While a lot has changed since the establishment six-plus decades ago of the Maplewood/South Orange chapter of B’nai B’rith Women — today Jewish Women International — the heart of its mission has remained the same: Members give strong support to the organization’s programs to provide treatment for Israel’s most vulnerable youth and advocate for the rights of all girls and women to live safely and realize their potential.
What has also remained the same for many years is the corps of local women who serve its mission. As the chapter celebrates its 65th anniversary, president Lila Kantrowitz is finishing her 20th year as president of the chapter; she has been working with the same board for as many years. And many have been members almost since the chapter’s founding.
The biggest change for the organization came in the 1990s, when B’nai B’rith Women became completely independent from B’nai B’rith International and changed its name to Jewish Women International.
The organization continues to raise money for the Residential Treatment Center in Israel, the Jerusalem children’s home the organization has been responsible for since the 1940s. It was established to give a place for young survivors of the Holocaust arriving in prestate Israel to heal from the traumas of the war.
An entirely new facility has been built since then, a center that continues to serve children with emotional disabilities. In the 1980s, the organization added advocacy for women and children who are victims of domestic violence to its mission after a BBW member in Maryland was shot to death by her husband in a parking lot in 1988.
“I feel very strongly about the Residential Treatment Center,” Kantrowitz said. “And B’nai B’rith Women was a real forerunner in raising awareness of domestic violence and abuse in families.”
Many of the women on the local board have been members of the group for nearly 60 years, and they acknowledge they are no longer attracting a new generation.
“Younger women do not join Jewish Women International; it’s because of our age,” said Annette Heinowitz of Springfield. The board members are mostly widows who joined as young women; Heinowitz said she joined when she was 21 nearly 60 years ago. In addition to her commitment to the good work the organization does, she said, she affiliated with the chapter because “I needed it; I was young and wanted to meet people.”
Membership has dropped from a peak of over 400 more than a decade ago to about 150 today. Still, Kantrowitz said, she will continue serving the organization with her stalwart board members for as long as she can. “I really care about the commitments of this organization,” she said.
JWI started in 1897 as the first B’nai B’rith Women’s auxiliary. Today, New Jersey has 13 chapters, several of which had their beginnings in Newark’s Jewish community.