For Lynette Lederman, former president and current volunteer at the National Council for Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, one of her favorite moments in her nearly 30 years as part of NCJW was when she outfitted a young Bhutanese girl with a pair of gloves. The young girl, who got two pairs of gloves at the Back 2 School Store that NCJW sponsors to offer school supplies and clothes to young students, had previously been using socks to keep her hands warm.
“It happens over and over again. The kids say, ‘Can I take this home? Is this really mine?’” Lederman said. “It’s those kinds of moments where you know you’ve touched a child or touched a single mother.”
Lederman, who was president of the organization from 2002-2004, said that moment also comes when a mother and her daughter walk out from Project Prom, another NCJW event that outfits girls with prom dresses and shoes, beaming with a new dress in hand. Or when a woman learns financial stability from the Center for Women, an NCJW project established in 2013 that acts as a one-stop shop for women in transition from a divorce, a death, a move or any other circumstance.
Those projects are just a few that Lederman and other volunteers with NCJW have referenced to describe the impact of the past 125 years of service through the NCJW Pittsburgh section. Celebrating the milestone this week, volunteers say that while the make-up of the organization’s leadership and the techniques for making an impact may have changed, the core mission has stayed the same since its founding in 1893.
“I really believe that the women who got involved with what was needed in 1893 would just look a little different in 2018, but we’re doing the same work because the need still exists,” Lederman said. “We fill a need in the community.”
That need is as broad as anything that affects the quality of life for women, children and family, and the organization boasts such accomplishments as establishing the first kindergarten in Allegheny County, the first adult day care program and the first and only children’s playrooms in county courts.
Cristina Ruggiero, executive director of NCJW, Pittsburgh Section, said the organization has often acted as an “incubator” for programs in the community by partnering with different groups to get a project off the ground and then spinning it off to them to take over. For example, according to Ruggiero, NCJW initially brought Race for the Cure to Pittsburgh before handing it over to Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh.
They get involved in projects either because someone reaches out for their help or they do their “due diligence and investigate what are the needs of the community, where we can best serve those needs,” Ruggiero said. “It’s just continuing a long tradition of what this organization does.”
The organization keeps “reinventing what they need to be” as time goes on, said Becca Tobe, a volunteer with the Pittsburgh section for the past four years who is chairing the 125th celebration, to be held June 7 at the University Club.
“Unfortunately, the reason it’s still around after 125 years is that the needs are still so great,” she said. “If you look at women and children in Pittsburgh and that’s the goal of people to help, the list just goes on and on.”
For the women volunteering with NCJW, part of the benefit comes not only from the women and children that they help but also from the women they work with and the leadership skills they learn.
“We really do develop women leaders and we do provide skills for women to go out in the community,” and continue to make a difference, said Hilary Spatz, president of NCJW, Pittsburgh Section from 2011 to 2013. Spatz added that the group would like to focus on leadership development in the future.
For Lederman, the future of the organization relies mostly on staying true to the mission “as times change and culture shifts.”
“I want to see the women of tomorrow grab this mission the way we did and the way women at the turn of the century did because I think we’re still working with the same Jewish values,” Lederman said. “There will always be needs in the community, always be reason to give people a hand.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.