These 12 Jewish feminist trailblazers, all over 80, had dinner together in New York


(New York Jewish Week) — On Wednesday evening at the Ziegfeld Ballroom in Midtown, hundreds of New York’s leading philanthropists, healthcare executives and businesspeople gathered for The New Jewish Home’s “Eight over Eighty” gala — an annual event put on by the senior healthcare and rehabilitation agency that honors extraordinary New Yorkers over the age of 80 “who personify the value of aging well into our 80s and beyond.” 

But of all the VIPs in the room, there was one table in particular — Table 13, right in the center of the room — that may have embodied that spirit better than any other: Seated around it were 12 of New York’s most accomplished Jewish women, all 80-plus, who have had an outsized influence on politics, journalism, publishing, activism, business and, above all, feminism.

Writer and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin — one of the evening’s honorees — organized the group, which she dubbed the “Table of Amazing Women.” 

“I see a lifetime of my own reflected in the table because they all come from different parts of my life,” Pogrebin said.

There was photographer, musician and author Arlene Alda, 90; attorney and former Democratic district leader Jane Bevans, 82; the co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Muriel Fox, 95; literary agent Jane Gelfman, 84; the award-winning journalist and urban affairs specialist Roberta Gratz, 82; founder of First Women’s Bank and NY Women’s Foundation, Sarah Kovner, 88; former Manhattan borough president and global ambassador of American Jewish World Service Ruth Messinger, 82; artist and financial advisor Annie Navasky, 83; TV producer Gale Robinson, 83, interior designer Judith Schlosser, 92 and literary agent Phyllis Wender, 89. 

“It just hit me,” Pogrebin told the New York Jewish Week when asked what inspired her to assemble the all-star table. “They said you can have one table. I said I’m going to make it meaningful. I’m going to make it symbolic.”

Pogrebin, of course, is the founding editor of Ms. Magazine and the publication’s Foundation for Women, as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus. She’s well acquainted with awards — she won an Emmy for her work on “Free to Be… You and Me, the ground-breaking children’s book, record and television special; was inducted into the Manhattan Jewish Hall of Fame, and received a Yale University Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

Still, Pogrebin, who recently published “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy,” knew she wanted to mark the latest honor by celebrating the important women in her life who helped her, along with countless other women, forge her path at a time when it wasn’t clear where, and how, a path could be cleared.

And yet, finalizing the list wasn’t easy. “I had to prune,” Pogrebin said. “If I could have, I would have filled another table.”

“I felt very bad because I didn’t include a 100-year-old friend,” she added. “I think that I wanted to, just in a small way, celebrate admitting your age, owning your age, and coalescing around the idea of being youthful at any age.” 

Pogrebin’s invited guests — though honored and excited to be included — weren’t particularly surprised their friend came up with such a creative way to celebrate the occasion. 

“Leave it to Letty,” journalist Gratz told the New York Jewish Week. 

Looking around the table, Gratz said she certainly felt a sense of accomplishment. “We’ve all done it,” she said. “Imagine that, despite everything we faced. That feels great. I’m glad to be here.”

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Messinger, who was New York City’s first woman mayoral candidate and serves as president of AJWS from 1998 to 2016. “I had the privilege of being honored here a couple of years ago. When Letty wrote, I would not have necessarily come back. But then Letty said, ‘What if we got a whole table together?’ I thought ‘OK, that’s a great idea.’” 

When asked, Messinger offered this advice to current and future generations: “Pursue justice, organize and remember that you’re not required to complete the task, but you can’t refuse to participate,” she said, paraphrasing Deuteronomy 16:20 as well as Pirkei Avot, a classic collection of Jewish wisdom.

Fox, the NOW co-founder, also noted the important role Judaism played in shaping her path and that of her peers. “Judaism has always given women a special role, strong women,” she said. “Certainly in Judaism, we learned about overcoming adversity and overcoming opposition.”

Thinking back on the progress she and her tablemates made, Fox said that her appeal for future generations is that they “carry the torch.”

“There’s still so much to do,” she said.”People sort of thought it was all done. We’ve learned that isn’t the case.”

But Fox added there are many reasons to be proud, as well as optimistic. “We have to be inspired by the fact that so much was accomplished — we changed the world, really, in a very short time,” she said. “In the old days, women couldn’t get credit cards. The ads said ‘Help Wanted Male’ or ‘Help Wanted Female.’ Landlords could say, ‘I don’t rent to women.’ Employers could say ‘We don’t hire women.’ We changed all that in our lifetime.”

As the women chatted over cocktails, it became crystal-clear that they not only changed the world but still wake up every day committed to their causes. 

“I really believe activism keeps you young. If you become passive, if you feel hopeless, and if you feel the problems are too big, you’re going to age,” she added. “You’re going to become pretty limp. Not just in terms of politics, in terms of being alive to the moment, of being interested in young people [when you’re old] and, when you’re young, being interested in old people. Not ruling anybody out of your life.”

The New Jewish Home, formerly known as Jewish Home Lifecare, runs skilled nursing facilities, offering long-term care and rehabilitation in Manhattan and Westchester County. In the Bronx, the nonprofit offers senior housing and operates a Medicaid Assisted Living Program. The other honorees of the evening were three-time Grammy winner Ron Carter; feminist author Erica Jong; conductor Eve Queler; inventor Sanford “Sandy” David Greenberg; former president and CEO of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, Dr. Billy E. Jones; founding partner of Trian Fund Management, Peter May; former president of the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes of New York, Bruce McIver and the founder of TAG Associates, Stanley Pantowich. 

David Remnick, editor in-chief of The New Yorker, hosted the gala, which raised $1.3 million, according to a spokesperson. Some of the funds, the spokesperson added, will be directed towards a new program dedicated to aiding older adults in the LGBTQ+ community.