After 75 Years, Women’s Philanthropy is Still Making History
By Dexter Davison
April 26, 2021
Note: You are invited to join the Women’s Philanthropy 75th Anniversary Celebration at their May 12 Annual Meeting. Please register here.
When more than 600 women gathered virtually for the Women’s Philanthropy Signature Event on March 4, 2021, the energy of the evening was palpable, even through a computer screen. Amid a global pandemic, the event was history-making, a unique chapter in the long story of Detroit’s Jewish women coming together to make a difference.
A story that began 75 years ago.
In 1946, Adele Levy, National Chairman of the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal, began a cross-country trip to bring a message to Jewish women across the United States: that every Jewish individual needed to be involved in philanthropic work, not just men. She stopped first in Detroit, on February 9, where she spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust and the desperate need of those who had survived and been displaced. Three days later, on February 12, 1946, the Women’s Division (WD) of the Jewish Welfare Federation officially launched.
Women taking part in philanthropy was not a new concept. Women played a vital role in early aid societies, organizations like National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and Hadassah, and Federation’s own Allied Jewish Campaign. These organizations helped serve as a building block for what was to come.
When NCJW and Hadassah were founded, women did not even have the right to vote. Even those women who were college-educated were expected to marry and work inside the home. But within these organizations, women gained an opportunity to thrive outside the home in both a philanthropic and political sphere. It also gave women experience in leadership, project research and management, budgeting and allocation, and fundraising.
Outside of women’s organizations, there were less opportunities for women to lead. Although some women held key positions in Federation’s Allied Jewish Campaign, they were the exception, not the rule. As one Detroit Jewish News article put it, women’s roles were usually relegated to “serving the cookies to men who had gathered for a meeting.”
Life began to shift in the 1940s. With WWII erupting, women stepped into new roles both in and out of the home as men went off to war. The Federation suspended its Allied Jewish Campaign in favor of the Detroit War Chest, and women joined under their own division to help raise money. They were appointed to budget and allocation committees and served as committee chairs in groups primarily comprised of men. They took seats at tables never before occupied by women.
By 1946, the war was over, men were returning home and the Allied Jewish Campaign resumed. While most funds over the previous few years had gone to war efforts, now it was desperately needed to aid the remaining Jews in Europe and towards the dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Women were faced with a choice: did they return to the pre-war “normal?” Did they relinquish the roles they had taken on to the returning men or did they assert themselves as leaders?
Along came Adele Levy and the United Jewish Appeal who stressed the importance of a woman’s gift, separate from that of her husband. With Levy’s urging, Detroit stepped up, creating a fundraising division by women for women.
The WD provided more than just an opportunity for a woman to contribute to the campaign in her own right, it offered leadership training, educational classes, comradery, friendship, and a purpose outside the home.
The first Detroit board of the WD, led by the incomparable Dora Ehrlich, was well-chosen. Each board member had ample experience within organizations like Hadassah and NCJW, among others. They had the skills needed to not only start such a group, but to find and shape the leaders who would propel WD into the future. And women did not stop there; many who started their journeys in WD went on to serve as leaders and presidents within other organizations and within Federation itself.
Some aspects of WD have changed over time, including names. From the beginning, women were identified only by their husbands’ names; but, by the mid-1970s, women took back their first names. And since 2012, the former WD has been known as Women’s Philanthropy.
Throughout the decades, educational programs have shifted with the needs of each generation. Women-focused missions like Mosaic were created to engage with Israel. While in the early years many women had to use their household allowance to make their contributions, today more women are in the workforce and programs like the Jewish Working Women’s Network provide support and connections. Young Women’s Philanthropy provides a space for the next generation to make an impact as they move through life stages.
There is one thing that hasn’t changed in its 75 years: Women’s Philanthropy is the place for a woman to make a difference in the Jewish community, with her own voice, her own name and her own contribution.
To learn more about the history of Women’s Philanthropy and the role of women in Detroit’s Jewish community, please check out the following links: