Blessing a hall full of Jewish women, Susan Stern invoked a litany of matriarchs — Ruth for devotion, Naomi for dignity — and then threw out a less biblical name and concept: “Golda Meir for assertiveness.” The 1,400 major Jewish women donors, packed Monday into the Washington Hilton for the United Jewish Communities “Lion of Judah” conference, had been silent in shared prayer until that moment, but they laughed in agreement.
Stern, the UJC’s national philanthropy chairwoman, had hit the nerve running under this gathering of Jewish women donors: Despite strides in recent decades, Jewish women still have trouble making their voices heard.
“Show the world what determined women can achieve,” Carrie Rubin, a donor who spoke at the launch of the conference, said to wild applause.
The frustration bubbled under a conference bursting with accomplishment: the biggest turnout ever for such an event, and the ability to draw speakers like First Lady Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
The conference also featured top-level speakers associated with security and foreign policy issues, areas once confined to male-dominated groups.
“We could not help but be defined by defining issues,” said Michele Rosen, the conference co-chairwoman, listing terrorism in Israel, the Iraq war and homeland security, among others. “The debate they generate has spilled over into this conference.”
But it was the traditional women’s issues, and the difficulties in bringing them to the forefront of the American and Jewish dialogues, that troubled women at the conference. Participants said driving factors in their activism and philanthropy included reproductive rights, health care and assistance for the poor and elderly.
“I cannot sit still knowing that other people’s children are hungry,” said Marcia Mankoff, 36, a clinical social worker from Los Angeles. “Things that touch me as a woman and a mother are what I respond to first.”
The candidates’ wives split their appeals: Laura Bush emphasized Israel and national security in her speech, stressing her husband’s commitment to Israel, while Heinz Kerry drew on her own experience as a philanthropist.
Heinz Kerry cited statistics showing dramatic results in one of her projects aimed at early childhood education.
“This journey of ours, this journey of sharing and giving, is not merely noble or kind,” Kerry said. “It is also immensely practical.”
Both women received warm receptions, but there was little doubt the Kerry message had special resonance with fund-raisers for an organization that includes among its central tenets such items as bettering health care, education and care for the elderly.
“Those are the timeless issues,” said Mankoff, who — like many others at the conference — said she intends to vote for Kerry.
Those issues have a place at the table now because of the strides women have made, speaker after speaker said.
“The influx of women and particularly Jewish women into politics has brought about a difference in substance and style to decision making,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told the conference.
Some of the women were not entirely persuaded.
“We’ve had tremendous headway, but there’s room for more,” said Cappie Abraham, a real estate developer from Chicago. “More women should be involved in the political process.”
A measure of participants’ concern at the lack of a voice for women in policy making — and of the participants’ ambition — was the standing room only attendance at a workshop on “How women are changing the way we live and lead.”
“Women need to be engaged, and not just as volunteers,” said Joan Loewenstein, 47, who made the transition herself in Ann Arbor, Mich., from a volunteer for the Jewish community to a city councilor.
Women bring different emphases when they’re in control, said Carol Amster, also of Ann Arbor. Her own community chose to fund a battered women’s shelter in Israel, and made more local allocations to family services, she said.
A higher profile for women is likelier in a small community such as Ann Arbor, said Amster, 69, a former executive director of the local Jewish federation. But it’s harder to achieve in larger communities, where men are likelier to muscle in.
“We wait to be asked,” Amster said. “We’re not assertive enough.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.