How a Legacy Organization Builds New Leadership
Recently, I was sifting through photos of National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) volunteers meeting with young girls in the lines at Ellis Island to save them from becoming victims of sex trafficking, and had an “aha moment” — one of those moments where we become fully clear and grateful about how and why we are committing our lives to Jewish service.
I had accepted the role of NCJW’s Associate Director of Development a few months earlier and here, sitting at the American Jewish Historical Society, located at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, surrounded by NCJW’s 120-year-old archival materials, everything clicked. I read meeting minutes where leaders discussed the role of Zionism during the Six Day War; I reviewed a pamphlet created by NCJW in 1922 for immigrant women, giving them advice about adjusting to a new country; and I admired NCJW buttons advocating for reproductive justice at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. I realized that NCJW’s rich history as a progressive, feminist organization is unlike any other. This is what makes this organization so inspiring, exciting and fresh.
Inspired by Jewish values, NCJW strives for social and economic justice for women, children and families. At the national level, we advocate for reproductive justice, a fair and independent judiciary, the end of sex trafficking and gender equality in Israel. Seventy local affiliates augment NCJW’s national work by supporting its advocacy at the grassroots level and engaging in community service.
Yet, despite the fact that NCJW has truly been ahead of its time throughout its history, it nonetheless faces many of the same challenges that other legacy organizations face, most notably engaging my contemporaries, millennial women.
Over the last several months NCJW has been re-envisioning its future by grappling with this question. As part of our fact-finding expedition, NCJW held a convening of 40 women under the age of 40 in March 2015 to test the hypothesis that women in this age bracket are interested in pursuing social justice through a Jewish and gender lens. Young Jewish feminist thinkers and activists from across the country gathered to develop their collective vision for progressive political action.
I had the great privilege to sit in on the opening reception of the convening. The conversation reminded me of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and Alumni Institutes I have attended throughout the years: a group of diverse, talented, incisive young people who were self-reflective, inquisitive and open-minded. The passion with which they approached the issues and the creative capacity they brought to the process was remarkable. Throughout the rest of the meeting, my colleagues discovered several important findings about this focus group: they feel responsible to the communities in which they live and they believe they can have the greatest impact on a local level; they embrace an intersectional approach to their activism; they care deeply about reproductive justice as a priority issue. They also see value in intergenerational activism, which is a unique value add of NCJW, given our current membership.
How can we synthesize this information and integrate it into our future plans for engagement? We know that we are on the cusp of the next great moment in the history of NCJW. And we can only ensure the vitality of NCJW by creating networks of young women (and men!) who are invested in our advocacy work. We are open to new vistas for change and are open to adapting our approaches to reflect the changing needs of this demographic. For example, we selected two women from the convening to serve on our strategic change committee, so these essential voices are represented as we chart NCJW’s course for the next century. As well, we are providing scholarships for young women at NCJW’s upcoming Washington Institute, our national issues-based conference, where we will offer them special opportunities to gather.
As we continue to explore next steps, I encourage you to join us in this discovery process by learning more about us, signing up for our action alerts, or being in touch with me. If you serve on the board or staff of other legacy organizations, it would be helpful to all of us to share best practices on how to build new leadership — please comment below and we can work on this together.
Samantha Pohl, a WGF alum (Class 21), currently serves as Associate Director of Development at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Previously, she worked at Temple Shaaray Tefila as Development Manager. Samantha earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California and a Master of Arts in Jewish Communal Service (now Jewish Nonprofit Management) from Hebrew Union College. Prior to graduate school, Samantha was Program Director of Brown RISD Hillel and a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, where she focused on reproductive rights, women’s issues and Israel. She is a proud graduate of Brandeis University, and is currently on the Board of the Hillel there. Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.