About 40 women sit around tables set up in a Yeshiva Girls School classroom, gathered to share the recent accomplishments and upcoming programs of the respective organizations that they lead. It is the biannual meeting of the Pittsburgh Conference of Jewish Women’s Organizations, an umbrella group for the area philanthropic groups and sisterhoods that have been the lifeblood of Jewish women here for almost a century.
But although the attendees obviously share a sense of camaraderie, the room is almost completely devoid of those under the age of 50.
“Many sisterhoods are struggling,” said Dena Chottiner, immediate past president of PCJWO. “Young people work, and some don’t join these organizations. Everyone is struggling to get younger people involved.”
Chottiner has been active in Jewish organizational work for decades. She “was vaccinated with volunteerism in my family,” she says, so she knows what those who choose not to participate are missing: getting to know people one might not necessarily meet otherwise and “the satisfaction of doing for someone else.”
But she understands the dilemma that today’s younger women face.
“Because younger women work, they feel guilty if the time they don’t work, they don’t spend with their kids,” she said.
Membership in longstanding Jewish women’s organizations, according to anecdotal evidence from local leaders, is declining, due in part to the death of aging members and the lack of participation of the young who have neither the time nor the interest to join.
“Younger women are working, and spending time with their families, and they just don’t have the time to volunteer,” posited Marcia Weiss, immediate past president of NA’AMAT USA, Pittsburgh Council. “Membership is down in NA’AMAT. Lots of our members were older and have passed away, and we don’t have the numbers to replace them. We do get new members, but not on a regular basis.”
Even finding a good day and time to have an event is a challenge, Weiss said.
“We might want to have a brunch for NA’AMAT on a Sunday, but people don’t like to leave their families on a Sunday. So when is a good day?”
Many women’s groups around the city are looking to the 30- to 50-year old demographic for new members, Weiss said. “But those are the women who are working and who have families. I think this is a problem across the board.”
That younger Jewish women are eschewing the traditional women’s groups of their mothers is nothing new, and not unique to Pittsburgh, according to Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University.
“The sense that young women are not interested in the traditional women’s organizations relates to the fact that a lot of contemporary women do not want to associate themselves with traditional roles that women have held,” Sarna explained. For many congregational sisterhoods, the role of the members was to be in the kitchen preparing kiddushes, or tending to the appearance of the synagogue. For today’s women, who often work and lead large companies, and who have obtained advanced degrees, those activities hold little interest, he said.
“These women prefer to run the organization,” Sarna continued. “We are seeing now women’s involvement as equals, sitting on synagogue boards, sitting on Federation boards and in places they were not able to be [decades ago].”
Tension occurs, Sarna proffered, over the question “as to whether women’s roles should simply be equalized and gender shouldn’t matter or, as others say, women speak in a different voice. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to have separate women’s organizations.”
The change in women’s societal roles has occurred quickly, in historical terms, Sarna noted, so Jews are faced with a situation where two scenarios are occurring at once.
On the one hand, women are taking on leadership roles historically the province of men. Yet, “older folks who are involved in traditional organizations don’t want them to disappear,” he said.
Some organizations are responding to membership challenges and trying to appeal to a younger cohort by creating separate young women’s groups. Beth El Congregation of the South Hills last year launched Zahava, a group for younger women that has held events such as a rigorous self-defense course, and a painting class. Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh started a separate group for young women earlier this year that has held a glass painting program, a brunch and a shopping event.
Emily Levine, who heads up Hadassah’s young women’s group, Zohar, says she does not require women to join Hadassah to attend programs.
“I try to plan events that are more interesting to this particular age group,” said Levine, 32. “People don’t have disposable incomes. I try to plan low cost events where you can walk away with something. People want something for their money.”
She said she hopes women come to an event, enjoy the camaraderie, then decide to become members of Hadassah and get involved in the group’s mission of philanthropy.
The National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, employs a similar strategy to recruit a younger cohort, according to Andrea Kline Glickman, the organization’s executive director.
Volunteers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s who work on particular projects may be asked to join the organization after they get a taste of the group.
“We’re still a membership-based organization,” Glickman explained, noting that having strong numbers is important on a national scale when the group does its advocacy work in lobbying lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
While NCJW has seen a decline in membership over the last several years, she said, there has been an increase in volunteerism among young women who enjoy participating in community service projects. Several younger women serve on the group’s board. And many younger women have participated in the organization’s recently introduced Leadership Development Program.
Some younger women around the city have taken the initiative in rejuvenating existing groups, or starting entirely new ones. At Poale Zedeck, several women in their 20s and 30s approached sisterhood president Anita Kornblith to see about revitalizing the group. A cohort of younger women last fall established a junior branch of Lebovitch Women’s Organization and holds classes and seminars on topics specifically of interest to those women in their early childrearing years.
And earlier this month, Pittsburgh saw the launch of BINA — the Business Initiative Network Association — a Jewish women’s networking group.
Still, while some groups grapple with the new paradigm of women’s engagement, there remains “a lot of young blood” in many organizations, according to Chani Altein, 34, who is the youngest officer on the board of PCJWO.
“There are a lot of young women involved,” said Altein. “I see it in NCJW and [the Jewish] Federation [of Greater Pittsburgh].”
In a recent communitywide program that she ran, The Sound of Jewish Music, there were many “young faces” on her committee, including one woman in her 20s.
“I think a lot of young women are happy to be involved,” she said. “They just need to be approached, and given some ownership. I think if you just reach out to them, and give them a little bit of independence and some guidance, they are happy to pitch in and be involved.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.