Sisterhood Blog

JWA Spotlights Jewish Women's Activism

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Gus Freedman/Jewish Women's Archive
Sam Wood, Marilyn Heiss, and Alana Alpert study primary sources at the JWA.

Like all large groups of people, American Jews are complex and irreducible despite some aspects of shared culture. Recently, the Jewish Women’s Archive made an interesting choice to focus a new curriculum on Jewish involvement in the labor and civil rights movements — without cheerleading or focusing solely on women’s involvement — thereby shining a probing light on that very complexity.

Called “Living the Legacy,” the curriculum uses primary sources to paint a multifaceted portrait of Jewish activism from the roots to the height of the labor and civil rights movements, right up through today.

In other curricula on social justice, “there was little engagement with the history of American Jewish involvement in social justice movements, except to celebrate it in a fairly superficial way — ‘Jews were at the forefront of all social justice movements in American history — Yay, Jews!,’” JWA’s Director of Public History Dr. Judith Rosenbaum told me in an email exchange. “We felt that this loses much of what’s complex and interesting about Jews and social justice.”

Rosenbaum highlights accounts that complicate the oft-told tale of Jewish activism: Southern Jews who resisted civil rights because it “threatened their own precarious acceptance,” as well as those Jews who got involved in organizing not because of Jewish values but rather in opposition to their own Jewish communities which they perceived as conformist or materialist.

Browsing the documents and lessons was sobering. In one lesson, for instance, students are meant to act out a southern Synagogue board meeting about whether or not to publicly support a Northern Jewish group that has arrived in town for a civil rights demonstration. As a primary source, it includes a letter from a Southern congregation to the anti-segregation Union of American Hebrew Congregations, declaring “segregation is not a religious issue and it is not a Jewish issue.” The letter gets increasingly painful to read — and racist — from there.

Rosenbaum also notes that in designing the curriculum, they were eager to highlight women’s stories that might otherwise have been ignored “because they may not have been on the front lines of public demonstrations or because their activism as housewives on the Lower East Side, doesn’t fit into traditional views of who is an activist.”

Indeed, another lesson focuses specifically on the women of that neighborhood who, at the dawn of the 20th century, organized a massive kosher meat boycott after prices rose.

As I was reminded during the months I was reporting on women in the Occupy movement, women’s concerns have never been separate from issues of racial and economic justice. Indeed women are always part of those fights — furthermore, issues of culture, gender and privilege, if not addressed, can hobble effective activism. Kudos to JWA for bringing a new focus to battles of the past that remain so relevant.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: sisterhood, living the legacy, jwa, jewish women's archive, activism

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.