board of Directors

These remarks were made at So Laugh a Little: An Evening of Jewish Women's Comedy Honoring Barbara Dobkin on March 14, 2005.

What I love about Barbara Dobkin is what I love about the Jewish Women's Archive—each confounds expectations; each is quietly subversive; and each is creating history.

Once upon a time, few questioned the way histories were written.

Today, thanks to Barbara and Gail Reimer and a strong and resourceful (in more ways than one!) Jewish Women's Archive, it would be difficult to write a womanless history. Over the past decade—whether on our website, or through public programs, art and oral history exhibits, new curricula or classroom posters—we have made stories and information about Jewish women artists, scientists, political activists, athletes and educators accessible to all.

Tonight we honor the inimitable Barbara for bringing the Archive into the world. After tonight, to continue and strengthen what has so brilliantly begun, we can honor her by responding to the JWA Fund for the Future Campaign—a campaign that Barbara and Eric have supported with an inspirational lead gift. What better way to acknowledge Barbara's vision, passion, energy and generosity than by adding our support to hers, and together ensuring that the history of Jewish women will live and will grow?

About Barbara Dobkin

So Laugh a Little: An Evening of Jewish Women's Comedy Honoring Barbara Dobkin took place on March 14, 2005.

Barbara Dobkin's illustrious, inimitable and irreverent career as leader, donor and activist is legendary. Her role as Founding Chair of the Jewish Women's Archive says it all—she has been the pioneer in work that advances women and girls and levels the playing field, in both the Jewish and the general communities. A visible and committed advocate for change, Barbara is the Founder of Ma'yan, the Jewish Women's Project, a program of the JCC of Manhattan. She serves on the boards of the White House Project, Lilith Magazine, the Women Donors Network, The Women's Funding Network and Kolot: The Center for Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Barbara also chairs the board of the philanthropic foundation established by Hadassah. In addition, she is a significant supporter of and advisor to a variety of non-profit organizations, both Jewish and secular, in the U.S. and in Israel.

In 1998, Barbara received the Woman of Vision award from the New York Women's Foundation. In 1999, a Jewish Book Council prize for Women's Studies was established and endowed in perpetuity by her friends in her name. Barbara was also honored by the Jewish Funders Network for her innovative philanthropic work.

Barbara is widely known for her singular passion, intelligence, and cheeky sense of humor—attributes that propelled us to honor her with a night of comedy.

Barbara and her husband, Eric Dobkin, live in New York City with their beloved dogs, Maisie and Lulu. They are the parents of two daughters, Jessica and Rachel.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Paean to a Troublemaker: Barbara Dobkin." (Viewed on May 28, 2024) <>.