Community Blog Jewish Women’s Philanthropy: An Historical View
Tonight, we celebrate women philanthropists whose generosity and hard work has a great impact on Jewish education in our community. Boston women, it should come as no surprise, have always been ahead of the curve on women’s philanthropy, including quietly founding the first-ever Federation women’s campaign in 1917. Our students are blessed to live and study at Hebrew College where women’s leadership is modeled and celebrated. At the same time, we must remember that such recognition is newer and rarer than we might think.
Though women have been moving American Jewish philanthropy forward for over 200 years, they were often historically blocked from positions of power, even in the organizations they created. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, many women’s organizations had male presidents or treasurers, leaving women out of ultimate positions of power. This dichotomy – women encouraged and lauded for raising funds, yet cut off from deciding how to spend them – reflected emerging middle class norms about “women’s domestic sphere.”
Despite being disempowered or relegated to auxiliaries, sisterhoods and sewing societies, Jewish women thwarted those norms in quiet but powerful ways. Under the cover of the domestic sphere were created the first Jewish Sunday school, orphanages, benevolent societies, and national Jewish organizations advocating for Israel and social change for women. In 1920, inspired by suffrage, American Hebrew columnist Zelda Popkin demanded equality in charity work, “as at the polls.”
Hearing this call over the last century, leaders and donors have worked toward that end. Women are now welcome in Federation’s Young Leadership Cabinet. Jewish Women’s Foundations throughout the country invest in social change for women and girls in North America and Israel. The campaign known as “Men as Allies” empowers male leaders to refuse to sit on all-male panels, thus ensuring that conferences include women experts. These Jewish community evolutions, in concert with evolutions of social norms around work, family and philanthropy, continue to move the needle on women as leaders and major donors in our Jewish organizations and foundations.
In Parshat Vayakhel, which calls upon “men and women, all whose hearts moved them” to help build the mishkan (tabernacle), we see the power of such an inclusive community to inspire universal generosity. When all are included and encouraged to bring their passions and unique skills, Moses actually has to ask the Israelites to stop giving, “…their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done” (Exodus 36:6). Tonight’s work of uncovering and celebrating women’s philanthropy and leadership, and providing role models for future leaders of any gender, continues our community down the path of realizing all of its many gifts.
This piece was published in the Tribute Book for Hebrew College’s 2016 Gala: Celebrating Women’s Leadership and Philanthropy. Deborah Skolnick Einhorn, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Assistant Dean for Academic Development and Advising at the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.