Activism: Community Organizing
Helen Adler helped her husband establish the first model tenements at Cherry Street as well as the first free kindergarten in America, called the Working Man’s School, and later the Ethical Culture School at Fieldston. She took an active part in the visiting nurses’ service for the poor at the DeMilt Dispensary, the oldest clinic in the city, which Felix had initiated in 1877. With the assistance of a Dr. Koplik, she helped cut the infant death rate by having milk bottled safely at the Laboratory Department for Modified Milk for Tenement Babies, which Koplik and Adler founded in 1891.
Ray Alexander has devoted her life to the struggle for human rights and equality in South Africa. Embedded in a Marxist tradition rooted in her Latvian origins, she sought justice for workers and liberty for the oppressed.
Anna Marks Allen was part of a group of Philadelphia Jewish women who established and ran the first independent Jewish charitable societies in the United States. At a time when congregational Jewish life was restricted to men, Jewish women of Allen’s social status increasingly turned towards philanthropy as a way to participate in the public life of the Jewish community.
Passionate, principled, provocative, and above all path breaking, Shulamit Aloni has left a greater imprint on Israeli political life and public discourse than any woman to come of age after Israel’s independence.
The first Jewish anarchist organization was formally set up as a result of the Haymarket bombing in 1886 and the subsequent trial of the accused anarchists. The inception and growth of the Jewish anarchist movement in the United States were inseparable from the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe starting in 1881.
Dora Askowith, author, historian, and college educator, believed that a knowledge of Jewish women’s history would serve as a catalyst for organization, activism, and moral leadership. She taught women at Hunter College for a total of forty-five years and wrote that she was anxious to teach college students Jewish history because they were “poorly versed in the history of their own faith.”
Scholars have conventionally considered the nineteenth century the German era in the American Jewish history. Between 1820 and 1880, more than two hundred thousand immigrants from German lands arrived in the United States. Besides German Jews, this transatlantic movement also included migrants from ethnically Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Baltic territories that at that time remained under German political control or cultural influence.
The Association of Italian Jewish Women, or ADEI, was founded in 1927 in the city of Milan, Italy, home to the second largest Jewish community in the country.
Before the outbreak of World War I, over a dozen B’nai B’rith women’s auxiliaries were scattered from San Francisco to New Jersey. They expanded into cultural activities, philanthropy, and community service, such as financial support of orphanages and homes for the elderly. Their announced aims were to perpetuate Jewish culture, enrich their communities, and ensure the religious survival of their sons and daughters. Their unannounced goals included sociability and the first steps toward personal independence.
Lizzie Spiegel Barbe represents the “Jewish Clubwomen” of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. Like other “Jewish clubwomen” of this era, Barbe was motivated to establish leadership roles for women within the organized Jewish community such as had previously not existed. All of Barbe’s communal work focused on the Jewish sphere, and she is remembered for her lifelong commitment to the Chicago Jewish community.
Even as a schoolgirl, Jennie Loitman Barron ignored society’s limits and set high goals for herself. In her long career as a lawyer and a judge, and in her lifelong work for women’s rights, she set many precedents for women in Massachusetts and across the United States.
Matilde Bassani Finzi continued her activity in anti-fascist groups and, together with Giorgio Bassani, organized parlor meetings and helped distribute newspapers and newsletters. After Mussolini’s fall on July 25, 1943, Bassani Finzi was released together with all the political prisoners. Immediately upon her release she contacted the Resistance groups, who began to organize in case Germany should invade Italy, which it did on September 8, 1943. After the war she continued to work for the ideals in which she believed: freedom, democracy and equality for women.
Beatrice Berler was an award-winning translator of Spanish-language novels and history and a renowned community activist. She worked in women’s fashion for over twenty years before returning to school at the age of forty-five, eventually becoming nationally recognized as a literacy activist.
Rebecca Thurman Bernstein was lauded by local and national organizations for her efforts to improve health care, literacy, and Jewish life in Portland, Maine. Bernstein was proud of her Jewish heritage and worked for many Jewish causes, but her interests were not limited to or by her Jewishness.
Barbara Boxer is currently one of the most influential liberal political figures in the country, having served in the United States Senate since 1992. Her visibility especially flows out of her vocal commitment to feminist causes.
As president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Rose Brenner focused on inclusion of people who were often marginalized—the deaf, the blind, and those isolated in rural areas.
Jeanette Goodman Brill was Brooklyn’s first woman magistrate and the second woman magistrate appointed in New York City.
Jewish women played leading roles in the formative years of the General Jewish Workers’ Bund, which was established in the Tsarist Empire in 1897, and initially participated in the movement in large numbers. However, the Bund seems to have had somewhat less success in mobilizing women in independent Poland between the two world wars than it had during the Tsarist era.
In the forty years following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, communism was the most dynamic force in American left-wing politics and a primary mobilizer of radical Jewish women. At the center of this movement lay the American Communist Party, which grew out of various radical factions inspired by the October Revolution. In December 1921, most of these groups came together as the Workers Party, renamed the Communist Party USA (CP) in 1930.
Florence Dolowitz was a founder and lifelong leader of the Women’s American Ort (Organization for Rehabilitation and Training). She was born in a small town in Lithuania sometime in 1879, the exact date unknown. She was a precocious student, and, to further her education, she was sent with a brother-in-law to live with a childless uncle and aunt in the United States. When the nine-year-old arrived in the country, her destination had been shifted to another uncle. After a few years, she moved to New York City to join her two older sisters who had also emigrated and were now living on Henry Street.
Sylvia Goulston Dreyfus, born November 12, 1893, was a prominent community activist in Boston. She was president of the Hecht Neighborhood House, a community outreach center (modeled after Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago) that helped many Boston Jews and still exists to this day. She also was a trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music, sat on the advisory board of the Berkshire Music Festival, and was honorary chair of the Palestine Orchestra fund, an orchestra that later became the Israeli Philharmonic.
Rose Dunkelman was an innovative, industrious Canadian Zionist leader who worked tirelessly for the Jewish national cause. Dunkelman was the founder and long-time vice-president of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO. In 1925 she founded the Toronto Hadassah Bazaar, and that same year she was named to the National Executive of the Zionist Organization of Canada.
Deeply committed to the establishment and development of the State of Israel, Judith G. Epstein dedicated her career as a social and political activist to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. She served Hadassah in many leadership roles, including two terms as president. She also attended several meetings of the Zionist World Congress as a delegate, served as a representative to the United Nations, and was largely responsible for funding the Rothschild–Hadassah–University Hospital in Jerusalem.
Jewish women have played a significant role in all aspects of the American feminist movement.