On September 4, 1893 the Jewish Women’s Congress, a four-day, first national conclave of Jewish women, opened in Chicago, Illinois. The event, which took place within the context of that year’s World Columbian Exposition, led to the establishment of the National Council of Jewish Women.
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The driving force behind the congress was Hannah Greenebaum Solomon. Solomon (1858-1942), born in Chicago, was deeply involved in Jewish and general communal life. She and her sister, Henrietta Frank, had been the first Jews admitted to the Chicago Woman’s Club, an influential educational and reform organization.
The Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair that ran from May to October of 1893, had a Board of Lady Managers, which organized events tailored for women. But a conference for Jewish women alone was not something to be taken for granted.
The men frowned, but the women came
For one thing, Solomon recounted years later, the male leaders of the Jewish community didn’t approve of the idea. It also was not obvious who should be invited.
At the time, she told The American Hebrew in 1920, “Emma Lazarus, Julia Richman and Henrietta Szold were perhaps the only nationally known Jewesses in the country,” and only two synagogues had sisterhoods. Perhaps it’s no surprise that just assembling an organizing committee, which she did with fellow congregants from the city’s Reform Temple Sinai, took Solomon a year.
When the congress opened, however, a full roster of 25 women were lined up to give talks, all on the subjects of religion, education or philanthropy. And, in terms of an audience, the event must have answered a need.
Reporting on the September 4 opening, a correspondent for The American Israelite took pleasure in describing how “women elbowed, trod on each others toes, and did everything else they could without violating the proprieties to gain the advantage of standing edgewise in a hall heavy with the fragrance of roses. … By 10 o’clock the aisles were all filled, 10 minutes later there was an impossible jam at the doors that reached far down the corridor. Few men were present. They were thrust into the background into the remotest corners.”
On the final day of congress, Sadie American, another Chicagoan who had been involved in the planning, presented the closing address in which she proposed the establishment of a permanent national women’s organization. A formal proposal was presented by Julia Richman, the noted New York educator, and, according to Solomon, “every woman present at the congress pledged herself to support any organization that might be formed.”
Thus was born the National Council of Jewish Women – with none other than Hannah Greenebaum Solomon elected its first president and Sadie American its corresponding secretary. Within three years, the NCJW had 3,300 members, and by the end of Solomon’s 12-year tenure at its head its membership had reached 10,000.
During those initial years, it sponsored a number of educational initiatives – vocational training, Hebrew schools for communities without synagogues, adult study circles – and also worked with the settlement house movement for new immigrants, among other programs for weaker members of the Jewish community.
According to its website, today the NCJW has some 90,000 members, and it is dedicated to advancing a progressive agenda that includes working for children’s welfare, reproductive rights and equal rights for women.
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