The following story appeared in the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press 70th Anniversary issue, published April 21. To view the entire issue, click here.
For 107 years, the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angles (NCJW/LA) has been a beacon of hope for women, children and families in need.
And over the decades, NCJW/LA has stayed true to the core values of advocating for the needy that were outlined by women’s rights activist Rachel Kauffman when she founded the organization in 1909.
Kauffman followed the lead of the national council’s founder Hannah G. Solomon, who 16 years earlier became a symbol in the fight for gender equality. Solomon walked out of an event at the Chicago World’s Fair, angry about the second-class treatment of women. Solomon had been asked by the male-led Jewish delegation to organize Jewish women’s participation at the fair. Once they arrived, Solomon’s group was relegated to serving coffee and hosting. By the end of the fair in 1893, the National Council of Jewish Women was born, leading to branches throughout the country, including Los Angeles.
“Women from around the country gathered with the national council in the mid-1890s and when they came back to their communities, they found ways to create NCJWs, especially in areas where there were large concentrations of Jewish women,” said Hillary Selvin, executive director of NCJW/LA. “Rachel Kauffman started NCJW/LA with 15 members on June 20, 1909. A year later, they had a membership of 101.”
In the early days, NCJW/LA focused on bringing about social justice for women, children, families and immigrants – a tradition that continues today. The organization was rooted downtown in the B’nai B’rith Temple on Hope Street, and it quickly became a community center where members created programs and planned actions supporting women’s causes.
“It was about philanthropy and self-improvement. The women who were part of NCJW/LA cared about the community and wanted to help others,” Selvin said. “It was what we call social justice today.”
Some of the earliest programs included a nursery school for working mothers and the El Nido Camp, which provided healthcare for children. Selvin said the first council thrift shop opened in 1924 on East Seventh Street. Clothing and furniture donations were sold at the thrift shop, with proceeds funding NCJW/LA social programs. The council now has eight thrift shops that serve the same role today, providing more than 75 percent of the organization’s net income.
NCJW/LA’s membership grew exponentially over the first decades and the programs expanded. The organization launched efforts to help refugees coming to the United States in the 1920s and ‘30s. During World War II, the organization worked closely with the Red Cross, veterans’ programs and the USO. In the 1950s, NCJW/LA started a program for at-risk girls and volunteer training that helped people find jobs. In 1960, the organization broke ground on its current headquarters in the Fairfax District. A year later, the council house opened at 543 N. Fairfax Ave.
Just as the organization’s early headquarters became a center of the community downtown, the council house on Fairfax Avenue flourished as a gathering place. Selvin said in the early days, they hosted 12-step meetings and served as a site for training lobbyists. Today, organizations like the Mid City West Community Council utilize it as their headquarters.
“It was a place for the community and still is,” Selvin added.
The NCJW/LA that people are familiar with today really took shape in the 1970s and ‘80s, Selvin said. A daycare program for working moms was launched that is now part of Vista Del Mar – an affiliated organization serving people in need. Selvin said the NCJW/LA Talk Line was also founded in the early 1980s. People call for emotional support and counseling and receive help finding mental health, domestic violence and educational resources.
The council also launched its women’s network in the 1980s, which evolved into its current advocacy program for social injustice. Issues at the time included reproductive rights and attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade. The council’s fight for women’s reproductive rights, and support for causes such as LGBTQ equality, stopping human trafficking and gender-related violence, remain hallmarks of the organization. Forums and panel discussions on NCJW/LA advocacy and social justice initiatives are held regularly at the council house.
Selvin said one of the most important NCJW/LA programs is the yearly clothing giveaway, held annually in early December. Thousands of people line Fairfax Avenue to receive free clothing and children’s gifts that are donated to the community from the thrift shops.
“The clothing giveaway is our signature event,” Selvin said. “It’s been going on for 17 or 18 years. We always have a few thousand people come and we readily provide for [them].”
Selvin said she is also excited about Adopt-a-Family, a new program that last year provided help in different ways for 30 families in need.
“One person we helped was a single-mom who was going to school and had to get up at four in the morning so she could get to the library to use a computer to do her work and then go to school. Then she had to go to her job,” Selvin said. “We bought her a laptop and got her connected to the Internet. Do you know how lifesaving that is? Sometimes it’s little things, just helping them pay their bills and keeping their lights on. Some just need their car repaired. These are ways you can change their lives.”
Selvin added that NCJW/LA has a paid support staff but is primarily a volunteer organization whose members look for ways to make a difference. There are currently 2,500 members and 600 periodic volunteers.
“The volunteers are the core element of our organization,” Selvin added. “We are a grassroots, volunteer organization. They are the strength of the organization, they are an anchor.”
Selvin, a Brooklyn native who has been NCJW/LA’s executive director for 12 years, said the council will never stop caring for people in the community and fighting for social justice. NCJW/LA is always looking for ways to start new assistance programs as needs arise.
“It’s about making the world a better place,” Selvin added. “No matter how many brick walls you have to climb and then climb again, it’s worthwhile. At the end of the day, you never know who you might have helped. You can make a positive difference in someone’s life.”