Jewish women activists lead the fight for rights of women

#23 - American women leaders: Sheila Katz and Meredith Jacobs

(L-R)  Meredith Jacobs & Sheila Katz  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(L-R) Meredith Jacobs & Sheila Katz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sheila Katz and Meredith Jacobs had two very different paths to national prominence as Jewish women activists. Both steer eminent legacy institutions – each founded more than a hundred years ago – providing a heritage of strong Jewish women to emulate while they also give a springboard for bringing fresh inspiring work forward into the future.
The year 2019 was a very good year for Sheila Katz. She was appointed to be the chief executive for women at the National Council for Jewish Women after being a member for five years. But, it came with personal turmoil, too.
All this would probably come as a surprise for Katz’s younger self to hear. Doubtful about a career in the male-top-heavy Jewish organizational world, she was encouraged by her former Hillel director to dive in. Katz got a position as a Hillel program director in North Carolina and rose to work at Hillel International, remaining there for 12 years.
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Katz was tasked with social entrepreneurship as Hillel’s youngest-ever vice president and she took on student engagement and leadership. There, she spearheaded the “Ask Big Questions” initiative, guiding students through conversations designed to help them think about their own identity and that of others. She also launched MitzVote, a non-partisan civic engagement campaign that helped 19,000 students to register to vote ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.
In 2014, Katz was appointed by the Obama White House to committees on women’s rights and higher education. These efforts aided the president in formulating positions on those concerns.
“It was also in 2019, that Katz went public with her story as relayed to The New York Times that while at Hillel in 2015, she was sexually harassed by philanthropist and Birthright founder Michael Steinhardt. Her experience being sexually harassed was confirmed by a law firm specializing in investigative journalism that Hillel hired. Katz shared on Facebook that her goal in coming forward was to prevent any other woman in the Jewish community or beyond from having to endure any form of sexual harassment from Steinhardt ever again. She shared, “It’s time to put an end to these open secrets and create safe and respectful work environments for all of us.”
Katz serves on the executive committee of Safety Respect Equity, a national coalition of over 100 Jewish organizations dedicated to fighting sexual harassment and gender discrimination. It has raised $6.5 million toward changing policies and practices at Jewish organizations – including her former employer Hillel – regarding women in the workplace.
A self-proclaimed feminist, as the new CEO for women of the NCJW, Katz has made two issues her focus: reproductive rights for women and equal rights for vulnerable populations.
“The thing that really draws me to NCJW is that it’s about turning Jewish values into action,” she said when she took the helm. “The work is about engaging and helping vulnerable populations in our communities.”
SINCE GOING public, Katz has become “an even higher-profile feminist advocate,” said the Forward. At the progressive NCJW; she shone a light on the vulnerability of women and girls who wait for asylum hearings at the Mexican border; she launched Rabbis for Repro to enlist support from the pulpits to protect women’s reproductive rights; and she set up a press conference against restrictions on Muslim immigration to the US.
“On August 26, 1920 – exactly 100 years ago – the 19th Amendment was certified, at long last securing voting rights for women,” she recently wrote in the online platform eJewish Philanthropy, “but as we celebrate this moment, we have to hold an opposing truth in our hands. It has been 100 years since white women gained suffrage – not all women. Access to the ballot was effectively denied to nearly everyone except white women.” The article went on to list ways in which Jewish women and others could support the disenfranchised, advocating for safe, accessible voting, and, of course, voting in the 2020 elections.
In August, she joined forces with Catholics for Choice’s Acting President Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe and Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s CEO Rev. Katey Zeh to co-author an op-ed explaining how their respective faiths drive their mission to see reproductive rights extended to all.
“We believe in the dignity and worth of all people, and that belief drives our commitment to ensuring universal access to affordable healthcare coverage, including coverage for abortion care,” wrote the trio. “Policies that deny abortion coverage to individuals based on their income level or the type of health insurance they have contradict shared core values and principles of our faiths,” they said.
In March, Katz ran for the World Zionist Congress on the Hatikvah slate.
“I have a big announcement. I’m running for Congress!” she quipped on Instagram, posting a photo of herself in front of Washington DC’s Capitol building. “Ok, not that Congress,” she added.
The WZC, which will meet this fall in a once-in-five-years cycle, will consider the Jewish organizational budget pie – expected to reach $5 billion – and how it will be allocated.
“The Hatikvah slate recruited some of the Zionist Left’s biggest figures to serve as first-time candidates, such as Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles, National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz and commentator Peter Beinart,” said The Forward.
Ultimately, the Hatikvah “coalition of progressive Jewish organizations that targeted disaffected liberal Zionist voters in a new voter turnout campaign, more than doubled the number of votes it received, their share of the overall delegation only grew from 5% to 6%,” reported the Forward. Katz is determined that Jewish feminists will be at the table, be heard and gain an appropriate slice of the pie for funding the causes they address. Still in her 30s, Katz seems to be gunning for big changes; who knows what the future might bring?
MEREDITH JACOBS was a stay-at-home mother of two toddlers when she got involved in her local synagogue board. Her curiosity about bringing Shabbat dinner into her home as weekly family time while grappling with the practicalities of conflicting busy schedules, led to publishing her book Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat, about trying to make the experience work and be meaningful.
Being a parent brought her to start her Modern Jewish Mom blog – one of the first Jewish mother bloggers – and she co-founded and edited a website giving parenting advice and sharing recipes, now part of the website
She published a bestselling series of interactive shared journals called Just Between Us as a step to building healthy family dynamics. Offers came to write a column, to do radio spots and to host a radio show. She facilitated the Washington Mother’s Group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. With no journalism background, Jacobs learned on the job at The Washington Jewish Week to be its managing editor and later, its editor-in-chief. She is on the board of directors of the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.
Jacobs’s philosophy is to first say yes, take the leap, and then figure out how to do it. This natural progression brought her to meet her recent challenge: being appointed CEO of Jewish Women International.
JWI is the component of B’nai B’rith Women that is the “leading Jewish voice to end violence against women and girls,” said Jacobs in a podcast on Stitcher in 2015. Beyond legislative lobbying on Capitol Hill, Jacobs does innovative programs with college students to promote conversations to teach sexual boundaries and respect. JWI has taken up more recent struggles including combating sex trafficking, promoting equal pay for women, advocating for a fair and independent judiciary, immigrant rights and women’s health care advocacy.
Through JWI, Jacobs established dozens of children’s libraries in domestic violence shelters. She also has initiated programs to teach financial literacy to women, from teens to retirees. Jacobs said to Stitcher, “We are forward-thinking with our advocacy work, but also want to preserve the history of women’s activism.” Jacob’s focus at JWI is on community and inclusion, and not just for women. One of the programs she’s most excited about overseeing is Men as Allies, a course run by men on college campus and Jewish community centers, educating men about how they can be allies to the women in their lives.
“We work with men not as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, but as partners,” Jacobs says. “And so that’s our approach that makes it easier for men to come… be part of changing the culture.”
But that’s not to say that the transition has been easy. When Jacobs moved to helm JWI, she changed her Twitter handle from @modernjewishmom to @meredithljacobs.
“That was weird for me. It was like letting go,” she says. “It was letting [part of my identity] go, because I almost don’t want to be the Jewish mommy anymore… It’s not who I am right now. My kids are young adults. It’s time for me to really put on the JWI hat.”