This year marks the centennial since the founding of the North Carolina Association of Jewish Women, the only statewide organization of its kind in the nation.
In 1921 Sarah Einstein Weil of Goldsboro sent out a call to Jewish women across the state inviting them to her home synagogue, Oheb Sholom, to create an organization that would unite Jewish women across ethnic, religious, and geographic lines. Fifty-seven attended. Sarah, a Bostonian, had moved to Goldsboro in 1875 after marrying the merchant and civic leader Solomon Weil. North Carolina was familiar to her as her Einstein relatives had peddled and opened stores in Kinston and Goldsboro dating to the 1840s. This “Yankee girl” recognized that North Carolina Jews, like those in urban communities, were socially divided between the established, Americanized Germans and the more recently arrived Yiddish-speaking East European immigrants. The Germans went to their Reform temples, while the East Europeans attended their Orthodox shuls. Moreover, the emerging Zionist movement divided the community. Geography isolated the state’s Jews. North Carolina lacked urban centers and its Jews scattered across small towns across a 500-mile landscape. Wilmington, Raleigh, Asheville, Greensboro, or Charlotte could maintain vibrant communities of several hundred, but what about the many towns with one, two, or three families like Troy, or Haw River, or Mt. Airy? A 1929 survey revealed 48 towns with but one to five Jewish families. The NCAJW would “extend a sisterly hand” to “families living in isolated sections,” linking them to larger communities.
That the Jewish women organized one year after the passage of woman suffrage was not coincidental. The state Federation of Women’s Clubs, which had been the training ground for activist women, was an organizational model, and many of the early NCAJW leaders—Flora Oettinger Stern and Ruth Rypins of Greensboro and Edna Lichtenfels of Asheville—came from that movement. Sarah’s niece Gertrude Weil, who led the Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina and founded its League of Women Voters, would serve three terms as NCAJW president. Several communities had chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women, founded in 1893, but its politics were often personal and divisive. Moreover, it drew primarily Reform Jews of German background. Hadassah appealed to Zionists, and Sisterhood was a Reform auxiliary. Gertrude Weil noted of the NCAJW that “again and again this uniting of Jewish women has been emphasized,” an observation that would not be needed if divisions did not persist.
Led by activist women, the NCAJW embarked on a progressive agenda. A census was undertaken. In 1927 it counted 781 women in 66 towns. The state was divided into eight districts, and regional meetings culminated in an annual state conference with national speakers. Its annual yearbook was a state of the union address for North Carolina Jewry.
From the first the women emphasized education for themselves as well as for the children. Sarah Weil had been active in the public library movement, serving on a state commission, and she established a traveling library of Jewish books. The NCAJW helped seed Sunday Schools across the state. In 1930 it held a ten-day camp for teachers at Camp Osceola in Hendersonville and held teacher-training institutes for women whose “zeal” often exceeded their “preparation.” The NCAJW inspired efforts to create a campus Hillel Foundation. Its Sophia Einstein Student Loan fund, named in memory of Sarah’s mother, assisted dozens of college students. The NCAJW spawned a Youth auxiliary which sponsored picnics, dances, and conferences bonding Jewish children. NCAJW women served as Jewish representatives on statewide groups on the North Carolina Conference for Social Service.
“The social part of the Association is to bring Jewish people together whenever and wherever it is possible,” wrote president Hinda Honigman of Gastonia in 1938. Small-town Jews attended summer programs at the mountain retreat of Wildacres, linking them to a statewide community and to global Jewry. Immigrant families were assisted and Americanized. A men’s auxiliary also formed. In 1956 the NCAJW led the drive to create a statewide home for the Jewish elderly. In 1960 a mansion was purchased outside Clemmons, to which two wings were added, that became the Blumenthal Home for the Jewish Aged. Led by the Weil women, the NCAJW also had a Zionist organization.
The NCAJW faded away. The women’s and men’s associations merged, extended to South Carolina as the CAJWM, but the Jewish community was too large, dispersed, and pluralistic to maintain the sense of community that had once prevailed. Moreover, the rise of Federations and Community Relation Councils made such an organization less necessary. All that has endured is its student loan fund.