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Thursday, August 3, 2023

Jewish Women’s Organizations of the Capital District

By Harvey Strum
Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved by the author.

“If thou out of that oppressed race
Whose name’s proverb and whose lot’s disgrace
Brave the Atlantic---
Hope’s broad anchor weigh
A Western sun will
Gild your future day.

This poem, “To Persecuted Foreigners,” written in 1820 by a Jewish woman Penina Moishe to welcome German and central European Jewish immigrants coming to America between 1815-1870, was a premonition of a poem written by another Jewish woman Emma Lazarus to welcome immigrants to the US over fifty years later. The poem, New Colossus, written in 1883, portrayed the Statue of Liberty as the Mother of Exiles. All Jewish women who settled in the Capital District were exiles. Jews were the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Jewish women played an essential role in supporting the Jewish immigrants coming to America and expressing Jewish identity. Jewish women would tell their solidarity with All Israel and their identification with American patriotism as Jews immigrated to the Capital District communities, such as Albany, Troy, and Schenectady. (Saratoga, Cohoes, Amsterdam, Gloversville, Glens Falls, Nassau/Schodack, and Hoosick Falls)

The first women’s organizations in the Capital District paralleled what became an integral part of every Jewish community in the United States. Women created women’s societies kevvrot Nashim, holy fellowships, to prepare women’s bodies for burial---these often became benevolent societies in the US. These societies spontaneously developed in the US--- similar to those in Europe. In Orthodox Judaism, members of the community took responsibility for the dead. Traditional Judaism required that Jews must be buried in sanctified Jewish cemeteries. Jewish tradition was the dead should not be left alone before burial. Several women from societies in Albany or Schenectady would volunteer, usually two at a time to sit by the departed. Women would visit and sit with the sick and dying as part of these benevolent societies' obligations. Women’s delegations would wash the deceased members’ bodies and donate six cents each to get a death cloth if the dead sister or family could not afford it. Dues from the benevolent societies were used to help poor women in the community, which is some kind of temporary distress.

By 1847, the Albany women’s holy fellowships developed at the first two Jewish congregations in Albany, Beth El, German, and Beth El Jacob, Polish, as the Ladies Benevolent Association. It created a School Fund Society to pay for the schooling of poor Hebrew children. A group of Jewish women in New York City organized in 1845 the German language United Order of True Sisters, emphasizing philanthropy, education, and social activities. Synagogues Beth El and Anshe Emeth (Reform) created an Albany chapter on August 4, 1857, the Abigail Lodge. German remained the language of the women’s organization in Albany until 1905. Many Jewish immigrants, men and women, emigrated from the south German states of Bavaria, Baden, and W├╝rttemberg and retained German as their primary language. In 1850, a Reform congregation broke away from Orthodox Beth El to establish Anshe Emeth. In Orthodox congregations women cannot sit with men and are usually not allowed to see each other during services; there is a dividing curtain, for example, in Shomray Torah and a collapsible divider in Beth Abraham-Jacob, both Orthodox in Albany. Reform Judaism allowed women and men to sit together. It opened up more significant roles for women, eventually leading to the women becoming cantors and rabbis, as is the case in Bnai Sholom in Albany, Berith Sholom in Troy, and Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs. In Reform, women can count for the minyan, the necessary ten to hold a service, while Orthodox only count men. Conservative Judaism emerged in the US in the late 19th Century and in the Capital District in 1911. Men and women sit together, and most congregations count women for minyan. Women can serve as cantors and rabbis. Currently, none of the Capital District Conservative synagogues, like Ohav Sholom, have female rabbis.

The Order of True Sisters served as nota charitable organization and a fraternal organization paralleling the originally exclusively male B’nai Brith. In the 1930s, BB established women’s chapters. In the 19th Century, True Sisters became the major Jewish women’s organization nationally and in the Capital District. The lodges provided self-help to members. Meetings became colorful with secret rituals and special clothing for members. It reflected the Americanized German Jewish culture of mid-19th Century America, supplying a need for community outside of synagogues for women. Women’s associations performed the same functions and provided the same communal responsibilities to preserve Jewish identity. As historian Hasia Diner noted, “Women’s associations served the same religious and communal needs. Most members came from the same families.’ Furthermore, women’s organizations “saw themselves as agencies for the preservation of Judaism in its full sense.” Women’s groups also became an essential instrumentality for raising money to purchase religious objects and helping to fund the construction of new synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

In Troy, going beyond the holy sisterhoods, the women of Reform Berith Sholom organized a Temple Sisterhood in 1893, followed by the women at the Orthodox and later Conservative congregations. Female members of Beth El, Conservative, created the last of the Troy sisterhoods in 1929. Sisterhoods provided educational, social, and religious activities and allowed women to take leadership roles within Jewish congregations. Temple sisterhoods, starting with Reform sisterhoods, initially concentrated on social service within the congregation and the community, solicitation of funds for the needy, and organizing Sunday schools. They extended to creating courses in Judaism and Jewish history and sponsoring lecture series. Sisterhoods served as a transition association within Jewish communities to more women’s activism in the public sphere, supporting the right to vote and women’s rights. However, these were not the first Jewish women’s organizations in Troy. Paralleling Albany,  twelve women founded the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1877 to provide emotional support and financial aid for the Jewish poor and transient members. These societies cared for widows and orphans and helped raise money for orphanages and homes for the elderly. Part of the obligations of Jewish communities was to take internal responsibility for those in need. Benevolent societies allowed women to become comfortable with their own power and the ability to organize Jewish social, educational, and philanthropic groups without male assistance. These organizations were a public statement of women’s power within the Jewish community. These groups sponsored social activities for their members, picnics, Purim fundraising parties, dime parties, and theatricals “for pleasure and to fill up their associations’ treasury.” Purim balls were a mixture of dancing, fun, and fundraising, effectively raising money for the poor.

1883 women founded the Rebecca chapter of the fraternal organization Kesher Shel Barzel. This was a lodge of a national organization of Jews from Eastern Europe serving similar social functions as the UOTS but with a difference. True Sisters was exclusively a women’s organization, while the Rebecca chapter was an auxiliary of a predominately male Jewish association. Women in the late 19th Century formed the Hebrew Shelter Society and the Ladies Aid Society to provide social services for the poor. Women established a chapter of the National Council of Jewish women, as did their counterparts in Albany and Schenectady. The National Council of Women initially sprang from women’s groups associated with Reform Judaism, like Beth Emeth in Albany and Berith Sholom in Troy. Founded in the mid-1890s, it quickly established chapters in over fifty cities, including the Capital District. It focused on social activism and especially reached out to Jewish women immigrants from Eastern Europe. Its motto was Religion, Philanthropy, and Education. They helped Jewish women immigrants and all Jewish immigrants adjust to their new environment. Members of the Council supported educational opportunities for young women and sought to counter social problems like juvenile delinquency and prostitution. The organization helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and helped resettle survivors after World War II. These organizations ignored synagogue/communal boundaries and gave women a public space. By contrast, sisterhoods enabled women to engage in social activities and fellowship within congregational boundaries. They then extended their boundaries of activities while chapters of the National Council started enlarging the public actions of Jewish women. Also, National Council was a secular association that ignored congregational boundaries, while Sisterhoods came for individual Jewish congregations, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist.

After a group of young men established a chapter of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1912, a group of young Jewish women created a women’s auxiliary that, by 1916, emerged as the Young Women’s Hebrew Association. Nationally Y movement was founded in the late-19th Century for the moral uplift of the children of German Jewish immigrants. It was based on self-improvement, recreation, fellowship, and aid to the Jewish poor. They combined literary events with sports. It started as a secular organization but sponsored classes in Judaism and Sabbath services. Before American entrance into World War I, the YWHA joined with other Jewish groups in January 1916 on Jewish Relief Day, January 27, 1916, proclaimed by President Wilson. YWHA worked with the Ladies Committee of the Troy Jewish Relief Committee to raise funds for the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe displaced by the war and to assist Jews in Palestine suffering food shortages. During World War I, members of the YWHA engaged in Red Cross activities and welfare work to support the war. They joined with other organizations in the Patriotic League in Troy because of its many patriotic-related activities. In the 1920s, the YWHA worked with the YMHA to create the Jewish Community Center, a home for all the Jewish groups in the city.

As early as 1898, Jewish women founded the Daughters of Zion, one of the first women’s Zionist groups in the country, and sent delegates to national Zionist conferences in the late 1890s and early 20th Century. It became a branch of the Federation of American Zionists, the first national American Zionist organization. DAZ held regular meetings in Troy, raised money for Jewish settlements in Palestine, and cooperated with the male organization Sons of Zion. In the 1920s, another national women’s Zionist group developed Hadassah, which became one of the largest women’s organizations in the US and the most prominent Jewish women’s association in the world, according to historian Gerald Sorin. The Troy chapter, founded in 1926, is like the national focused on supporting public health in Palestine and encouraging the migration of young Jews to Palestine Hadassah connected to the Zionist Organization of America renamed FAZ.

More radical Jewish women Zionists founded a chapter of Pioneer Women associated with the Labor Zionists, the left wing of the Zionist movement. Pioneer Women began in 1924 as a labor women’s Zionist movement linked to the Palestinian Po’alei Zion (Workers of Zion) and Socialist International. Its support in the Capital District and nationally came from immigrant women from Eastern Europe. It allowed immigrant women to support the labor movement in Palestine, identify with socialist Zionism, and aid women’s cooperatives in Palestine. Goldie Myerson, one of its national leaders, became Israel’s PM as Golda Meir. Members of Pioneer Women viewed Hadassah and National Council of Jewish women as middle class, while its members were working class, socialist, feminist., progressive, equalitarian, and more militant. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, it identified with the Labor Party. Pioneer Women established chapters in Troy, Albany, and Schenectady in the mid-1920s. Nationally, Pioneer Women had 28,000 members in 1948 compared to 250,000 for Hadassah. Local chapters raised money for socialist cooperatives in Palestine, upheld the values of Yiddishkeit, class consciousness, social justice, and feminism, and became “a significant force in American Jewish life,” according to former SUNY Albany Judaic studies scholar Mark Raider.

Jewish organizational life in Schenectady began with the Ladies Benevolent Society, organized in the 1880s.the first independent secular communal society in the city. Members were initially primarily German-born Jews, and their daughters were associated with the Reform congregation Gates of Heaven. Like the Albany equivalent, it emphasized fundraising for charity and helping the poor, especially distressed women. Separately another group of Jewish women established the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society, described by a local newspaper as “composed of several prominent Hebrew women.” In November 1905, for example, they held “an elaborate Thanksgiving supper in the synagogue on Nott Terrace.” for charity to help the needy in the community. The female members of Gates of Heaven founded the first sisterhood in Schenectady in 1897 to do charitable work. Younger women created the distinct Young Ladies Temple Aid Society that held socials and bazaars to raise money, like the bazaar organized in May 1903. As East European Jews arrived in Schenectady between 1880 and 1924, women in each congregation established their own sisterhood. Female members of Agudas Achim founded Daughters of Rebecca in 1902. A local newspaper ran a story about Jewish Women forming an association in December 1902. Women at Ohab Zedek, a Hungarian Jewish congregation, organized the Order of Zion in 1904, while women at Ohab Sholom called their group Daughters of Freedom. Daughters of Rebecca played a crucial role in raising money by organizing bazaars and balls for the congregation to build a new synagogue building on Nott Terrace. The sisterhoods allowed women to form friendships with other women in their congregations while serving the congregation's and community's needs.

Because of the exclusion of Jewish girls from student organizations,  Jewish sororities and fraternities played a significant role in Jewish life in Schenectady’s high school. Delta Psi Sorority, for example, in 1936, was the major Jewish sorority in the local high school. When men in Schenectady formed the Jewish War Veterans in the mid-1930s, twenty-five women organized a women’s auxiliary in December 1935 to show their support of the veterans and highlight their patriotism, an issue always in dispute with the larger society. Men and women had to repeatedly show their patriotism and that Jews were not the “other.” Today, some right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats raise the same issues as in 1935, directed at the loyalty of American Jews.

On February 13, 1913, Orthodox women associated with the Hebrew Institute, a Jewish educational and social center, formed a Ladies Auxiliary to create the community-wide Hebrew School to help maintain Jewish identity. Mrs. Starkman, an immigrant from Hungary and member of Ohab Zedek, chaired the women’s association that emerged as the leading social service organization in the Jewish community in Schenectady and a forerunner of Jewish Family Services. Orthodox Jewish women in the Women’s Auxiliary raised funds to support the Hebrew School. This allowed Orthodox Jewish women to show independence from male-dominated institutions and provide service to the community.

Jewish women, primarily associated with Reform Gates of Heaven, formed a chapter of the National Council of Women in 1916. In Schenectady, as nationally, the membership came from primarily German Jewish women, their daughters, and granddaughters that were members of Reform congregations. Growing rapidly in the 1920s, it became the leading women’s organization in Schenectady for the next forty years. Members did not actively support Zionism until 1938, and Kristallnacht, which made clear that European Jews needed a refuge. America’s restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and National Origins Act of 1924 were attended to keep out Jews. While Emma Lazarus poem was put on the Statue of Liberty, the American Congress turned its back on Jewish refugees. Palestine seemed the only option. In 1944 it joined with the local chapter of Hadassah to promote a Jewish homeland in Palestine for survivors of Nazi barbarism. In the 1920s and 30s, the council focused on Americanizing Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Schenectady chapter held Americanization and English classes in local public schools for adults and children. During the interwar years, East European Jewish women could not join the National Council. Only after World War II were the daughters of East European Jews allowed to enter the National Council. Members of the Council helped with war relief during both world wars and raised funds for Jewish refugees both before and after World War II.

Women formed the Ionian Social Club in 1906 but lacked athletic facilities. When young men established the YMHA in 1912, women hoped for equal opportunities and agreed to form a Women’s Auxiliary in 1916. However, women resented the lack of equal facilities. They desired “equal privileges, the right to become a YWHA, and equal representation on the Board of Governors” that ran the Y movement in Schenectady. Jewish young women demanded equal treatment. The women won their argument with the establishment of the YWHA in July 1917 and got equal privileges with men. The two Ys were formally incorporated in 1921. The Ys combined sports, literary events, public speakers, and recreational activities in a Jewish setting, providing a safe environment for the daughters of recent immigrants. By the mid-1920s, the two Ys cooperated to form the Schenectady Jewish Community Center, which became the home for all Jewish associations in the city.

Daughters of Zion established a chapter in Schenectady about the same time as the Troy branch. It had frequent meetings and activities to raise money for Jewish settlements in Palestine, holding an early mass meeting in 1903 for Zionism. They used social activities like a dance in 1911 to raise the consciousness of Zionism. Earlier than Troy, the Schenectady DAZ became a chapter of Hadassah in 1915. Between the wars, National Council chapters in Schenectady and Albany did not endorse Zionism until 1938. While Pioneer Women criticized Hadassah as middle class, this was not true in Schenectady. Most members in the 1920s and 30s came from East European immigrants. In Schenectady, Hadassah and Pioneer Women met in women’s homes holding cooperative Sunday suppers to raise money for Palestine. The Schenectady Chapter of Hadassah passed around milk boxes to raise money to fight trachoma in Palestine. After World War II, Pioneer Women, Hadassah, and National Council invited speakers advocating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The women’s groups cooperated with the Jewish Community Council to resettle 73 refugee families in Schenectady between 1940-52. After the war, they worked with JCC to raise money, food, and clothing for the survivors of the Holocaust in displaced persons camps in Germany. Some Jewish women, independently of any Jewish organizations in Schenectady, Troy, and Albany, solicited money between 1945 and 1948 to purchase medical supplies, searchlights, and other electrical equipment at General Electric and sporting goods stores to send to Jewish settlements in Palestine. They also raised money to purchase weapons shipped from Montreal or NYC to Palestine. A few young women went to Aliyah training camps at farms in Cohoes and Poestenkill to prepare to settle in Palestine. Hadassah and Pioneer Women joined with other Jewish groups to sponsor a mass meeting on May 20, 1948, to celebrate the independence of Israel. The Schenectady branches of the National Council and Hadassah apparently peaked in membership in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Meanwhile, in Albany, in the 1860s, women’s groups sponsored Purim balls as vehicles for fundraising for charity. Albany public library, for example, has a pamphlet for the 1869 the Ladies Benevolent Society. Women’s groups played a significant role in 1880 in fundraising to create the Jewish Home for the Aged. In the 1880s, the Ladies Sewing Society sponsored entertainment and fundraising fairs, like the one in 1883, to aid the poor. Formally incorporated in March 1899, with thirteen women as directors, including Mary Friedman, Julia Auer, and Sophia Rosenfeld, it stated its mission “to assist needy women and children, to supply them with clothing, and to assist in burials of those without relatives to pay the cost of a funeral. . The Ladies Sewing Society continued to support Jewish causes, like donations made in November 1919 to aid Jewish victims of pogroms in Poland, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. The actions of German Jewish women and their daughters fitted a national pattern as historian Hasia Diner concluded; “German Jewish women being particularly active in organizing and raising funds for social welfare programs.”

In 1890, women started the Clara de Hirsch Society “to give aid to the poor and needy.” The local group was named after a German Jewish philanthropist Baroness de Hirsch who supported programs for working-class Jewish immigrant women. German Jewish women in the Clara D society reached out to the new Eastern European Jewish girls and women who might need a helping hand---to secure housing, work, health support, and job training. Its goals, locally and nationally, were to improve young immigrant women's mental, moral, and physical condition and aid them in self-sufficiency.

In 1895, German Jewish women established an Albany chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, and by 1903, it had 125 members. The Albany chapter concentrated on improving educational opportunities for the children of East European immigrants and settling immigrants on farms in southern Rensselaer County. It worked with the Jewish Agricultural Society, and at its peak in the mid-1920s, two hundred Jewish farm families lived in Nassau, Schodack area. To help Jewish immigrants unable to attend the city’s night schools, it organized the Saturday Evening Class for Foreigners as a vehicle to teach English to new immigrants. Between 1895 and 1904, the chapter established Sunday School, that by 1906 had 16 teachers and 230 students. It created a Sabbath Afternoon class, a library, additional Hebrew and Jewish history classes, a Penny Provident Society for charity, and Grace Aguilar Club for younger women, founded in 1901. Councilwomen also set up several groups for young men, like the Junior Literary Society. While the Albany chapter did not endorse Zionism until 1938, it sponsored talks on Zionism, like the one on Practical Zionism on March 9, 1914. A separate Grace Agular Literary Society, another German Jewish group established in the 1880s, supported Jewish causes like Jewish Relief Day in January 1916.

By 1915 young Jewish women, primarily daughters of East European immigrants, established a branch of the YWHA in December. Besides athletic and educational activities, the YWHA joined with YMHA to sponsor dances at the Albany Yacht Club. Members joined in raising funds for displaced Jews in Europe, helping to organize activities on Jewish Relief Day in January 1916. It also worked with local Zionist groups to sponsor fundraising events like the annual flag day event for the benefit of the Jewish national fund in December 1919. In 1925 joined, the two Ys formed the Albany Jewish Community Center.

In 1898 a Daughters of Zion chapter appeared in Albany and would hold regular meetings to raise awareness of Zionism and raise funds for Jewish settlers in Palestine. Representatives attended the 1898 and 1900 Zionist conventions. As an example of a fun activity for Zionists, 400 Zionist men and women from Albany and Troy went down the Hudson on August 19, 1902, aboard the Harvest Queen, on an excursion to a Hudson River park. During World War I, it actively solicited donations for displaced Jews in Eastern Europe and distressed Jews in Palestine. It joined with male Zionists to hold annual tributes to Theodore Herzl and, as an example, had a special meeting at one of the synagogues in 1916 with speakers in English and Yiddish to promote Zionism. For instance, it solicited donations for the Palestine Restoration Fund in February 1918. By the 1920s, Albany had chapters of the women’s Zionists, Hadassah, and the more militant Pioneer Women. In addition, for girls aged 17-21, women organized Daughters of the White and Blue and the Junior Daughters of Ruth and co-educational groups, like the Zionist Culture Club (organized in August 1920) and Junior Workers of Zion Club. Zionism emerged as an integral part of the American Jewish experience for men and women.

Albany hosted the Ladies Radical Society in the early 20th Century for women interested in more radical politics. The Radical Society was also active in Jewish causes, for example, donating to East European Jews displaced by World War I participating in Jewish Relief Day in January 1916. Emma Goldman, a leading female Jewish radical, frequently spoke in Albany and Schenectady between 1900-1914 on anarchism and feminism in Yiddish, English, and Russian. A handbill in Yiddish, for example, advertised, “Emma Goldman…very popular speaker will speak in Albany in April 1906.” Police broke up the meeting, but it did not stop Goldman from returning to speak or for some local Jewish immigrant women joining the Capital District anarchist group Germinal. Jewish women and men would join with their Italian comrades from Schenectady to plot a revolution over tea and plates of pastry. Other women allied with the Socialist Party or the Socialist fraternal organization Workmen’s Circle. The late Sadie Schneider remembered attending a Workmen’s Circle sponsored Yiddish language day school in the 1930s. At least two of the Yiddish language cemetery markers in the Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Albany suggest the active role of women. One to Harriet Thuroff “Thy memory shall be our guiding star in our struggle.” Rose Halpert includes a tribute to her activism in the revolutionary worker's movement.


When Jewish women planned a Purim ball or founded a chapter of True Sisters, they did not consider the historical or cultural importance. According to Hasia Diner, Jewish communal life, whether women’s associations or male benevolent chapters, grew out of need, a desire for fellowship, support in times of crisis, and a need for community. Jewish women created organizations because they needed them as part of their adjustment to the new environment of America. Women’s associations formed part of a new, bolder approach in America by men and women to create secular Jewish organizations to preserve Jewish identity and fulfill community needs outside the confines of rabbinic and congregational control. Also, as historian Hollace Weiner concluded: “Women’s activism and money raising acumen are part of a pattern evidenced in Jewish communities large and small” (whether in Troy, NY or Fort Worth, Tx), traditional, reform or secular across America.

About the author: Harvey Strum has been a professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College for 36 years. Recent publications include "Yiddishkeit" in the 2022 issue of the New York History Review and "Solidarity of All Israel" in the 2022 issue of the National Social Science Association Journal.