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Address to Women’s  League Convention at the Jewish Theological Seminary, June  15, 2005          

 

Good afternoon everyone. It is such a pleasure to be here to kick off the publication of “Always Up Front?and to celebrate the life and times of HFKG.

          I cannot think of a more appropriate setting for it was here at the Jewish Theological Seminary that Helen was exposed to and worked with the legendary figures of Conservative Jewry who helped shape her into the significant leader she became, and it was through the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism that she discovered the springboard which propelled her into a distinguished/remarkable public life.

          As you can imagine, in putting together a book that documented Helen’s long and well-lived life, much material found its way on the cutting-room floor.  But among the stories we didn’t use is one I’d like to share with you today. It is, in a way, a WL story as it involved someone high up in WL hierarchy. I don’t recall her name, but for all I know she may be sitting in the audience today.

          This woman was faced with a personal dilemma that also affected her role in WL  and like so many others, she turned to Helen for advice. In typical fashion, Helen heard her out, gave the situation some thought, and then offered her considered opinion. The woman took the advice. Her dilemma was resolved, and everything worked out to her great satisfaction. The next time she saw Helen, she told her what had happened and concluded by saying “Helen, you did it again.?Subsequently whenever the two would meet, she’d greet her with the same phrase: “Helen, you did it again.? 

          “You did it again?could have been an alternate title of this book. For Helen did do it again and again for more people than even she could remember. She did it in terms of giving advice ?when asked for and, on occasion, when not asked for. She did it in terms of showing up. You’ve all heard the Golda Meir adage: “There are those who love us, and there are those who love us and show up.?nbsp; Helen showed up: at meetings, functions, appearances (on a personal note, she was there for all my book-signing and presentations; two years ago, she and Leonard made it down to Washington for my son’s wedding driving from New York through a storm and arriving in time). She did it in terms of giving of herself to family, friends, generations of students, myriads of causes ?not least among them WL.

          For in terms of her public life, as I said before, WL is where it all began. And in that spirit, let me turn to material that did make it into the book and share with you the story of how it began

          It is shortly after the end of the Second World War. Helen is a young woman happily married to the man she had once adored from afar back when she was a chubby high school sophomore and he the boy voted handsomest senior. They have two small sons and live in a house in Marine Park, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, together with Helen’s parents: her strong, efficient mother and her gentle and much beloved father in an arrangement that seemed to work very well.    

          Although she had been raised in a traditional Jewish environment and Jewishness had always been an important part of her life, it was the news that was coming out around this time about Nazi atrocities and the murder of millions of Jews, as well as the increasing possibility of the establishment of a Jewish homeland that spurred in her a desire to become involved in Jewish organizational life. (At this point, I’m going to shift to Helen’s voice.)

          I thought I would join Hadassah. Its focus on Zionism appealed to me, and there was a group that met nearby. But when I mentioned it to my father, he said, “No. I don’t think you should do that. You should join Mama’s group, the Ladies?Auxiliary at the shul.?       

          I was surprised. Papa wasn’t a Sabbath observer. He wasn’t active in the Marine Park synagogue, a small storefront shul that barely got a daily minyan  together. The Ladies?Auxiliary was made up of a handful of women of my mother’s generation, and the only thing they did, as far as I could see, was raise money for the synagogue by having a bazaar.

          But if my father asked me to do something, I couldn’t refuse. I put Hadassah on hold,  joined the Ladies?Auxiliary, and began going along with Mama to the meetings where ten to twelve middle aged to elderly women would sit around and talk about how to raise money, raise money, raise money. There was no discussion about what was going on in the world, about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, about Zionism, even about Jewish tradition and history. The women were nice enough, but nothing they were doing seemed uplifting to me.        

          Then, a few months after I joined, I was offered the post of presidency. It came as a total surprise. The women were all much older than me. I was like a kid to them. But they seemed so very eager I take up their offer that I gave it some serious thought.

          If I were to become president, I decided, I would have to find a way to make this a more interesting group. Somewhere I had heard there was a central body of  ladies?auxiliaries from Conservative synagogues, and now I made it my business to find out what it was about. I discovered this was the National Women’s League. It had been founded in 1918 by Mathilde Schechter, the widow of Solomon Schechter, and it had branches all over the United States, Canada, even Mexico. Its purpose was to strengthen Jewish knowledge and values by providing programs and courses in how to read Hebrew, understand the bible, and participate in the holidays. It also provided methods for organizing  women’s groups. And all that was required for affiliation was the payment of dues -- twenty five cents a member.

          This is great, I thought. This is how you build up a ladies? auxiliary.

I reported back to the women, confident they would think I was presenting them with a wonderful gift. But when I mentioned the dues, they threw up their hands. “What? Twenty five cents from each of us??They wouldn’t hear of it.

          “Well, if you can’t do it, I can’t be the president,?I said. I was very, very determined. There followed a long and heated discussion, the upshot of which was they relented.

          Having surmounted that hurdle and with our ladies?auxiliary now a member of Women’s League, I was faced with the challenge of enhancing our membership. Marine Park had changed from the time my parents had bought their house. Many young families had moved into the neighborhood; there were more professional people. I wanted to get the younger women involved in our organization, but I didn’t know which ones or how many were Jewish.    

          Then I came up with the idea of canvassing the community on foot. I enlisted the help of my best friend Eva Ezra, and together we pushed our baby carriages up and down the blocks, stopping to look at the name-plates on the houses.  If a name sounded Jewish, we’d ring the doorbell. If a young woman came to the door, we’d introduce ourselves and tell her about the new organization that was forming at the synagogue. We underscored the fact that it was a social thing. Often that was the chief selling point. But we also stressed how our organization would enhance their knowledge of the beautiful traditions of Jewish life.

          One day we opened the gate to a white picket fence and rang the doorbell of Charlotte Levine. After listening to our spiel, the very young and very pregnant Charlotte said “Your organization sounds appealing. But I’m new to the neighborhood, and I don’t think I’m ready. Besides,?she added, “I’ve just committed myself to a group that will be learning to play mah jongg.?/font>

          “Oh but we teach mah jongg too,?I said impulsively. Mah Jongg was  very popular in those days, and I was an excellent player. Moreover since I had already taught piano, Sunday School, and typing, I was confident I could teach anything ?even mah jongg.        

          Charlotte wavered. “In that case . . .?

          As soon as I got home, I corralled a group. Mah jongg classes turned out to be a regular offering that first year, Charlotte Levine joined our group, and she turned out to be my second best friend in Marine Park.  

          Actually Charlotte would have joined with or without the mah jongg. She was the daughter of a cantor, and her growing up years in had been rich in Jewish life. Most of our new members, however, had had very little to do with Judaism. But once they got involved, their interest was sparked.

          Through the guidance of Women’s League, we began a lecture series. We set up a weekly meeting with the rabbi devoted to bible study. Often we would discuss the Torah portion of the week and apply it to current events. One session I remember very well was devoted to the Book of Job and its connection to the Holocaust which was just beginning to be talked about at the time. These were serious discussions. In most cases, the women were up to it. And if they weren’t, they sat there as if they knew what was going on.  

          In little more than a year, Mama’s Ladies?Auxiliary was transformed.  We had at least twenty-five new members and a range of educational and social offerings. At first  some of the older members felt they were being put on the shelf. But I appointed a few of them to the executive committee, and they began to appreciate the fact that their auxiliary was becoming a different kind of women’s organization with new programming, a new ideology, and a new name: the Sisterhood of the Marine Park Jewish Center.

          The change in name was most appropriate as we were an auxiliary of nothing. Typically in synagogues, the men’s organizations lead the way. In the Marine Park Jewish Center, the sisterhood was the spearhead, and the women who got their husbands involved. Most of the men had been bar- mitzvahed years before and that was it. But now they too were becoming active. Before long, we left the storefront behind for a beautiful new sanctuary. The Marine Park Jewish Center had taken off.

          As president of the Sisterhood of the Marine Park Jewish Center, I was invited to the meetings of the Metropolitan Branch of Women’s League that represented the five boroughs of New York City and the surrounding suburbs. The first meeting I went to was at Temple Beth El of Manhattan Beach, and it was there that I first met the  presidents of other sisterhoods. Many were teachers. A few were lawyers. Some had gone to a Jewish day school and knew how to daven. All were educated and informed. I was so impressed with them.

          After that, I attended every meeting of the Metropolitan Branch that I possibly could, always sitting up front, trying not to miss a thing. I learned parliamentary procedure and how to conduct an orderly meeting.  I learned about interesting programming and fund-raising concepts. I learned about speakers whom I invited to our sisterhood to deliver lectures on the struggle for Israeli statehood, on Jewish history, on ways to enhance Jewish life in the home.

          Being active in the Metropolitan branch brought me to the attention of the executive branch of Women’s League, and soon I was invited to sit in on national meetings. There I met some extraordinary women who would have an enormous impact on me, people like Fannie Minkin, the wife of a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and an important figure in Women’s League. Fannie had no children; I was like her bright little daughter, and she communicated to me her enthusiasm for learning and Judaism.

          Sarah Kopelman was president around the time I became active. She was an attorney, a tall and attractive woman, cultured and erudite. Sarah initiated the Social Action Committee of Women’s League which propelled the organization into advocating in areas like civil rights and civil liberties.

          Although I was not really ready, not trained, I was picked up quickly by women like Fannie and Sarah and Helen Sussman, another exceptional leader who would become president and who radiated enormous energy and electricity. They all  sensed my interest in the organization and my willingness to prepare myself to do whatever would be needed.

          In 1948, I selected to be a delegate to the National Convention in Atlantic City. I brought my mother and sister-in-law along. It was my first convention and most auspicious as it took place the year Israel became a state.          

          This was an important moment in my life to that point. Twelve hundred delegates were present. So many events were going on, it was mind-boggling. Moreover an election was going to be held which was most unusual. As a rule, the choices of the nominating committee were not contested, but in this case, Mrs. Kavey, a very bright and forceful woman, had arranged to be nominated as vice president from the floor.

          Ironically I knew Mrs. Kavey. I remembered her from Port Chester, the town I had grown up in. She was the president of the local bank. Now as she went around campaigning, my mother noticed her. She was so delighted to see someone she recognized that she called out to her: “Mrs. Kavowitz, Mrs. Kavowitz.?nbsp;     

          “My name is Kavey now,?the candidate snapped.

          As I became more and more active in the Metropolitan Branch, my geographical world expanded to include Morningside Heights where the Women’s League office was located within the Jewish Theological Seminary. That part of Manhattan was so unfamiliar to me. I was struck by the hilly landscape and the neo-Georgian buildings of the Seminary and nearby Columbia University and Barnard College.

          The first time I walked through the Seminary’s towering gates, I passed a tall and thin man with a small beard. “My goodness,?I thought. “He looks just like Jesus.?/font>

           “Who is that??I asked a woman beside me.

          “Oh, don’t you know? It’s Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the chancellor.?

          I felt like running over to introduce myself. Of course I didn’t. But in the years to come, I would get to know Rabbi Finkelstein very well.

          I’d also get to hear many stories about him like the time he was in the elevator of the Seminary with a group of people. With his typical courtesy, he asked each person where he was going and pressed the appropriate floor button. Two gentile visitors happened to be in the elevator at that time. One turned to the other and said, “In this place, even the elevator operators wear beards.?/font>

          The Conservative movement had experienced tremendous growth during this post-war period. As people moved out to the suburbs and new neighborhoods within the cities, the number of synagogues increased. While on the one hand, the synagogue remained the vehicle through which people reached God, participated in rituals, and were exposed to the treasures of Judaism, it had also become the instrument for establishing and maintaining a social life in a new community. Beyond these factors, the realization of how much of the Jewish world had been destroyed during the war made people want to be pro-active in their Jewishness.

          By the 1950’s, there were so many new Conservative synagogues in the New York region that the Metropolitan Branch of Women’s League became too large and unwieldy, and the decision was made to break it up into various branches. Brooklyn, with a membership of 4,500 and thirty sisterhoods, was deemed large and active enough to be a branch of its own. In 1952, I became Brooklyn’s its first president.

          I felt this was a great accomplishment not only for myself but for the Marine Park Jewish Center. After all, compared to Brooklyn’s many major congregations, we were  modest, more like the new kid on the block. It was kind of ironic that the first president of Brooklyn Branch came out of this upstart synagogue. But as I had with the Sisterhood of Marine Park, I was determined to put Brooklyn Branch on the map.

          At one point, I invited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to come and speak at a Brooklyn Branch event. When he originally came to this country from Germany, he was a refugee from Hitler’s fascism. Although still a young man, he already had a reputation as a scholar and was quickly picked up by the Reform movement to teach at  Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. But as he was very observant, he wasn’t happy there and before long moved over to the Seminary.

          He was probably in his late thirties by then, cosmopolitan and very polite with dark black hair and piercing eyes that looked right at you when he spoke to you.

          spoke about the portion of the week applying it to the audience. And although the women found it difficult to understand his accent, his personality shone through. He was so modest, so real. Over the years, his speech improved tremendously, and he became a well known and widely quoted figure.

          Aside from my family, Women’s League had become my great passion. I was part of that mid-century generation of middle class women who did not work and found outlets for their talents and energies in volunteer organizational work. And through my father’s suggestion, I had become immersed in an extraordinary organization that was enriching my life immeasurably.

          Naturally, it took up a great deal of my time. Every so often when I was rushing off to a meeting or over my head in planning some event, I would turn to my father and say “Papa, look  what you got me into.?/font>

          He’d smile that quiet, gentle smile I loved so much. “Well, it was the right thing to do, wasn’t it??he’d say.

 

I think this little excerpt from “Always Up Front? not only gives you a sense of Helen’s early involvement in Women’s League, but also of the qualities that drove her, among them confidence, determination, spunk, willingness to learn ?all of which she would have ample opportunity to develop and exercise as she moved on to positions of greater prestige and power -- but also tenderness, a quality perhaps not apparent on the surface but evident to those who knew her well. Happily I consider myself one of these.

 When we began working on the story of her life, Helen was one month shy of her 91st birthday but still a vibrant presence. Quickly we settled into a routine. I’d show up at her apartment with my tape recorder at 8:30 in the morning, and for the next two hours I’d ask her questions and she’d tell me stories. A rather early start but it couldn’t be helped. The rest of her day was already taken up. Invariably there was a development meeting at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a board meeting of the Jewish Braille Institute, a planning session for a Women’s League function, a lecture she had to hear, an exhibition she had to see, a luncheon she had to attend.

But for those two early morning hours, Helen was all mine. The front door would be ajar. I’d let myself in and there she’d be waiting for me, red hair perfectly coiffed, makeup complete, wearing a rose-colored satin robe and a welcoming smile. We’d begin.

Many of the stories were familiar to me because we’d been friends for 25 years. I can still remember the day we first met. I was a new professor at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York and had entered the office I was assigned to share with a senior professor. There I was greeted by a wall of photographs, all of well known figures, people like Nelson Rockefeller, Robert F. Kennedy, Moshe Dayan, David Ben Gurion, Elie Wiesel. And beside each of them was an attractive woman wearing a pill box hat entirely covered with lilac blossoms.

          A few minutes later, the woman in the photographs sailed into the office. She was still wearing a hat, only this one looked like something out of Gone with the Wind, an appropriate accessory for the woman our chairman used to call “the Scarlet O’Hara of the Speech Department.?/font>

His soubriquet for Helen was, in some respects, on the mark. Like Scarlet O’Hara, Helen was brave and determined, optimistic and confident. And she shared the quintessential southern belle’s take-charge attitude. Where was I from, she now demanded to know. What courses was I teaching?  What was my family like? My responses must have led her to assume I was Jewish because her next question was what synagogue did I belong to? And that response brought a smile of recognition. She knew the temple; she knew the rabbi.  A few weeks later when I told the rabbi about my meeting Helen, he told me about the time he was standing on a staircase and was so distracted watching her walk up, he nearly lost his footing. Helen could have such an effect on people, even rabbis.

          Although we were a generation apart, we became close confidantes. We would get together for coffee in between classes, we socialized outside of school. She encouraged me to pursue a doctorate and kept tabs on my progress. And she maintained the connection between us even after we were no longer teaching colleagues.

          So the material of Helen’s life was familiar to me and our friendship was a given. But as we plunged into the depths of her past and she courageously confronted times of pain and loss as well as joy and achievement, our relationship deepened. Also I began to see her life as it played out against the backdrop of larger world events and how she was simultaneously a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time -- the living embodiment of the old adage: “If you want something done, give it to a busy woman.?/font>

          At the end of our two-hour sessions, Helen would walk me to the elevator, and I would leave in a mood of serenity and contentment, a state

of  being that remained unarticulated, even unexamined until the day our conversation turned to a concern of my own. Ever interested and empathetic, Helen pursued the subject. But we had much work ahead of us and no time to spare. “I don’t want to bother you with my tsuris,?I said to her.

        “But your tsuris is my tsuris,? Helen said to me.

          And at that moment, the feeling that had been hovering about me over the past months came into focus. During our hours together, I had been the recipient of a supportive, non-judgmental affection bathed in an aura of Yiddishkeit with all that implies that had been part of the very air I breathed until my mother died more than fourteen years ago.  I did not know how much I missed it until now.

        Appropriately our journey lasted nine months, the time it takes for a life to be born. We completed the tapings at the start of the Jewish New Year, a time for endings   as well as beginnings. I moved on with some reluctance. Now that our regular encounters were over, the unexpected gift Helen gave me could not be expected to continue. But it abides within me, a treasured memory, radiant as a rose-colored satin robe.

 

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