Lilith Feature

Volunteerism: The Great Debate

The Volunteer Organizations: Vanguard or Rear Guard?

by Paula Hyman

Jewish women’s organizations were not always out of touch with the needs of their members. When they were founded, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, they offered middle-class women an important opportunity to leave the confines of the home and engage in socially useful activity which was also of great value to the entire Jewish community. Paid employment was out of the question for middle-class married women, and serious volunteer work constituted an assault on the concept of the refined and helpless Victorian lady.

Like general women’s organizations of the time, the National Council of Jewish Woman, Hadassah, and the networks of synagogue Sisterhoods relied on the concept of social housekeeping to legitimize—and mask—what was in fact a radical redefinition of appropriate behavior for women. (If women belonged in the home and had developed a special and inborn talent for housekeeping, what was the larger society except the home writ large?) Women could thus bring their skills and moral sensibilities to the pressing social problems of their time. As Sadie American, the most outspoken (and only paid) officer of the National Council of Jewish Women declared in 1896:

We do claim that for a woman to give in words and publicly of…the wisdom of her experience to make life fuller and better for others, is quite as womanly as to sing operatic arias…to execute sonatas…or to imitate poor actresses—all of which meet with general approval.

These attitudes did not make the Jewish women’s organizations into  hotbeds of feminism. The major organizations, for example, regularly refused to pledge their support in the fight for female suffrage. But they were feminist in a larger sense, in that they enhanced the self-worth of women and worked on their behalf.

First and foremost, Jewish women’s organizations staked a claim to articulating and meeting the special needs of women clients. It was the National Council of Jewish Women which first established an extensive immigrant aid network tailored to the conditions of immigrant women traveling alone or with children, largely because it felt that male-dominated Jewish institutions ignored that group. The Council arranged for the first Yiddish-speaking female worker to meet incoming women at Ellis Island and find lodgings for girls with no relatives to receive them. In pre-state Israel, it was Hadassah which addressed itself to the health problems of women and children.

While the organized Jewish community as a whole would have been happy to bury the issue of white slavery simply by denying Jewish involvement, Jewish women’s organizations—Council in the U.S. and the Judischer Frauenbund in Germany—treated it as a major social problem. Moreover, they proffered sympathetic aid to the victims—both actual and potential—of the traffic of women.

The Jewish women’s organizations not only served an otherwise ignored constituency, they also raised the status of their own members. In a period when male leaders in the Jewish community routinely denigrated the capacity of women for leadership, these organizations asserted their right to communal recognition and to pride in their own accomplishments in t he field of social welfare and philanthropy. Women leaders continually battled the prejudices of male Jewish leaders in the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the Jewish Welfare Board and the Joint Distribution Committee who were reluctant to share power with women and who expressed doubts as to the ability of women to manage funds.

Gradually the women achieved grudging recognition. For its immigrant aid work, the National Council received accolades from both the American and Italian governments. Zionist leaders learned that the women of Hadassah could not be ignored on political issues when Hadassah broke with the Zionist Organization of America in 1923, was expelled from its ranks, and proceeded to seek and gain status as an independent affiliate of the World Zionist Organization.

This very success in the first two decades of the twentieth century taught organized Jewish women lessons that are still timely. Particularly during World War I, when women were encouraged to apply themselves wherever their talents were needed, they learned to think highly of themselves and o their work. Council president Janet Simons Harris exulted in 1917 that

through the war, men have learned…to respect women…and that is great and glorious; but there is something infinitely greater than this which has happened: women have learned to respect women.

And, as Rebekah Kohut, a prominent Council leader, demanded

[to refuse] as women to be used merely to raise money and to act as figureheads in the management…of ladies’ auxiliaries. We have earned the title to larger responsibilities than this.

That statement from 1920 could, unfortunately, still stand as a manifesto today. In fact, it is particularly poignant at present because women have come so far in the society at large and have made so few gains in the Jewish community.

Jewish women’s organizations still do valuable work. But power and prestige in the Jewish community, for the most part, lie elsewhere. The priorities of American Jewry are determined still by local Federations and national organizations which give women little say in the decision-making process. Yet the early feistiness of the women’s organizations has given way to a comfortable acceptance of the status quo. And so the “Hadassah lady,” whatever the value of her philanthropic activity, is a stock comic figure, not a respected communal leader.

Why were our women’s organizations more responsive to Jewish women’s needs then than now? Why did they lose the struggle for real power within the community? The answers to these questions are bound up with the phenomenon of volunteerism among women in a society that devalues both unpaid work and female labor, and with the change in options available to women both as volunteers and as workers.

Since the pioneering days of the Jewish women’s organizations, the options available to the woman volunteer—as well as her status in American society—have declined considerably. The options available to middle-class women who seek to pursue careers, on the other hand, have increased dramatically, especially int the past ten years. The major Jewish women’s organizations have been unable and/or unwilling to deal with these changes.

The Jewish women’s organizations, which worked primarily in the area of social welfare, were hard hit by the professionalization of social work between the two world wars. The trained men who spearheaded the drive for professionalization measured the success of their campaign at least in part by the elimination of volunteer women from much social work activity, using the argument that they were unprofessional. The men saw their own leadership as necessary to win popular respect for the new profession. Women were thus dislodged from many responsible positions in the sector of social welfare, and focused their energies on less direct and personalized work, such as fundraising.

The tried to professionalization also affected the structures of these organizations themselves. In their early days, the Jewish women’s organizations were actually staffed mainly by volunteers. Paid workers were few and were clearly subordinate to the volunteers (as Sadie American learned to her dismay, a situation which led to her abrupt departure from the National Council). Today, the professionalization, expansion, and centralization of the organizations themselves have placed power in the hands of the paid administrative staff and a thin stratum of upper-echelon volunteer leaders on the national level.

In 1910, or even 1950, the constituency of the Jewish women’s organizations had few alternatives to volunteer work. In that direction lay their only opportunity for meaningful and responsible work outside the home.

Today, paid career opportunities for women abound, despite the persistence of sex discrimination. Middle-class women are increasingly likely to direct their energies into careers which provide both social recognition and challenging work (not to mention that more and more middle-class families require two salaries to maintain their accustomed or desired standard of living). Women with paying jobs are obviously less likely to assume heavy voluntary responsibilities unless these are made very attractive. Yet in many cases, not only are working women not enticed into volunteer work, but they are actively discouraged from entering it because so many meetings are scheduled during working hours.

The transformation of both the work and the structure of Jewish women’s organizations as well as the expansion of job opportunities available to middle-class women has resulted in a decline in the centrality of these organizations in the lives of many of their members.

The records of the first generations of the women’s groups reveal widespread and intense personal commitment—in social work, fundraising and Jewish education. Some women still derive great satisfaction from the philanthropic activity and social events sponsored by their organizations. But for many, membership today means little more than paying dues. The organizations seem to be satisfied with nominal membership and do not actively recruit working women.

Nor have the Jewish women’s organizations addressed themselves seriously to the changing needs of contemporary Jewish women. While this is a time of great transition for women, a time of stress as well as opportunity, Jewish women’s organizations do not seem to have recognized this. They have not found the issues that today’s women’s movement is addressing itself to as compelling as they did the problems of white slavery and aid to immigrant women and children some two generations ago. They have little to say to us about our quest for meaningful roles for ourselves as Jewish women and for expanded options within the Jewish community.

Nor do they deal with the family and career problems of their own constituencies. They do not provide counseling or scholarships for displaced Jewish homemakers, or day care for the growing number of two-career or single-parents Jewish families. While women in Jewish communal organizations have been meeting as individuals to press for equality of job opportunities, the women’s organizations themselves have scarcely engaged in lobbying for greater power within the Jewish community. They appear content to continue in their admittedly good work, with perhaps an occasional meeting devoted to a discussion on the new roles of Jewish women. In short, they have not grappled in any serious way with the growing assertiveness of Jewish women or with our rightful struggle for positions of communal responsibility.

Perhaps they are afraid to question a structure based on volunteer labor: if feminism succeeds, might not their dedicated workers choose to work elsewhere for pay? Perhaps. But whether they confront feminist issues or not, the women’s movement and all it has accomplished will not disappear. Ignoring the women’s movement and its impact on their own members (and potential recruits) simply encourages defections.

Jewish women’s organizations once took the lead in fighting discrimination against women within the Jewish community. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they championed the cause of Jewish women today?

Paula Hyman is an Assistant Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University and a member of Ezrat Nashim.

Pear Water (pseudonym) 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 the 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, or 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 the 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 womankind, of American women and American Jewish women, to examine old and new assumptions, and educated 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,” pair or volunteer?

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

What is considered work that requires a salary, and 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 credential to do jobs they wouldn’t be qualified for in the paid work force?

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 program 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 the 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 thorough-going 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 programs 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?

Betty Lieberman on Hadassah

I am 49 years old, the mother of three daughters ages 25, 22 and 12. For the past 27 years, I have been an active member of Hadassah. I have served in almost ever capacity n the group and chapter level, having been both a group president and Milwaukee Chapter President. I have held many regional chairmanships including organization vice-president.

I love Hadassah. To me, it has always been the perfect blend of ideology and action—the opportunity to connect with the idea of Israel as the central point of Jewish life, and and to help other Jews. It is significant in my life as an American Jewish woman and it affects life in Israel.

I am concerned about Hadassah’s future. While Hadassah continues to grow nationally in both membership and amounts of money raised, in Milwaukee there’s been n significant change in the number of members in the last ten years. We raise more money each year, but do not keep up with inflation, so that the actual spending power we provide is probably less that it was ten years ago.

In addition, we find that we have fewer women willing to work than ever before. Fewer women attend meetings and events. Top leadership in the chapter is still available, but the groups are becoming weaker as we have more passive members and as previous potential leadership looks for other sources of satisfaction and personal growth. 

What does our membership look like today?

  • Older women who feel strongly about Israel, want passive education as well as a place to spend time and socialize, but no longer will take responsibility or work;
  • Active involved leadership—small in numbers but very dedicated—middle aged;
  • Younger and middle-aged women looking for fulfillment elsewhere, i.e., careers or returning to school—not necessarily because they are uncommitted to Jewish causes but because “organization work is not enough for them”;
  • Younger, traditional women—passive, interested in entertainment and social activities—perhaps not yet ready for deep involvement.

A few years ago, when my older daughters went to college, I systematically reviewed and evaluated my life, my accomplishments and goals, and my future. I decided that since Jews, Israel and women were my major concerns and that since I had already established credibility in the voluntary sector, this was where I could personally make the greatest personal fulfillment.

Because I had more time to devote and had decided to become a career volunteer, I began to expand my activities into other parts of the Jewish community. I spearheaded a drive to include more women in the decision-making process both in the local Federation and in local Jewish agencies. This year, I am Women’s Division President and our boar designed and offered a unique skills seminar for women in positions of community leadership. I also headed a committee in the Jewish Family and Children’s Service which, through persistence and education as to the need, caused a Jewish Day Care Center to open on September 1, 1977.

However, in Hadassah, where I have worked in leadership capacities for 27 years, I can say without hesitation that I have never influenced a decision made by national Hadassah. It does not make me feel very good nor does it say much for how Hadassah feels about me as an individual. Send money and members, dear—we’ll do the rest!

It has become apparent to me that national Hadassah excludes its membership throughout the country from the decision-making process in much the same manner men have traditionally excluded all but a handful of exceptional women from their decision-making process:

Item: All decisions regarding projects in Israel are made in New York with approval of the National Board (which meets twice a year), and rubber-stamped by the Annual Convention. All philosophy and policy decisions are made by the National Board and handed down to chapters without discussion. There is no formal process for getting the board to consider a new idea, nor for members to have a resolution or idea considered by the Convention;

Item: Membership and fundraising quotas are meted out by National to chapters by a system that provides for no discussion or input by the chapters. At best, a complaint may succeed in a minimal cut in quota. (Overly high quotas are frequently discouraging to local leadership.)

Detailed national administrative budgets are not readily available so that while we are told administrative costs, we have no idea as to specific amounts spent for salaries, public relations, printing, office expenses, travel, etc.

Item: Although we know that Hadassah is one of the major employers in Jerusalem, we have no input into its personnel policies. For instance, since we are an all-women’s group and since many Israeli women must work, do we have affirmative action policies for women in all our Hadassah installations? Do we encourage women to enter medical and dental school as well as nursing school? Do we encourage women to have upward mobility and head our departments? Do our Youth Aliyah villages and Comprehensive High School have non-sexist education and career policies so that girls are offered as many and the same options as boys? Do we offer equal pay for equal jobs for men and women?

Does National ever ask the membership for an opinion about these issues?

Item: Education material is provided by National to be disseminated to the members. Local chapters are merely conduits. There is no arena for discussion as to what we think is important. National decides and provides material with the slant they feel is appropriate.

Item: There is no opportunity for anyone outside the New York area to be a national president, although in this age of instant communication and air flights, other national organizations have had presidents from other parts of the country.

If Hadassah wants to continue to recruit the best and brightest Jewish women in communities throughout the country for its local leadership, I submit that these undemocratic policies will have to be radically and creatively changed.

I suggest, as a first step, that task forces be established throughout the country. These task forces should address themselves to the development of a new system for the cross-fertilization of ideas between women throughout the country and the national officers, and for the inclusion of women throughout the country in at least some areas of decision-making.

I believe the first tentative steps have already been taken. I will feel that we have really “made it” when both the editor of Hadassah Magazine and the director of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center are women.

Charlotte Jacobson, a former president of Hadassah and currently chairman [sic] of the American Section of the World Zionist Organization, spoke in January at the funeral of Rose L. Halprin, who had also held these positions. Among Jacobson’s remarks were these:

“Everyone will agree that Rose was feminine to her fingertips. She loved beautiful clothes and was fastidious in her appearance, but Rose did not believe in the feminist movement. She took her place as a Zionist leader with ease and self-assurance. She did not need E.R.A. to guarantee her place as an equal. She earned her place by her talent—her integrity—her knowledge—and her leadership…”


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