From 1913 to 1920 Janet Harris served as president of the National Council of Jewish Women, guiding the organization through a crucial debate over whether it should focus on Jewish women’s education or on social welfare. While some local sections broke away, the organization as a whole grew during her presidency and lent support to a variety of social causes. After stepping down as president, Harris chaired NCJW’s Foreign Relations Committee, calling an international meeting of Jewish women in Vienna in 1924. Through her work with the National Council of Women of the United States, she chaired the Quinquennial Committee and oversaw the 1925 convention in Washington, DC, attended by women from 52 countries. Harris also volunteered for the League of Women Voters, the International League of Peace and Freedom, the American Legion Auxiliary, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary.
Early Life and Family
Janet Simons Harris was a community leader and champion of women’s organizations. She was born on November 19, 1869, in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Her parents, Abraham Hirsch and Helen Esther (Katz) Simons, were wealthy Reform Jews who were well established in the American Jewish community. Janet’s brother Lester Simons was an attorney and an officer in the Spanish-American War.
On April 14, 1896, Janet Simons married Nathaniel E. Harris in Bradford, Pennsylvania, an oil-rich city not far from Buffalo, New York. Nathaniel worked in the oil industry while Janet taught in the Bradford public schools. They had three sons, Lawrence, Howard, and Nathaniel, Jr.
National Council of Jewish Women
In the 1920s, the Jewish community in Bradford was thriving. It was home to two synagogues, the Reform German Temple and Temple Beth Zion, and numerous Jewish organizations. Janet Harris devoted her time to teaching in the Temple Beth Zion Sunday school and serving as president of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). During her term as president, from 1913 to 1920, the organization nearly split during a controversy about its mission. The membership was divided over whether the NCJW would function as a social service and welfare organization or dedicate itself to the education of Jewish women. Although some local sections broke away from the national organization during this period, the NCJW continued to grow during Harris’s presidency, and has remained one of the foremost Jewish women’s organizations in the United States. Harris’s picture still hangs in the boardroom at the national headquarters of the NCJW in New York City.
Other Volunteer Work and Legacy
After completing her term as president, Harris served as the chair of its Foreign Relations Committee, which called an international meeting in Vienna of Jewish women in May 1924. She was also active in the National Council of Women of the United States, chairing the Quinquennial Committee, which in 1925 convened women from fifty-two countries in Washington, D.C. Harris also served in the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women and was chair of the Northwest Pennsylvania District. Influenced by her brother’s experiences in the military, Harris joined the American Legion Auxiliary, Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary, Spanish-American War Veterans Auxiliary, Women’s Committee for National Defense, and the International League for Peace and Freedom. A loyal citizen and civics worker, Harris was also a member of the League of Women Voters.
In the middle of the 1920s, Nathaniel and Janet Harris relocated to New York City, returning to Bradford for the summers. Their sons attended Ivy League schools and pursued careers in academia and business. After her husband’s death in 1932, Janet Harris retired to Florida. However, she traveled extensively, and lived in Spain with one of her sons for some time. It is reported that even many years after she left Bradford, whenever Jews from Bradford traveled to other cities, they would be asked if they knew Janet Simons Harris.
Janet Harris died in January 1955 and was cremated in Florida. Her remains were interred, along with the remains of her husband, in the Jewish section of the Willowdale Cemetery in Bradford.
WWIAJ (1926, 1928).