Change Agent For Women


Honoring Barbara Dobkin, it was clear from the start that the Jewish Women’s Archive benefit couldn’t be your typical rubber-chicken dinner. No, the sold-out fund raiser at the Copacabana nightclub Monday night was as cheeky as its honoree.

Instead of solemn tributes, female comics had people laughing in their pink feather boas, which were draped over every chair. Every table was festooned with bottles of diet peach Snapple, which is Barbara’s elixir of life, chocolate-covered pretzels and cardboard fans, made of life-size photos of her face.

OK, so there were a few sentimental recollections. But mostly the evening followed the mandate handed down by the honoree — to “just make it f’ing funny.”

Dobkin, the philanthropist who has arguably done more than any other to fund change in the Jewish community for women professionally, educationally and spiritually, is the founder of Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, a program of the JCC of Manhattan, and the founding chair of the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass.

Of being at the center of the fete, she said, “I hate this,” as she drained the last of a Snapple while sitting in the modern art-filled Central Park West apartment that she shares with her husband, semi-retired Goldman Sachs partner Eric Dobkin.

Hours before the event, she hadn’t figured out exactly what to wear and hadn’t written her speech, but was content to talk about her philanthropy, which she calls “donor activism.”

With grunting English bulldogs scrambling on and off her lap, she also spoke about how far the Jewish community has come in regard to women’s status — and how much further it has to go.

The Dobkins gave nearly $4 million last year to a diverse range of organizations focused on women, from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance to Kolot, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College project on gender and Judaism. She also funds the American Jewish World Service and The White House Project, which focus on getting women into government and corporate leadership.

Her activism evolved alongside the civil rights and feminist movements and started with her grandmother. When Dobkin, now 61, was a girl in Baltimore, she’d accompany her bubbe collecting money from Jewish National Fund boxes. Her mother was active in Hadassah and their synagogue. So while the family wasn’t wealthy, serving the Jewish community “was an expectation.” That wasn’t the only lesson she took away from childhood. Small inequities – like the fact that her older brother was permitted to drive on the Baltimore Beltway while she was not — molded her passion for equality.

She and Eric met 43 years ago, in college. When they settled in Scarsdale with two young daughters, Barbara became active in the Parent-Teacher Association and the League of Women Voters, where she worked for the Equal Rights Amendment. “It was the birth of my more feminist activity,” she said. During that time, the couple began contributing to New York’s Jewish federation, and before long Dobkin “was on a zillion committees.” Over time, she wearied of feeling dismissed every time she brought up something considered “a women’s issue,” and of finding herself the only woman speaking up. “I found that women didn’t matter. I walked away from that really angry, though I’ve let go of that,” she said.

Before leaving, Dobkin donated $1 million to UJA-Federation’s capital campaign, stipulating that it be used to create Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, starting in 1993. “Starting Ma’yan was about trying to integrate my feminism and my Judaism,” she said. And Ma’yan has, in several ways, created the cultural change that is Dobkin’s priority. This year will be the 12th and final year it runs feminist seders led by Debbie Friedman. Now dozens of communities around the country hold their own.

Similarly, the 1997 exhibit of artist-created Miriam’s Cups that Ma’yan organized at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion contributed to the fact that every liberal Passover Haggadah published today includes an explanation of the Miriam’s Cup. An enduring frustration is that many Jewish women with enough money to fund change, even modestly, don’t. “It doesn’t occur to them,” she said. “The culture around women in the Jewish community has changed a lot, but not nearly enough. And the more things change, the more need we see for more change.”