Jeanette Goodman Brill was Brooklyn’s first woman magistrate and the second woman magistrate appointed in New York City. She was born on Essex Street on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1889 to Sam and Sarah Goodman. She was the only daughter and had many brothers.
As teacher, lawyer, judge, writer, community activist, camp director, mother and wife, woman, and Jew, her accomplishments were many. The central theme that ran through all of her activities was social justice and welfare, primarily focusing on children, adolescents, and women. Her interests and accomplishments were shaped by her heritage as a child of Eastern European Polish immigrant parents and the Progressive movement with its focus on maternalism.
Jeanette grew up on the Lower East Side, where she attended a commercial school, then taught at the Manhattan Preparatory School on East Broadway during the day and attended classes at night to obtain her Regent’s diploma. Afterward, she attended classes at Brooklyn Law School while she continued teaching. She graduated in 1908 and was admitted to the bar two years later, when she became twenty-one years old. Her granddaughter stated that her determination to become a lawyer and render justice came from her firsthand knowledge of poor people in her neighborhood. She was married to attorney Abraham Brill in 1911. They practiced law together until his death in 1950 in their firm, Brill Bergenfield and Brill, at 50 Broadway. They had two children, Helen Claire Brill Gordimer and Herbert Baer Brill, both of whom became lawyers.
In 1923, Brill was the first woman appointed to serve as a deputy assistant on the state attorney general’s staff, where she handled labor and compensation matters. She was appointed to the Magistrate’s Court in Brooklyn in 1929 by Mayor James J. Walker to fill an unexpired term and was reappointed to a full ten-year term in 1931. In a 1933 address to a reunion of the Hunter College class of 1904, she said that more women were needed on the bench as they were particularly able to deal with cases involving women, children, and family affairs; however, at the completion of her term, she was not reappointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. During her time on the bench, she was a strong supporter of the Adolescent Court in Brooklyn, established as a social experiment in 1935 for youths aged sixteen to eighteen. She was the coauthor with E. George Payne of The Adolescent Court and Crime Prevention (1938), a book about her experience with the Adolescent Court. While on the bench, Brill attended New York University School of Education at night and received a B.S. in psychology and sociology in 1938. After her retirement, she continued to practice law.
Brill was very active in Democratic politics, serving as president of the Madison Democratic Club in Brooklyn and as campaign manager for congresswoman Edna Kelly. Eleanor Roosevelt and Al Smith were her friends.
Her community activities related to Judaism, women and children, and social welfare. She was president of the Brooklyn Child Guidance Clinic and the Community Service League. During the Depression, the league canvassed local residents and employers to procure positions for women and men with families to support, and it opened a child guidance clinic in 1929, one of the first community clinics in the country. She was a member of the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations, the National Council Of Jewish Women, and the Brooklyn Business and Professional Women’s Club, and was vice president of the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities.
In the 1930s, she founded Camp Kinni Kinnic for girls in Poultney, Vermont, which she ran with her son for over thirty years. As a camp director, she is remembered as a strong, charismatic leader who was influential in shaping many campers’ lives.
In 1960, when Judge Brill became the first woman to receive the certificate of the Brooklyn Bar Association “in commemoration of fifty years of the practice of her profession,” she recalled that women lawyers got pretty rough in their long fight for equality. “The judges and lawyers were very unkind to us.”
Judge Jeanette Goodman Brill died in Brooklyn on March 30, 1964.
AJYB 66:573; Brill, Edith [daughter-in-law of Jeanette G. Brill]. Telephone conversation with author; Brooklyn Bar Association. Telephone conversation with author; Brooklyn Historical Association. Telephone conversation with author; Brooklyn Law School. Telephone conversation with author; Gordimer, Richard [grandson of Jeanette G. Brill]. Telephone conversation with author; Journal American, April 1, 1964, and January 31, 1956; NYTimes, October 14, 1934, sec. II, p. 1:6, and June 9, 1938, 19:1, and May 1, 1941, 25:6; Obituary. New York Herald Tribune, April 1, 1964, and NYTimes, March 31, 1964, 35:3; Roth, Barbara Gordimer [granddaughter of Jeanette G. Brill]. Telephone conversation with author; Roth, Warren [great-grandson of Jeanette G. Brill]. Telephone conversation with author; UJE; WWIAJ (1938).
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Nusbaum, Jane. "Jeanette Goodman Brill." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 5, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/brill-jeanette-goodman>.