The following essay about Jewish women in public service was written by Jordan Klein, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
When Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky walked into her Chicago office for our pre-arranged meeting, she was practically in tears. She confessed that she just had to tell us what happened that day. She had spent the morning at the local courthouse, trying to keep an Hispanic grandmother from getting deported. She described for us how the the woman’s grandchild was hysterical, clinging onto his grandmother, seeming to understand the dire situation. As she told us this story, Representative Schakowsky’s eyes welled up. In the end, the court told the grandmother that the next time she came to court, she should have her airplane ticket to take her to her country of origin, away from her family, away from her grandson. Representative Schakowsky told my mom and me that she would keep fighting. Then she said it was interesting timing she was meeting with us after that because it had felt like a “very Jewish morning.” But we’ll come back to this later in my paper.
I’m going to talk with you today about amazing women like Representative Schakowsky. For my major project, I’ve chosen to research Jewish women in public service, and I want to begin my discussion with the role Jewish women played in the suffrage movement. For anyone who doesn’t know that word, “Suffrage” was the movement of women to win the right to vote. Before 1920 in the U.S., women were not permitted to vote for their representatives. I was surprised to learn that there were many Jewish women who were part of the suffrage movement, but what’s actually not surprising about this, is that Jewish women were involved in social activism before suffrage. For example, they went out on strike and opened settlement houses. But back to suffrage, first there was The Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. It was the only Jewish women’s organization in the world devoted exclusively to obtain both national, and Jewish, suffrage for women. But of course there were women who fought for the right to vote without the organization. Gertrude Weil, Netta Franklin, and Rosika Schwimmer are just a few of the many Jewish women in the U.S. involved in women’s suffrage. One person who stood out to me was Gertrude Weil. She was a leader, and president of multiple organizations. But what I found most interesting is the fact I had never heard of her before. I found this shocking because she is a part of the reason women are allowed to vote, and we stand on her shoulders. Yet most of us have probably not heard of her until today.
Five years after women gained the right to vote in 1920, the first Jewish woman was elected to the House of Representatives. Her name was Florence Prag Kahn, and she represented a district in California. She actually did not win the seat. She was a teacher who took over the position after the death of her husband, Julius Kahn. Although not elected, she still was the first Jewish woman in Congress, and the fifth woman. The next time a Jewish woman was in Congress was forty-five years later–yes, that number was 45–a long time. In 1970 Bella Abzug was elected to the House. Abzug’s nickname was “Battling Bella,” as she was a lawyer, social activist, and leader of the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies. Then, the first governor who was a Jewish woman was elected in 1985–Madeleine Kunin was Vermont’s first female governor. In 1988 Nita Lowey, my current representative, was elected to Congress. Next, in 1992, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected to the Senate in California. These Jewish female leaders–Nita Lowey, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein, led me to the main part of my project.
I sent letters to the eight Jewish women in public service on the national stage. I asked them a few questions about whether being a woman and/or a Jew informed how they worked, and also whether, as members of these two groups, they felt that they faced obstacles. Lastly, I asked if they had any advice for me as I become a Jewish young woman. I sent the letter to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Lois Frankel, Jan Schakowsky, Susan Davis, Nita Lowey, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer. I received letters back from Lois Frankel representing Boca Raton, FL, and Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court Justice; I met with Jan Schakowsky, the representative of northern Chicago, and I saw Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak at the 92nd Street Y.
The first person I heard back from was Elena Kagan. Although she did not talk much about her Judaism, her letter offered some themes that would be common with others who responded to me. What I took most from her is that hard work really pays off. I also found evidence of this idea when I researched her. She went to Princeton University for college, then she got a fellowship to Worcester College in Oxford, followed by Harvard Law School. She did a lot of work to get to where she is.
She taught me that if you put your mind to something, and then you work hard for it, you can definitely get it. Here is a bit of what she wrote to me, “To answer some of your questions, I was drawn to public service because I believe it is very important to use one’s strengths and ability to help others…. I wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice because I love learning and thinking about the law. So far, it has been both a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. As you go forward, my best advice is to always work hard, regardless of any obstacles you may face. With determination and hard work, I have no doubt you will reach whatever goals you set for yourself.” The idea of offering one’s talents to help others is another idea she emphasized that makes sense to me. While she did not mention her Judaism to me in her letter, in 2011, Bill Mears from CNN documented Kagan’s description of her experience from her own Bat Mitzvah. She said, “I had to negotiate myself with Rabbi (Shlomo) Riskin,” who had never before performed the coming-of-age rite with a 12-year-old girl. She later said, “It was good, not great. It was not exactly what my brother had done, which is what I wanted. But the experience shaped my life, negotiating with Rabbi Riskin. It was a formative experience, and I guess I’ve always been a striver.” The lesson for me in reading this is that for both women and for Jews, at certain moments in time, history may be treating them unfairly. But if you keep pushing and keep working hard, maybe these limitations can change and maybe you can get so far as to become a Supreme Court justice.
You can take a closer look at her letter and picture on my poster board.
Next, I received an email from a woman named Felicia Goldstein. She told me that Lois Frankel, a Representative from Boca Raton, got my letter and was working on her response. About a month later I received her letter along with a drawing she made. She told me about how stereotypes and motherhood pushed her towards politics. Here is a quotation from her letter: “Being a woman has shaped my career in politics in many ways. As a young girl growing up in the 1950s, there was a lot of stereotyping between boys and girls. Girls were taught that their role in life was to get married and have children. I always resisted those stereotypes and when, in the 1960s, there was a wave of civil and women’s rights activism, I became very involved in student activism.”
So what I learned about Congresswoman Frankel is she resisted stereotypes from a young age. Then when she had her son, she felt that she could give him anything, but she saw that other parents struggled. She wanted to fix that. She wrote to me, “The idea that every kid deserves the same opportunities was my biggest motivation to run for office.” I also found this when I met with Jan Schakowsky. When I asked if womanhood pointed her towards politics, she told me that when she was a young mother, she saw that there were no expiration dates on milk and other dairy products. So she and a group of other mothers got together and worked to put expiration dates on the food. I will say more about Jan Schakowsky in a bit. The last thing Representative Frankel mentioned that was important to me was that the Jewish ideals of tzedakah, which is charity or giving back to community, and tikkun olam, which is healing the world or social justice, were central to her as a Jewish public servant. Justice Kagan also wrote about offering one’s talents to help others, which seems to be a similar idea to tzedakah and tikkun olam.
Meeting with Jan Schakowsky was an experience I will never forget. She taught me so many things, and made a huge impact on me. She spoke about what it is like to be a woman in politics, and she told me something that I could really relate to. She explained that she notices that when she speaks in public, 95% of the speech is what she would like it to be, and 5% of the speech she feels she could have done differently, or better. The key point is that in the hours and days after the speech, she will focus on the 5% that was not perfect. She told me that she believes many women in Congress do this same thing to themselves, and in fact, she believes women outside of Congress do it, too! I related to this a lot; I told her about NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association), and how it feels when I miss that last big note of my piece, or make some other mistake. Even when I play the whole rest of the piece correctly, that last note makes me cry. We then spoke about how you have to remember that 95% that you did well. She told me even when she is upset with her speaking, she continues to speak because it is important to her–she pushes herself to do it. When she was young she had to push herself hard, but now she has learned that public speaking is a part of her life; she had to put her fear behind her. Lastly, going back to that “Jewish morning” she described, when she tried so hard to help that grandmother stay in our country, with her family–I feel this has to do with tzedek, just like Congresswoman Lois Frankel described–giving of one’s self, and working to heal the world for others–to pursue fairness.
The last bit of research I did was to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak. She was interviewed by Charlie Rose at the 92nd Street Y, and then had a Q&A after. I was lucky to be chosen to ask a question. My question was, “I’m a twelve year old girl, and I’m working on my Bat Mitzvah. For my research I am studying Jewish women in public service, including you. I wanted to know if you have any advice for someone like me. You know…young girls.” She told me how lucky I am to have this opportunity, she didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah, in her day there were only BAR Mitzvahs. But she also said I have so many people to look up to. When she was growing up she looked up to Anne Frank, Emma Lazarus, and Henrietta Szold. We all know who Anne Frank is, and today she is still an amazing role model. Emma Lazarus is the woman who wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. I’ve known that poem since I was little, but only recently did I learn the author was Jewish. She truly is someone to look up to. Then there was Henrietta Szold. I didn’t know who she was. But I looked her up and learned she did great things. She was the founder of , the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg also spoke about how she feels her Judaism makes her empathic, and she recalled how she grew up during WWII, and Jews were “cordoned”, or roped off from others in ghettos because they were Jewish. So, she is sensitive when groups today are treated differently, and especially when they are not treated as equal. In my research about RBG, I learned that she decorates her chambers with a Hebrew phrase from Deuteronomy, “Zedek, zedek, tirdof“, which mean justice, justice, shall you pursue, as a reminder of her heritage and purpose in life.
While awaiting responses, I also did my own research. I want to share some common themes that I found with all of you. First, I just want to mention that, coincidentally, most of the women I wrote to are originally from New York. Six of the women I wrote to were born and raised in New York. I found this very interesting because I have always seen New York as being ahead of the game–I see New York as a leader in making change, or progress. After I learned that many of these role models are from my home state, it made me feel so lucky to be where I am. The city I live only an hour away from is a place where change is allowed, even encouraged.
Next, I would like to talk about what the women I researched stand for. I knew that all of these women had very strong opinions and records on women’s rights. Each and every one of these women has fought for equal pay, women’s choice, and so many more issues regarding women’s rights. When I was researching Jan Schakowsky, I found a list of all the Congressional acts she has worked on, including the International Violence against Women Act and the Violence Against Immigrant Women Act, to name a few. I found that Nita Lowey worked to promote more research on breast cancer. Lois Frankel wrote to me about the issues she cares most about. She said that children’s issues, maternal health, reproductive health, education, and preventing child abuse and domestic violence are the topics she focuses on. Almost all of the women I researched have worked on legislation to better the lives of women and children in our country. Lastly, when I heard the notorious RBG speak, she said during her tenure on the bench, she has watched the last overtly discriminatory laws against women disappear–now what she is most concerned with is what she called “unconscious bias.” Unconscious bias is when women, for example, are not chosen for roles or positions because the person making the hiring decision, even unknown to himself or herself, simply prefers a man for the job. This still happens, and must continue to be addressed.
I want to tell you all a little more about “unconscious bias,” as RBG explained it, because her example was quite meaningful to me, as a musician. She explained that back when she was a younger woman, maybe back in the 60s, there were only men, no women, playing in the symphonies she attended. She thought that was absurd. Where were all the women musicians? She heard that the conductors and musical directors claimed that men play better than women do, and they could tell the difference between women and men musicians by listening. So, when I heard that, I thought, as my friends would say, “That is cra-cra in the hay-hay!!!” I thought of myself in my middle school trombone section and thought, “That is SO not true!!” What happened back then, according to RBG, is, in response to protests by activist women, they started to conduct what she called, “closed curtain auditions.” The conductors and directors tried to guess who were the male and female players, and got it all wrong!!! They learned that they could not tell the difference between the players, and they had been using “unconscious bias.” From then forward, women played in the symphonies. What an amazing lesson!
After hearing from these women, I learned many important messages. As I said earlier, I learned about working hard from Elena Kagan. I learned about tzedakah and tikkun olam–giving assistance to others, and trying to make things fair for all people, from Lois Frankel. I learned about tzedek, the pursuit of justice, and looking for strong role models from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I learned about setting high goals for myself from all of the women. If you set yourself goals, and then work to reach them, of course you can achieve them. But the message that stood out to me the most was the 95%-5% rule from Jan Schakowsky. It really stood out to me because of the connection I have with it. I know that there are things I will do where I will feel I only did a part of it right, but I learned from Jan Schakowsky that I can never let it get in my way. Small mistakes are a part of life. So letting them get in the way will only keep me from my goals, from helping others, and from becoming a strong Jewish woman.
Now as I go forward as a Jewish woman, I am making a promise to myself. I promise to keep all of these themes with me as I go through life’s biggest challenges. Things will only get harder, but if I remember what I’ve learned from these great Jewish women I know I will be okay.