NCJW clocks 100 years, and a singular mission
Women’s group stays relevant by adapting to changing times
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Elaine Sterling joined National Council of Jewish Women in 1954 when she moved to West Orange. “I was looking for friends, but a certain kind of woman — intelligent, capable women who weren’t content to just sit around and socialize but who wanted to make a difference in the world.”
Sterling served as president of the Essex County Section in 1969, went on to serve on NCJW’s national board, and remains active locally.
Karen Cherins joined the section — for largely the same reasons — shortly after moving to the area in 1976. Today she is president of Essex County NCJW, which this year celebrates a century of helping women, children, and families through hands-on volunteering, education, and advocacy.
A centennial gala will be held on Thursday, Oct. 18, at The Grove in Cedar Grove. The section has about 3,200 members, down from a peak of about 4,500 in the 1980s, according to executive director Cathy Silverman. Founded by 37 women in the Newark living room of socialite Mrs. Nathan Meyers, it is among the older chapters of NCJW, which was founded in 1893.
Today’s members may look back and recall resettling Russian immigrants in the 1980s, staffing the thrift shops, founding the Linda and Rudy Slucker NCJW Center for Women in Livingston, and helping to establish the Rachel Coalition, a division of the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest that battles domestic abuse. Those with a longer personal and institutional memory, like Sterling, remember “service to the foreign born,” in which, even before her time, members were “meeting immigrants as they came off the ship and helping them find jobs and places to live,” she said.
Members may also remember funding the JCC senior programs, and the heated discussions about starting a branch of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) in Essex County, or dismantling the many subdivisions of the Essex County section.
They created the teen dating abuse prevention curriculum now in place in many high schools in the region. The Russian immigrants have since become peers, and the thrift shops have been replaced by career closets, offering clothing suitable for interviews and work for women who have been in the home or unemployed.
The Linda and Rudy Slucker Center for Women is a major focus, providing education, child care, and job readiness programs for women, including classes in computers. Members continue to be involved in advocacy for everything from bicycle helmets to abortion rights. One of the section’s newest programs, the Back to School store, begun four years ago, served over 500 children this summer with the help of 400 volunteers, providing school equipment and supplies to those in need.
As Marsha Atkind, who served as section president from 1989 to 1992 and national NCJW president from 2002 to 2005, put it, “This organization has contributed an enormous amount to the life of the community. While I was president, we contributed to and helped run organizations that are now part of the DNA of this community.”
Hannah G. Solomon founded NCJW in 1893 in reaction to the menial role given to women volunteer workers at the Chicago World’s Fair. Her rebellion set a precedent of women’s empowerment that remains a cornerstone of the NCJW mission.
Newark resident Theresa Grotta was among those who attended the Jewish Women’s Congress in Washington, DC, where the resolution establishing NCJW was passed. She brought its spirit home to the Newark Jewish community.
“NCJW provided an important mechanism for women to exercise public roles at a time when relatively few middle-class women were employed and when women had limited formal political influence since they were unable to vote,” wrote Susan M. Chambre, in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. NCJW, she added, “institutionalized traditional kinds of communal activities of Jewish women”: assisting immigrants and young women without families, visiting the sick, and establishing kosher kitchens in public hospitals.
NCJW has closely watched how other Jewish women’s groups, from Hadassah to ORT to the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, have tried to retain their appeal to a new generation of women. Their strength, NCJW leaders say, is the flexibility of the NCJW agenda, and adapting its mission to changing circumstances.
“We adjust with the needs of the community, even who our clients are, but the mission has not changed,” said Jill Johnson of Montclair, the immediate past president of Essex NCJW. “For a long time, our services focused on resettling immigrants. We taught them English, we helped them acclimate, we provided clothing and furniture.”
Sterling also emphasized that while programs may change, the philosophy and strategy has remained NCJW’s constant recipe for success. “We always research the needs, design a project to meet the needs, and continually evaluate if the need is still there. There’s only so much energy, money, and time, so programs have to change with needs.”
That is not to say that NCJW does not face its own challenges. Top among these is the expanding role of women in the workplace — and its impact on the volunteer culture.” Sterling presided at a time when there were many subdivisions and many meetings. “Women weren’t as busy and they looked forward to the meetings — they needed them,” she said.
By Atkind’s day, however, things had changed.
“Women had been volunteering full time instead of working full time,” said Atkind, of Roseland. “We needed to change so that women who worked could be a part of the organization.”
During her tenure, 10 subdivisions of the Essex County section were combined into one group. “We were wasting money on opening and closing programs in every subdivision — and it was a waste of manpower,” she said. Hers was the only presidency that lasted three years, in order to manage the change. “It needed to be done thoughtfully, over a period of years,” she said.
More staff was hired and the organization started fund-raising. (Atkind and Sterling both went back to work full time. Atkind, after her stint at NCJW national, is now executive director of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. Sterling is now a professional consultant to nonprofit organizations, crediting all the opportunities NCJW provided her in lobbying and dealing with government leaders for her success.)
“Back in the day, we did everything ourselves,” said Cherins. “For years NCJW had just one employee who ran the office. We hired an executive director 15 years ago, and now the Center for Women has a full staff of 13.”
The section has also created a layered approach to volunteering to meet the needs of today’s women: “We’re tailoring our volunteer opportunities to fit our members, with more one-shot events and more varied programs,” said Cherins.
Added Johnson: “Some volunteers are here as if it were a full-time job. Others need one-shot opportunities.” She offered the example of the Back to School store, in which volunteers could get involved “for a year of planning, or one day of volunteering.”
Even meetings have been tweaked. “We’re very conscious of running meetings in the evening and in the daytime to cover everyone’s needs,” said Lesley Greenstein of Summit, cochair of the centennial gala.
To the future
Looking ahead to the future, today’s leaders see a continuing emphasis on providing a variety of opportunities for volunteering and the focus on preparing displaced and unemployed women to enter the workforce.
“Looking ahead, I wish our services would not be needed. I wish poverty would be eradicated and women and children would not be in the situations they are in,” said Johnson. “But that won’t happen. I think we’ll be working more closely with social service agencies to see that people’s needs are met, and I think we’ll be expanding our Mitzvah in a Minute programs — like our partnership with the Department of Youth and Family Services, providing Christmas presents to kids in the foster care system who never get them because they’re so transient. We got 100 names and ages, and purchased the gifts. People came on one day to a two-hour wrapping party to wrap and personalize the gifts.”
Atkind added, “We will always look at the community we live in and give Jewish women a place to play out their desire to make the whole community better, always focusing on women, children, families, and civil rights. This is the only organization for Jewish women that does that.”