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Building the Jewish Community and Claiming “Half the Kingdom”: Women’s Work, Diversity, and Social Justice in Montreal, 1917-2017

Mary Anne Poutanen

Mary Anne Poutanen is a social historian, member of the Montreal History Group and of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal, and teaches interdisciplinary studies at McGiill in the Programme d’Études sur le Québec and at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

For the past 100 years, Jewish women have been instrumental in building a community in Montreal responsive to the needs of its members notably in the areas of social welfare, public health, urban reform, labour politics, equality rights, and culture. Women’s obligations to do good deeds – embodied in tsedakah (charity) and in their economic and spiritual responsibilities in the family – meant that they stepped into a role left vacant by the state to ensure their community had a social safety net. This mitzvah also took them to the factory floor. Their efforts resulted in the creation of philanthropic organizations, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, in services such as vocational training, in the drive to unionize garment workers, and in advocacy of women’s and human rights.  Women have also been cultural icons in literature, visual arts, theatre, and the media.

While there are many celebrated women – community fundraiser Toba Kaplan, labour leader and social activist Lea Roback, architect Phyllis Lambert, and media personality Sonia Benezra – we salute the countless unsung heroines who are unknown.  Consider the Russian-born sisters Eva and Rose Ditkoff who worked tirelessly in union activities: standing at factory entrances to encourage garment workers to unionize; ensuring fair treatment of women in the workplace; and, protecting strikers on the picket line. Social class demarcated the Jewish community, the membership and goals of organizations, and whose voices were most often heard.

Jewish women did not speak with a single voice; they were differentiated by income, age, and outlook [Kosmin, 26].  Divisions in social class, cultural origins, language, religious beliefs and practices, and political orientation – indeed differences in identity and in the importance given to integration into the host society – reflected the diversity, agendas, and recipients of the organizations and institutions they established. In other words, whether Zionist, socialist, liberal or conservative, each faction interpreted the causes of social ills differently, initiated dissimilar strategies, and targeted particular people. Charity work was seldom impartial. Middle-class women sought to transform working-class Yiddish-speaking newcomers into Canadian citizens while maintaining their own privileged position [Myers, 181].

Women’s philanthropic, political, and cultural orientations were also shaped by events far from home that included migration, world war, the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel, and the de-colonization of Morocco, and by local experiences with anti-Semitism, industrial capitalism, nationalism, the women’s movement and so on. In this context, Jewish women worked for an international union to organize workers in garment factories often owned by local Jewish capitalists, to fight gender inequalities in the workplace, and to coordinate labour resistance. They created organizations framed by their class identity and political outlook that had local, national, and international objectives: from treating tuberculosis sufferers, establishing summer camps for impoverished women and children, settling Holocaust survivors, and integrating migrants from Europe and North Africa to pressuring the USSR to give Soviet Jewry visas and assisting women and children living in Palestine and later in Israel funding programs and opposing domestic violence.

Here at home, upper middle-class women founded the Montreal Council of Jewish Women in 1918 to furnish a range of local, national, and international services aimed at both the Jewish and broader communities.  Hadassah, created in 1917 by middle-class women more comfortable with traditional gender roles, raised funds for special projects in Palestine and in Israel by holding teas and bazaars.  Working-class Zionist women established the Pioneer Women’s Organization in 1925 [presently Na’amat] “to educate children in Labour Zionist tradition and promote women’s participation in building the Jewish state” [Draper and Karlinsky, 80].  Meetings were held after work and on weekends to accommodate wage-earning mothers. In communal organizations, women became skilled in fundraising, administration, and public speaking; these activities got them out of the house, forged ties, and built self-confidence.

Conventional assumptions about women’s role meant that such organizations were viewed as “adjuncts to the main Jewish communal structure” [Tulchinsky, 420].  When the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies was created in 1917, five of the 12 founding agencies were women’s organizations. Although four women were named to the executive committee, none was appointed chair of any of the 16 committees. [Minutes, 26 March 1917]. Clearly, women found it difficult to access male power structures of philanthropy. Elite women, as historian Elizabeth Kirkland has shown, had the ear of influential, wealthy men when it came to funding their charities. Since newcomers needed help dealing with poverty, inadequate housing, illness, language acquisition, and burial as well as family breakdown, violence, and crime, these “mothers of all children” justified their attempts to regulate family life. In juvenile justice, for example, Jewish women carved out a critical role as caseworkers; because elites blamed the juvenile delinquency problem on immigrants, engaging with philanthropic agencies to avoid sending Jewish children to juvenile court meant not drawing unwanted attention from the host society [Myers, 177].

Nonetheless, Jewish women had much in common with their Protestant and Catholic counterparts.  They fashioned links to solve widespread municipal problems of public health and urban reform and thus better serve all Montrealers; they also joined national organizations such as the Red Cross. Jewish women benefited from women’s expanding rights in Quebec following the Quiet Revolution. Feminism provided the means to fight against gender inequality in all aspects of Jewish communal life including recognition of their public contribution, accessing education as well as power, and de-colonizing the women’s movement with respect to discrimination against Jews.

By the 1980s and 1990s, a combination of factors contributed to Jewish women’s growing resistance to male power and to social and religious barriers: social mobility; increasing numbers of women in the professions; a profound desire for gender equality; and concern that younger generations of women would not accept being “restricted to either women’s organizations or to enabling roles” [Medjuck, 340]. As tensions between career aspirations and domestic responsibilities grew, feminism was seen as a threat to conventional gender roles and to women’s responsibility as transmitters of Jewish values, identity, and religious traditions, which served as a bulwark against assimilation [Cohen and Lévy, 271]. Many argued that they could be both feminists and Jews and refused to accept their ghettoization in traditional female organizations. That said, the Canadian Jewish Congress was reluctant to integrate women into its leadership; of the 19 elected presidents of the Canadian Jewish Congress only two were women (Dorothy Reitman, 1986-1989 and Goldie Hershon, 1995-1998) [Zylberberg, 171]. Federation CJA had voted for its first female president, Dodo Heppner, three years earlier. Since feminism was understood to enrich Judaism, others demanded greater involvement in traditional prayer and ritual activity [Medjuck, 328]. Women also reminded the community that not all of its members fit the traditional nuclear family model – widows, unmarried, single Jewish mothers, lesbians and the transgendered – drawing attention to these inequalities. Philanthropic organizations such as Jewish Women International [formerly B’nai Brith Women] transformed their agendas to end violence against women. Women’s claim to “half the kingdom” as full members of the Jewish community including participation in religious services pushed women to successfully overcome many of the obstacles. [Zuckerman and Goldstein]

Today, women still speak with multiple voices shaped by difference; and, there is no unanimity in Jewish ideas. Many seek to make the values of Judaism relevant in their lives. To attract the next generation of women to take over from their mothers, an adjunct status is unacceptable. For those who pursue greater participation in religious rituals, new opportunities have been created in the hiring of female rabbis in Reform temples and in growing opportunities in congregations from Reconstructionist to Traditionalist. That the ultra Orthodox communities elected Mindy Pollack to the Outremont council is momentous. And, poor, ill, elderly, and battered women continue to access a range of social services thanks in large part to Jewish women in Montreal.

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Léa Roback (1903 - 2000)
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Sonia Benezra (1960)
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Victoria Kaspi (1967)
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Taube Kaplan (1856 - 1940)
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Emmanuelle Chriqui (1975)
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Betty Goodwin (1923 - 2008)
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Ethel Stark (1910 - 2012)
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Yaëla Hertz (1930 - 2014)
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The Group of 35
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Ghitta Caiserman-Roth (1923 - 2005)
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Sylvia Ary (1923 - 2015)
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Nancy Neamtan (1951)
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Beverly Shaffer (1945)
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Phyllis Lambert (1927)
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Sheila Fischman (1937)
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Sheila Finestone (1927)
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Pauline Donalda (1882 - 1970)
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Rita Briansky (1925)
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Dora Wasserman (1919 - 2013)
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