The origins of the National Council of Jewish Women and the Pittsburgh Section date to 1893, when the Parliament of Religions convened in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. Hannah G. Solomon of Chicago was a participant in the Parliament’s Jewish Women’s Congress, and she founded the National Council of Jewish women following the event. Pittsburgh representatives to the Parliament returned enthused and founded The Columbian Council, which would later become known as the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section. Pittsburgh Section has an illustrious history, and its principles, values and activities have paralleled those of its parent body.
Hannah Solomon’s vision was to provide an ongoing volunteer framework for Jewish women that would go beyond the social and educational activities of traditional women’s clubs. She sought to have women actively engage in community services that promoted the ideals of the Progressive Era. Like many of NCJW’s early members who enjoyed economic security and community involvement, she believed that with status and acceptance came the responsibility to look beyond her domestic duties and even beyond her own religious community to serve and care for others. Her views resonated with her peers, and she called upon those Jewish women to “band together in a union of workers to further the best and highest interest of Judaism and humanity.” Their goal was to be more than a social outlet or to provide charity, but instead to have genuine social impact, particularly in American cities experiencing significant Jewish immigration and a rapidly changing urban environment.
These women were soon joined by social workers and teachers who were attracted by NCJW’s promotion of volunteerism, social activism, and civic reform. This second group brought their professional expertise to bear on the enterprise.
From the beginning, NCJW did not shy away from engaging in political advocacy aimed at the social issues of the day; be it immigration, employment, suffrage, public health, or birth control. Their political activities spoke to their broader and outward looking worldview, one that recognized that societal ills had yet to be addressed by government or welfare agencies. Their activism brought them into contact and spawned collaborations with other ethnic and religious groups, and even ultimately provided the contacts and motivated some to seek political office. Those contacts were also instrumental in seeing that the volunteer projects Council initiated and causes it espoused would be adopted by governmental bodies and civic organizations. As Barbara Burstin noted in her history of Steel City Jews, these women were pioneers of the urban frontier.
NCJW Pittsburgh continues to inspire volunteerism and works collaboratively with other organizations to provide services to our community. We have maintained a strong advocacy and social justice mission to address contemporary issues, including civil rights, reproductive rights, equitable education access, human trafficking, and domestic violence.
We thank Eileen Lane, NCJW Life Board Member, for permission to reprint a portion of the presentation she made to the Squirrel Hill Historical Society in the summer of 2017. Eileen has a passion for NCJW and the history of Jewish women’s contributions in Pittsburgh. Recently she co-edited with Lois Michaels and Eric Lidji a compendium of histories of Pittsburgh Jewish women entitled Her Deeds Sing Her Priases, published under the auspices and financial support of NCJW Pittsburgh and its Rauh Oral History fund. Special thanks, too, to board member and past president Hilary Spatz for preparing these articles on NCJW Pittsburgh’s history as part of our ongoing celebration of our 125th anniversary.