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The Experience of Two Volunteers

Pearl Water on National Council of Jewish Women

I joined the National Council of Jewish Women at 19, when I got married, after World War II. My mother was an active member. It was the most “youthful” of the Jewish women’s organizations (something I question today). I had a B.A. in Education but I never contemplated ever really using my training. It came in handy, however, about 20 years ago, when I was divorced and the mother of two little children. I reactivated my membership in Council when I remarried 15 years ago, while I continued to work part time.

After over 31 years as a member, local officer, national board member, active worker in the legislative-lobbying branch, committee chairperson (many times over), low positions and high positions, I decided last fall to be a simple, inactive, ordinary dues-paying member.

I did this because the women’s movement, my own consciousness raising, my involvement in feminist organizations, and my work in women’s studies had heightened my awareness of the lack of real attitudinal changes within the membership in relation to the women’s movement and to themselves.

The Council’s policy of working as Jewish women for the general improvement of society on the national and international levels is a valid one. It makes sense. As Jews, Council women are using the basic beliefs of their religion in carrying out their program. Religion is integrated into their actions. They use what they are; their inherited values to do their work. Council understands that the needs of the larger society are also the needs of Jews. But—and it is indeed a big but—when it comes to women, the situation becomes less organic. I do not feel Council women are really committed to their own sex. Council is very involved with women’s issues, but this isn’t a personal involvement, for the organization’s women as women. The fact of their being women seems less a part of them as a group than does being Jewish; the two should at least be considered equal in importance. In my opinion, Council has not yet understood that the needs of women and the needs of the larger society are also one. All this is especially disturbing given the fact that Council was founded because of sexism [see article by Paula Hyman].

Council’s commitment to ERA —the number one priority in women’s issues-shows the thinness of the veneer in relation to this key issue. Early in 1977, a memo arrived from the President rescinding an earlier one that had urged us to threaten to withdraw the Mid-Atlantic conference from Virginia (an unratified state). The new memo said that the commitment to work for ratification was still tremendously important, but changing the site of the convention would not be feasible. (At the end of January, 1977, ERA was defeated in Virginia, by one vote. At the Convention held in March 1977, Council adopted a resolution boycotting unratified states “except (for) those Conventions already scheduled which cannot be relocated without undue hardship…”)

A deep commitment to women would have meant following through on the economic sanctions against Virginia because of ERA. How would Council feel if Virginia were violating the rights of Jews for equality under the law?

Council has not dealt with the philosophical, historical, sociological and economic underpinnings of what sexism is and what its effect is on society. On Jewish society. It is an organization of predominantly married middle-class Jewish women. Much of the members’ identities are still tied up with their husbands’ economic status. Or with economic status. You really have to have money in order to give your time away for free and to give more money. In fact, the higher you rise within the organizational system, the more money you are expected to give, through a special fund created for this purpose. Council needs to research, study and analyze the history of woman kind, of American women and American Jewish women, to examine old and new assumptions, and educate their membership. Their study could be a model for other Jewish and secular organizations.

Herewith, some questions (in no special order) to look into:

Why do some workers get paid and some not get paid?

What do we mean by “professional,” paid or volunteer?

What should be the relationship between the paid person and the unpaid one?

What is considered work that requires a salary, work that doesn’t require a salary; why, and who decides?

Should charitable organizations have paid personnel at all?

Why do the “unpaid” pay the “paid”? What are the philosophical and economic reasons for this system?

Is it valid for volunteers without the correct credentials to do jobs they wouldn’t be qualified for in the paid workforce?

Are volunteers depriving others of paying jobs—highly educated persons with expensive advanced degrees or less educated persons who with a little training could do the same job?

Does volunteering as it now functions create counterproductive results for Council’s total program —including such programs as the Job Corps, Day Care, Juvenile Justice?

Since volunteer experience is now often used on resumes and is counted as work experience, shouldn’t Council volunteers have first crack at paying jobs in the organization?

Is the structure of the organization itself counterproductive to its program?

Is the structure in the male image? If so, is that a good or a bad thing?

What does Council think feminism is?

How does feminism affect our daughters? Our sons?

Are there new ways for a Jewish woman to identify herself?

Has the Council membership considered women as a class?

Is Council dealing with the division of women by economic status and its sexist implications?

Does the organization’s married, middle-class (and up) membership profile affect decisions about programs and commitment? Does this profile narrow its vision with respect to women?

Should Council have as a priority “consciousness raising”?

These are just a bare minimum of the questions that should be asked; many are obviously overlapping.

(In 1977, the National Board selected-Voluntarism as its number one priority for the ensuing two-year period, and a National Task Force was created to follow through-Council developed a Personal Career Portfolio to help the volunteer “validate what skills she’s attained through her NCJW work.” What the author had in mind, on the other hand, was a thoroughgoing study of the nature and practice of volunteerism and its relationship to feminism. -Ed.)

The answers from such an in-depth study would lead to a clarification of the meaning of “women’s issues.” So, for example, when the issue of “aging” is discussed, it could be seen as primarily a woman’s issue because more women live to old age than men, more women arrive at that point in life without money or the means to get money than men, and because sexist society is partly responsible. Council’s women’s issues program needs this foundation.

Council has always researched and studied in depth. Solid education has always been a basis for its actions. Why not study women—themselves?