When Katharine Engel’s alma mater, Smith College, conferred upon her its first honorary degree for Jewish achievement in 1950, the citation praised Engel’s “sensitive understanding of the many complex problems which confront the immigrant to this country.” A renowned emigré expert and Jewish communal leader who devoted much of her career to resettling displaced European Jewry, Engel was also an outspoken critic of McCarthyism and a tireless advocate of immigration reform.
Katharine (Asher) Engel was born on October 27, 1898, in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of Pauline (Housman) and Harry Asher, who was a prominent lawyer, founder of two local financial institutions, and president of the local board of education. Katharine’s only sibling was Harry Asher, Jr.
A cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College (1920) and class alumnae president until 1933, she undertook a course of graduate study in English at Oxford University from 1921 to 1923. On January 14, 1926, she married Irving M. Engel, a New York City lawyer who became internationally prominent as a champion of human rights. The couple had one daughter, Susan Katharine.
Katharine Engel became extensively involved with private and governmental organizations in 1946. In that year she was elected chair of the National Committee on Service to Foreign Born and chair of the board of directors and executive committee of the United Service for New Americans, a position she held until 1948, becoming honorary president from 1951 until 1954. In 1946 she was also director of the Greater New York United Jewish Appeal, later joining the national body’s executive and administrative committees (1946–1948) and the Women’s Division Executive Committee (1946–1949). In the same year Engel was vice president of the National Council of Jewish Women. She served as its national president from 1949 to 1955, and as president of the New York Section from 1955 until her death.
An influential policy adviser, Engel was appointed to the Women’s Advisory Committee on Defense Manpower in 1951. She was then appointed to the New York State Committee on Refugees in 1955, after long-standing service to the National Committee on Immigration Policy.
Over the years, Engel was also director of the New York Association for New Americans and Self-Help for Emigrés from Central Europe; honorary vice president of the Jewish Publication Society; vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; vice chair of the 1951 Bond Drive for Israel; associate chair of the Jewish Tercentenary Committee; and a member of the National Committee for UNESCO, the board of governors of the American Friends of Hebrew University, the Crusade for Freedom, and the YWCA Centennial Committee.
After a respected career of public service, Katharine Engel died in New York City on March 30, 1957.
SELECTED WORKS BY KATHARINE ENGEL
“Diplomatic Passport to Panama.” The Council Woman 14, no. 5 (1952): 7–8; “Five Years as Council President.” The Council Woman 17, no. 2 (1955): 2–3; “This I believe...” The Council Woman 15, no. 2 (1953): 9; “We Launch a Freedom Campaign!” The Council Woman 14, no. 1 (1952): 1–2.
AJYB 59:474; National Council of Jewish Women. “In Memoriam—Katharine Asher Engel.” The Council Woman 19, no. 2 (1957): 2; Obituary. NYTimes, March 31, 1957, 88:3; Who’s Who in America (1952–1953, 1954–1955, 1956–1957); Who’s Who in World Jewry 3 (1955); WWWIA 3.
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Williams, Estelle C.. "Katharine Engel." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 1, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/engel-katherine>.