March 25, 2022

Beyond the Bake Sale: Women’s Role in the Federation

Jill Hershorin Archivist and Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ

Highlighting Sara Blum

At the end of the 19th century, American Jewish women inaugurated an era of unprecedented community involvement. They persevered in committing their work to help serve the needs of the Jewish community both home and abroad. References have been made to how women’s volunteer services helped to shape the community, but few have truly highlighted the shift of “woman as volunteer” to “women as professional.”

In the post war years, the call from the women leaders in our community asking others to step up beyond solely as members of a charitable organization or club but to lead in such organizations was a bit ahead of its time. Women were turning their roles as benevolent and quiet fundraisers into a variety of opportunities to fund, promote, and run organizations that were the equal of any business venture. From producing goods for fundraising sales to leading complex institutions, women displayed the financial and organizational skills that many claimed were unique to their male counterparts.

This month we celebrate the work of Sara Blum. In 1946, Sara Blum became the president of the Women’s Division of the Jewish Community Council of Essex County (now Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest). It had 15,000 members, but Sara sought still more. Writing in the UJA newsletter in 1946, she said, “What we need this year are 2,500 more women who are willing to give of themselves and want to work. It isn’t enough to feel sorry for starving, homeless people. We must also do something about it. The only way to do something about it is to have thousands working together. I cannot urge too strongly on every woman in Essex County to become a part of the working community and join those of us who are ready and willing to make our goal the lifeline of those who look to us for help.”

Later that year Blum ran a series of women-only parlor meetings to get emergency donations for post-War relief in France, where Jewish refugees were languishing because of starvation and disease. The very compelling theme of the campaign was “Don’t Let Them Die.”

In an editorial in the Women’s Division newsletter We, The Women, Sara wrote, “U.S. Army Chaplain Lt. Col. Judah Nadich, speaking at the Initial Gifts Luncheon, said that thousands have died since liberation because we didn’t bring them help in time. Part of the blame is ours. We must not let Chaplain Nadich make that accusation again. It’s such a simple thing not to let these refugees die.”

Women’s Division members responded magnificently to Sara’s call. The national campaign sought to raise $100 million dollars and Newark contributed $2,050,000 toward that goal. The following year the goal increased to $300,000,000. Records indicate they contributed more than three times as much to UJA as they had the year before. Sara went on to become a national vice chairman of the UJA Women’s Division.

We thank Sara Blum and other women leaders in Federation for their dedication and tireless work for the Jewish community both at home and overseas.