NCJW Minnesota Celebrates 130 Years With National Leaders

Sheila Katz, national CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, is not a Minnesotan. But that didn’t stop her from being drawn into the Minnesota Culture Club – started by a Jewish friend – when attending Ithaca College in New York.

“I had a t-shirt with the state of Minnesota on it,” Katz said. “It was a very popular Ithaca College club.”

And, perhaps, a positive sort of foreshadowing: Katz now serves alongside NCJW president Laura Monn Ginsberg – a Minnesotan – and got to share her love of the state at the “Fueling Our Future” fundraising breakfast for the Minnesota chapter of NCJW on May 23.

But as a keynote speaker, Katz was also visiting to speak about the work of NCJW as the organization celebrates its 130th anniversary; faces new challenges in the wake of Oct. 7 and amid the dire state of democracy in the U.S.; and revamps locally for the new era. 

“We are in a really interesting place as an organization, because…it goes without saying that we live in an immensely different world than we did five years ago, let alone 130 years ago,” said Erica Solomon Collins, executive director of NCJW Minnesota, who spoke with TC Jewfolk after the event.

The fundraising breakfast served as the public unveiling of NCJW Minnesota’s new strategic plan, which focused on leadership development and organizational resilience. It also raised over $40,000 for the organization.

“How are we building an inclusive space for people that identify as Jewish women – [and] people that don’t identify as Jewish women, but who our work resonates with?” Solomon Collins said of the strategic planning goals. “How do we create a strong and supportive community for the people that we have?”

To the roughly 130 attendees of the breakfast, Katz offered clarity of mission when describing the role of NCJW in today’s world.

“To make sure Jewish women have a seat at any table we want to be at, that we take up our space at that table, and that we advocate using Jewish values, which would say that we are not only advocating for Jews,” Katz said. 

“It’s not the National Council for Jewish Women – we are advocating for all women, children and families in the United States and Israel, all of them,” she said. “That’s what it means to put Jewish values into action.”

Katz told her personal story of getting interested in advocacy work, which stemmed from her mother’s Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. 

“She went from being the breadwinner of our family to not being able to work,” Katz recalled. “And my dad went from having a job with a paycheck to needing to stop working to take care of my mom.”

Her mom’s sudden disability was eye-opening – and led Katz to rethink her perception of the world.

“Anyone who knows someone in a wheelchair, or anyone who’s ever had to use a stroller, knows that the world is not designed for people who actually need that kind of accessibility,” Katz said. “And then it opens your mind to: Who else isn’t the world designed for?”

But in a bittersweet way, the family crisis was also an inspirational moment, as Katz saw her mom’s synagogue friends pitch in to bring food and offer other support. It’s what leads her to such a focus on advocacy for families, not just for individuals, she said.

That’s also why it was so important for NCJW to lead the advocacy effort to highlight the sexual violence committed by Hamas against Israelis and other civilians on Oct. 7. 

It was especially striking to Katz the silence from U.N. Women, the United Nations arm tasked with advocating for women – and a regular voice against sexual violence in conflicts around the world. But for weeks after Oct. 7, U.N. Women didn’t say anything about the Hamas attack.

Katz thought she might have just missed a social media post from the organization. So NCJW “reached out, and then we didn’t hear anything – it was just strange,” Katz said. “And so we finally got to a point where we realized they hadn’t said anything.”

NCJW decided to take things into their own hands, and – as a recognized U.N. Non-Governmental Organization – held a hearing at the United Nations building in New York about Hamas rapes and other violence against women on Oct. 7.

It had an effect: “As a result of the event, news stations that had originally been saying that sexual violence was alleged, started calling it fact,” Katz said.

But she also made clear that NCJW doesn’t ignore Palestinian suffering in Gaza during the now 8-month Israel-Hamas war.

“As a Jewish organization that cares about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, as a moral voice, and as people who care about people, it is a tragedy when Palestinian civilians die,” Katz said to applause. “It is a tragedy when children who are Palestinian suffer, just as it is a tragedy when Israeli children suffer and Israelis die. And I think in the United States, people here have lost their mind a little bit, that we can’t hold those things – they’re not in conflict.”

Locally in Minnesota, NCJW has faced challenges – like many other Jewish groups – maintaining relationships with other communities and advocacy groups amid the Israel-Hamas war.

“I’m not gonna lie — we do coalition work with Muslim women’s groups, with Christian groups, with secular groups, and it’s been challenging at times, there’s been tension because we’re all leading our work with our own story,” said Solomon Collins, NCJW Minnesota’s executive director. “So it’s like, how can we [continue to build relationships] when we know that there are tensions there because of what’s happening in the world?”

The organization’s new strategic plan hopes to reinvest in coalition building, while also tackling other aspects of NCJW Minnesota’s activities, from fundraising and board development to visibility – not always easy in a relatively small but bustling Jewish community that has prominent advocacy organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Community Action.

“There has been this kind of funny little thing that came up in our strategic planning, that people have said for years, that they think NCJW Minnesota is the best kept secret, right?” said Solomon Collins. “Well, that’s cute, but we don’t want to be a kept secret. We want to be the best unkept secret. So I think some of that is work that we have to do to build our visibility.”

While NCJW continues to focus on work to do with gun violence, reproductive justice, and the equal rights amendment, attention is naturally on the upcoming November elections.

“The honest truth that everybody knows is that what happens in November is going to have a huge impact on how productive we can be in future [state legislative] sessions,” Solomon Collins said. 

“For the next couple of months, getting people to show up to vote, and make sure that the people [supporting NCJW’s goals]…are either elected or kept in their seats, is going to be the most important thing.”

As NCJW Minnesota evolves, it has a unique challenge: The organization has had generations of Jewish women involved in its work (one honoree at the fundraising breakfast was over 90 years old) but also has to bring in younger generations with a vastly different understanding of advocacy.

“Gen. Z are extremely passionate advocates for what they care about, and the way that they show up for what they care about looks really different from even me as a millennial, and what I’m used to,” Solomon Collins said. “So I think we do have a lot of room for growth and for learning.”

Responding to the diversity of today’s Jewish community is also a must, especially as the organization strengthens its leadership development pipeline.

“We know that we’re a predominantly historically white organization, and that’s not reflective of who the Jewish community is today,” Solomon Collins said. 

“We know that there are a wide array of identities – even that fall underneath Jewish women – that we could create a space of belonging for.”