In 1894, a group of women held a meeting inside Temple Emanu-El at 1 East 65th Street. That gathering marked the beginning of the National Council of Jewish Women New York, which has spent the last 125 years advocating for New Yorkers of all backgrounds.
As NCJW NY grew, volunteers extended the areas of their outreach. In the early 20th century, the organization helped immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island settle into their new lives. Today, the organization runs a variety of programs, including a food pantry for the hungry, a back-to-school shop for low income children and classes for senior citizens. Inspired by Jewish values with a belief in female leadership, the nonprofit works for social justice through service to underprivileged populations and advocacy to address inequality in the city.
Founding and Mission
The founding members of NCJW NY shared several traits: they were Jewish, affluent, progressive, and had a desire to improve the lives of others. Andrea Salwen Kopel, who has headed NCJW NY as Executive Director for the past five years, provided context for the world in which these women founded the organization. “It’s really important to keep in mind that in that era there was no other place to go if you were a woman and you were Jewish. There were a lot of other avenues that were closed to you: professional opportunity, working, but also other organizations where Jewish women in the late 1800s were not yet welcomed,” she said. Thus, for Jewish women, NCJW NY served as an institution: “This was the focus of everyday and everything that they did,” Kopel said.
In 2019, many more opportunities exist for women who are Jewish. Consequently, NYCJW NY’s greatest purpose is no longer to serve as a salon (in the historical sense) for affluent Jewish women. Amidst a changing world, Kopel shared what connects the NCJW NY of the past with the NCJW NY of the present: the organization’s mission. “We are what we’ve always been, which is a place to go for progressive Jewish women and their families and their allies to make change happen in the city,” she said.
Across the park from the location of its first chapter meeting, NCJW NY today operates out of its Council House at 241 West 72nd Street. Employing only ten staff, NCJW NY is volunteer-heavy: 400 volunteers create and execute programming covering a vast array of topics. Kopel explained that the typical volunteer is a middle-aged, progressive Jewish woman living on the Upper West Side. NCJW NY is the third largest chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, the national federation that was founded a year before the NY chapter and is headquartered in Washington D.C. In a partnership with the national organization, the NYC chapter is a separately incorporated non-profit that spent $1.6 million in 2018, according to financial statements. Kopel said that the New York chapter is featured prominently in the accomplishments of the federation throughout its history.
Highlights of the 125 Years
Following NCJW NY’s founding, America received a wave of immigration at the start of the 20th century. Much of the organization’s initial service centered around helping these immigrants, many of whom were Jewish, who arrived in America on ships destined for Ellis Island. The women of NCJW NY assisted these newcomers; for decades, volunteers helped to reunite families, find them settlement, and provide them with education and job training. Kopel explained that the people NCJW NY has served over the years have changed in parallel with the city’s changing demographics. In the early years of NCJW NY’s advocacy, the organization’s services bettered the lives of many Jewish people. “More immigrants were Jewish and there were more Jewish people really in financial need,” she said. Programming NCJW NY pursues over the years reflect the pertinent needs of New Yorkers. “As the needs changed in the city we changed our focus,” she said.
NCJW NY’s dedication to the causes it serves is evident through its continuation of various programs, which in many cases were created decades ago. For instance, NCJW NY dedicates much of its programming to improve the lives of senior citizens. In 1946, the organization opened the first full-day senior center in Manhattan. Today, NCJW NY continues to assist this population through the Council Lifetime Learning, which fosters community among seniors by bringing them together to engage through arts and culture. Another veteran program of the NCJW NY that continues today is the Pregnancy Loss Support Program, which was started in 1982. Through the program, professionally-trained volunteers who have experienced loss themselves offer counseling and support to grieving families. The following year, the organization created the Hunger Program to feed hungry New Yorkers. Nearing its fourth decade, the program offers food supplies through the Monday Food Pantry and hot meals through the Community Kitchen, which serves nearly 200,000 hot meals per year to over 30,000 New Yorkers.
NCJW NY continues to launch new programs. In 2015, the organization organized the Back 2 School Store, which provides elementary school kids from low-income families an authentic shopping experience every August, free of charge. Most recently, in 2018 NCJW NY led the creation of Pro-Truth, a coalition of reproductive rights advocates. The coalition is united to raise awareness about and fight fake abortion clinics that exist throughout New York.
As NCJW NY celebrates 125 years, Kopel thinks about the robust past of the organization that she will now lead into the future. She thinks about ways to revamp decades-old programs in addition to creating new programs to meet the ever-changing needs of the city.