Racie Friedenwald Adler helped shape a number of Jewish institutions, most significantly the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Adler married scholar and community leader Cyrus Adler in 1905 and became an invaluable support for his work, editing his manuscripts. During World War I she used her society connections to raise millions of dollars as division chief of Liberty Loans and headed a Red Cross unit. Adler was a founding member of the Women’s League and served as its vice president for twenty years, repeatedly refusing the role of president. She helped establish Jewish student houses on campuses, the forerunners of modern Hillel houses. After resigning from her post due to ill health in 1938, Adler was named honorary vice president and remained involved until her death.
Early Life and Marriage
Racie (Friedenwald) Adler was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 5, 1872, one of at least three daughters of Moses and Jane (Alborn) Friedenwald. She was of a distinguished and well-off German Jewish family whose members played important roles in the formation and direction of many major American Jewish institutions. Her grandfather Jonas, a successful businessman who had emigrated from Germany, was very active as a Jewish communal leader, as were his sons, who included the prominent ophthalmologist Aaron Friedenwald.
The details of Racie’s life before her marriage at the age of thirty-three are unclear, beyond the fact that she was educated at Goucher College in Baltimore. She married a man of similar socioeconomic background, who was equally devoted to Jewish communal involvement. Indeed, shaped by her family’s position in society and the nature of its public commitments, Adler was ideally suited to be the wife of Cyrus Adler, the Assyriology scholar and major Jewish communal figure she married in September 1905. Characteristically for a woman of her time and social position, she played a strong, supportive role for her husband and his career, often assisting him in his work and proofreading his manuscripts. She accompanied him on many of his travels abroad, to Egypt, Palestine, and throughout Europe. Among their friends and acquaintances, the Adlers counted many high-level members of government administration, including the Roosevelts, diplomats such as Oscar Straus, and illustrious Jewish families such as the Warburgs.
Their only child, Sarah, was born in 1906. Her life seems to have been modeled on her mother’s. When she grew old enough, she, too, helped her father in his scholarly work, and in January 1932, she married Wolfe Wolfinsohn, also from an “aristocratic” German Jewish family.
During World War I, Adler served as division chief for the Liberty Loan, using her social position to secure millions of dollars worth of subscriptions. She also headed a Red Cross unit operating out of Dropsie College in Philadelphia. For many years after the war, she remained a supervisor of the North Philadelphia branch of the American Red Cross.
With war concerns over, Adler devoted much of her energy to specifically Jewish causes. She served for many years as the president of the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia and on the local Jewish Welfare Board. Perhaps her most significant contribution was as one of the founding leaders of the Women’s League of the Conservative Movement [Women’s League for Conservative Judaism], which was established in 1918 by Mathilde Schechter, wife of the scholar Solomon Schechter. Adler served as vice president of the organization from 1918 to 1938, but she consistently declined to take the more visible position of president. Certain undertakings of the organization were particularly important to her, especially the building of Jewish student houses at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, both in Philadelphia, and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She not only strongly supported these projects, but she used her connections to obtain funding for them.
Due to poor health, Racie Adler was forced to retire prematurely from her active involvement in the Women’s League, but she remained an honorary vice president from 1938 until her death in Philadelphia on March 20, 1952. She was remembered as a gracious society woman and a warm hostess who was devoted to the Jewish Theological Seminary and its students. Her efforts on their behalf, through the Women’s League, facilitated the functioning and development of that central American Jewish institution.
Adler, Cyrus. I Have Considered the Days. New York: Burning Bush Press, 1941.
Finkelstein, Louis. They Dared to Dream: A History of the National Women’s League, 1918–1968. New York: National Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America, 1967.
“Mrs. Cyrus Adler 70, Led Women’s League” The New York Times, March 21, 1952.
Women’s League Outlook Magazine 22, no. 4 (May 1952): 8–9.