A century ago, a small group of savvy, dedicated Jewish women in Baltimore recognized a problem and decided to take charge of the situation.
“So, what else is new,” you might ask? Well, in this particular case, their efforts yielded a coalition that remains strong, even 100 years later.
Harnessing the energy and focusing the efforts of dozens of female-fueled organizations, the founding mothers created the nation’s first, and now only one of its kind — since all others around the country have since disbanded — Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations of Maryland. This month, at its annual convention held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on May 19, the organization will commemorate that legacy and celebrate its future.
“East was east and west was west and it seemed as if ‘never the twain would meet,’” said Sadie Crockin, a co-founder along with Hortense Moses, as quoted on the organization’s comprehensive timeline. She was referring to the strong division between German and Eastern European Jewish organizations at that time.
“And then the Federation came, which afforded the opportunity for the wonderful women from all parts of the city to meet, appreciate one another, express themselves from a common platform and cooperate with one another,” five years prior to the formation of the Associated Jewish Charities, now The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which coalesced in 1921.
This is an organization that is extremely unique and the founding mothers were brilliant women we hope we’re emulating. They knew in 1916 that there was a need for the Jewish women to be strong, and they would only do it if they were together.
— Sheila Derman, president, Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations of Maryland
Seven founding organizations of the womens’ federation are still active today: Aged Home and Friendly Inn Auxilliary (Levindale Auxiliary), Baltimore Section National Council of Jewish Women, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Sisterhood, Eutaw Place Temple Sisterhood (Temple Oheb Shalom Sisterhood), Hadassah, Har Sinai Congregation Sisterhood and Miriam Lodge, K.S.B., Inc. The organization added “of Maryland” to its name back in the 1920s, to accommodate the sizeable participation from Jewish women’s groups in Cumberland and Annapolis. Today, the constituents are solely from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but the name remains.
Since its inception, the FJWOM, whose membership is comprised of the leadership from its constituent organizations, has been active in addressing social justice issues. Those began with war relief efforts, aid to immigrant families and support of women’s suffrage in its first decades, and also founding the Young Women’s Hebrew Association, a forerunner to the JCC. Later, they instituted Serv-A, through the U.S.O. which provided services and holiday resources to Jewish armed forces personnel, and they helped settle thousands of arriving refugees and also surveyed the Jewish community in order to discover and address its unmet needs.
Another of the organization’s priorities has been to provide leadership training in parliamentary procedure and advocacy efforts, and also to promote the importance of staying educated on community concerns — all of which continues to be a strong part of its mission today.
“If you’re not educated, you’re not a good advocate,” said the current president, Sheila Derman. Derman’s passion for advocacy runs deep, reaching back to rallies she attended with her grandmother, Ida Davidson, a founder of the Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York. Davidson also worked alongside Baltimorean Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah in 1912.
To tackle more complex topics, FJWOM organizes panel discussions that might include experts, politicians or clergy. Issues are addressed through a Jewish lens, so halacha is always part of the discussion as well.
“We’ve organized trips to D.C. and Annapolis to meet with our elected officials and testified on committees on behalf of [many] issues,” Derman said. “While we’re not lobbyists per se, we’re really teaching federation women the importance of being involved, in a bipartisan way. That’s the way things happen.”
The organization votes upon resolutions at its annual conference and disseminates written decisions to its constituents, which could range from issues regarding women’s reproductive health, domestic abuse, climate change, stem cell research or Israel, and the resolutions are “meant to be educational, informative and to provide a basis for action,” Derman said. “I feel what the resolutions do is they stimulate education, and to me, it’s education of women and families that leads to good public policy and eventually to social justice.”
In addition to voting on resolutions, said past president Eve Vogelstein, the national convention this month will feature a centennial celebration including a play that illustrates the FJWOM history, written by Ronda Cooperstein and directed by Miriam Bazensky. Vogelstein, who co-chairs the convention with Lynda Weinstein, added that each year the organization honors outstanding women from constituent organizations and also presents the E.B. Hirsh Lifetime Achievement award. This year’s honoree is Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector.
Hirsh, president from 1963 to 1965, has a legacy that includes being a catalyst for saving the Lloyd Street Synagogue from demolition with another past president, Shoshana Cardin.
“E.B. Hirsh’s daughter, Helene Waranch, is going in as president,” Vogelstein said. “So we’ve got the whole l’dor v’dor [concept happening] also because our incoming vice president’s [Linda Boteach] daughter is our keynote speaker, Melissa Boteach,” who is vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program.
“[My mother] was an understated, capable, thoughtful, caring human being,” Waranch said. “I was very lucky to have a mother like that. She didn’t care about fanfare and notoriety — she did what she thought was right. I can’t ask for a better legacy. I don’t know that I can live up to it, but I try.”
Waranch added that she plans to implement a strategic planning phase during her term “to make sure that we’re stable and can change as the times have changed.”
But, according to author and historian Deborah Weiner, who compiled special organizational timeline panels for the centennial, the organization has done just that.
“They chose to keep up with the times rather than stay stuck in the past,” she said, citing the beginning of the women’s movement as a turning point in their history. Looking at the past president portraits, one can practically pinpoint that change, when the portrait identification changed from women using Mrs. (husband’s name) to using their own.
“They’ve always had this dedicated leadership from the very beginning and still have it,” Weiner added. “They’re interested in uniting the Jewish community, and they work to make sure they’re as inclusive as possible. Their commitment to keep diverse elements of the community together in the group is part of the reason for their success.”
Noting the 27 member organizations that span the Jewish affiliation spectrum, Sheila Stern, a few months into her role as president of Hadassah of Greater Baltimore, appreciates the diversity.
“Everyone in our group — you can be Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist — we all come together to give our ideas and opinions on the issues,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your Judaism is, they’re all welcome at federation.”
“You get to meet and become friends with people that I would not have met at another venue,” echoed Weinstein. “This allowed me to expand, which I think is important, because [my own] community, to me, is not only what I’m interested in. You live in a world, you have to understand everybody. I raised my kids to be tolerant and you have to practice what you preach.”
Linda S. Elman, president of Women’s Institute of Torah, incoming women’s campaign chair for The Associated and a business owner, said, “It’s a great networking opportunity to meet others in the community. I’ve met incredible talented, dynamic women.”
She added that all the women, many who have families, full time jobs or run businesses and are leaders in other organizations are “extremely dedicated” and marveled at the FJWOM past presidents list, which she calls “a who’s who” of power-house women in Baltimore.
Early in its history, at a time when it was more common for men to be communally involved, the federation “gave [women] a vehicle to use to play a leadership role in the community,” Weiner said. “It gave them an organizational structure and their coordinating role was important. There were all these groups going off in all different directions. They coordinated it all and didn’t step on people’s toes. They created a calendar each year [to prevent overlapping of organizations’ events], which was kind of mundane but was probably very important. It helped with the nitty gritty of organizing. It’s that kind of behind the scenes, non-glamorous stuff that nobody thinks about. A lot of times when events happened [JFWOM] might not have been front and center, but [instead] behind the scenes to make it happen.” She added, that over the years “I was surprised to the extent they took on women’s issues as opposed to only Jewish issues.”
Though socializing and camaraderie definitely factor into the group’s appeal, it’s the issues the organization takes on, such as equal pay for women; an end to human trafficking for forced labor or sex; affordable quality childcare and healthcare and housing and employment assistance; that are the heart and soul of what they stand for.
“This is an organization that is extremely unique and the founding mothers were brilliant women we hope we’re emulating,” Derman said. “[They] knew in 1916 that there was a need for the Jewish women to be strong, and they would only do it if they were together.”
Incoming president Waranch agrees.
“My hope is that federation will get stronger as we move into our second century and that women in Baltimore Jewish organizations will thrive and we’ll be there to serve our community and our constituency. And together we’re stronger.”