Council of Jewish Women of New Zealand

1929 –

Council of Jewish Women of New Zealand

1929 –

Theme: Immigration and ethnic groups

Known as:

  • Union of Jewish Women
    1929 – 1986
  • Council of Jewish Women of New Zealand
    1986 –

This essay written by Shirley Ross was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Shirley Payes and Susan Arons in 2018.

1929 – 1993

The objects of the Council of Jewish Women of New Zealand (CJWNZ) can be summed up in the injunction from Jeremiah in the Jewish prayers, 'Seek ye the peace of the city'. From its formation, they were to work for the betterment of the Jewish community through education and fellowship, to give support to the state of Israel, and to identify and meet needs within both the Jewish and the wider community. Membership, open to all Jewish women, stood at approximately 300 in 1993.

The CJWNZ originated during the Depression. Although the number of Jewish people in New Zealand had always been small—around 0.2 percent of the population—Jewish women recognised the need for voluntary work. In Europe, Aucklander Simone Nathan saw the work being done by Jewish women's organisations, and returned to form the Union of Jewish Women (UJW) in 1929, with branches in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch; later a small Palmerston North branch was formed.

Simone Nathan and family

Simone Nathan (in the dark-coloured hat), first president of the Union of Jewish Women. Here pictured with her husband David at a garden party for the Governor-General in 1937. Photograph from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries. (Sourced from Auckland Council)

The UJW quickly became a co-ordinating body for existing single-purpose Jewish women's organisations, such as the New Zealand branch of the Women's International Zionist Organisation (WIZO) and the Women's Synagogue Auxiliaries. At the first Dominion conference, held in Wellington in 1933, Lena Van Staveren was elected president and Vera Ziman, later the first Jewish woman justice of the peace, became secretary.

Remits to the second conference, held in Wellington in 1937, showed the range of concerns at that time. Social service figured largely, as it did in 1993, and one remit urged greater attention to the training of Jewish youth for such work. Making and distributing clothes, visiting the sick, and helping with charity street collections were important activities throughout, and work among the elderly had a high priority.

During World War II, the UJW sent food parcels and clothing to refugees, supported mothers with young children and husbands overseas, and welcomed new immigrants. After the war, branches initiated a wide range of small-scale local fundraising schemes; Christchurch, for instance, supported Templeton Hospital for the intellectually disabled.

The UJW was also concerned about the status of women. In 1937 it supported the appointment of women police, and took up women's disadvantaged position with regard to the Jewish divorce certificate, the Get: men could initiate a religious divorce, but women could not. Work continued on this issue —for example, in 1969 the leaders of the International Council of Jewish Women (see below) went as a delegation to petition the rabbis in Jerusalem— but by 1993 it had not been resolved.

More successful was work to ensure that women's voices were heard in established Jewish community organisations traditionally run by men. Starting in the 1980s, for example, women were elected to congregation boards of management. Branches had an educational function too. Within the Jewish community, they ran classes for girls in the ethics, philosophy and customs of Judaism. Synagogue tours increased awareness of Judaism among the non-Jewish population. Welcoming prominent Jewish visitors was another ongoing activity.

In 1966 the UJW affiliated to the National Council of Women (NCW), and also became an affiliate of the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) when Leah Berman, a life member of the Auckland branch, went to the fourth triennial ICJW conference in Britain to represent New Zealand. The ICJW had begun in 1912, when a small group of women from Britain, Germany and the USA met in Rome 'to cement the bonds of friendship arising out of one faith and to intensify their work in the interest of humanity'. [1]

Work was disrupted by World War I, but the ICJW met again in Vienna in 1923 and in Hamburg in 1929—the last meeting for twenty years. It reorganised in Paris in 1949, when representatives from eleven countries supported universal membership for all Jewish women, service to all people, and social justice for peoples of all creeds and races. Conferences were held every three years from that time. With 37 countries affiliated in 1993, ICJW was represented on the World Jewish Council and was an A category member of the United Nations. The first New Zealander to become one of the twelve ICJW vice-presidents, who served two three-year terms, was Grace Hollander, CBE; elected in 1976, she was followed by Shirley Ross and Shirley Payes. New Zealand also provided an Asian Pacific chairperson.

In 1986 the UJW changed its name to the Council of Jewish Women of New Zealand, to conform with its sister organisations overseas. It had particularly close links with Australia, going back to the 1930s. From the 1980s, the CJW became more involved with other ethnic organisations. With most members born in New Zealand and able to move easily between two cultures, it provided executive expertise for ethnic councils throughout New Zealand. It joined the Federation of Ethnic Councils in 1989, and in 1993 Grace Hollander of the CJW was the federation's national president.

Shirley Ross

1994 – 2018

The 2013 census showed 1353 people stating Israeli/Jewish ethnicity living in New Zealand, less than 1 percent of the population. Of this group, around 39 percent had been born in New Zealand; 7 percent were aged 65 or over, compared with 14 percent of the whole population, and 53 percent were aged 50 to 64. [2]

By 2018, approximately 400 women were signed up members of the CJW; but although the various branches still existed, they rarely had formal meetings. In Auckland, where the largest group of Israeli/Jewish people lived (around 41 percent in 2013), Lesley Eisig had been President of CJW Auckland for twenty years. She said that the branch had not been functioning for some years, ‘as most of our members are too old’. [3] The CJW was still being contacted by people arriving in Auckland and wanting information and friendship; a membership list was no longer kept, but there were women who could be called on when needed.

Palmerston North, Hamilton, Dunedin and Christchurch were happy to receive monthly emails from the Wellington-based National President Shirley Payes, which they forwarded to the women members of their congregations; they continued to have social functions, but no longer had meetings. About twice a year Palmerston North and Christchurch had a CJW discussion, while meeting for another reason to do with their community activities.

Wellington appeared to be the only branch which was still in good heart, with 101 members and a core working group of about 30. They continued to work for Jewish women and their families, as well as for the general community. This included fundraising for Jewish youth, and subsidising Jewish women to attend seminars pertaining to Jewish matters overseas, as well as visiting Jewish people in times of need, in their homes, in hospital or in hospice. The branch combined each year with another Jewish organisation to take members to celebrate the religious holiday of Chanukah; it heavily subsidised this outing, which included a lunch and usually a bus trip. It also held functions to raise money for distribution to the Jewish kindergarten, the two Jewish congregations, and Israel, as well as the local Jewish community. It fundraised for hospice once a year and supported those working on cancer concerns.

Like many other Jewish organisations in Wellington, the branch was limited by the small size of the Jewish community. In the twenty-first century it was finding it increasingly difficult to entice the younger members of the community to take part in running the organisation. This problem was not confined to the Jewish community. Branch leaders saw this as partly due to economic circumstances, requiring both parents to have paid work, as well as needing time for their families.

‘When members are asked to do a specific job there is always plenty of help. It seems that there is a lack of enthusiasm for committee work, but for something that has been previously arranged by others, we get the support.’ [4] Another reason for diminishing involvement with CJW was that in Wellington in particular, the Jewish community had long been aging. However, in the 2010s it was starting to grow again, bringing a younger generation.  

Supporting the Holocaust Museum of New Zealand was also one of CJWNZ’s ongoing projects. 

One very important project for the Wellington branch was raising $15,000 in 1998–1999 to tape the living history of three holocaust survivors. Fifteen years later this was followed by a donation of $7000 to update the video, in order to make it a more useful teaching kit.

In 2018 CJW was looking forward to celebrating both the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage and CJW’s 90 years of existence in New Zealand (coming up in 2019) at a Wellington dinner with Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias as the speaker. It continued to work for equality for Jewish women within their communities.

Shirley Payes and Susan Arons

Notes

[1] ICJW information booklet, ICJW, France, 1986.

[2] Statistics NZ, ‘2013 Census ethnic group profiles: Israeli/Jewish’. Retrieved 25 October 2018 from: http://archive.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/ethnic-profiles.aspx?request_value=24768&parent_id=24761&tabname=

[3] Lesley Eisig, personal communication.

[4] Wellington committee members, personal communication.

Unpublished sources

Beth Israel Congregation (Auckland) Annual Report, 15 August 1934

International Council of Jewish Women pamphlet [n.d.]

Published sources

Beaglehole, Ann, Far from the Promised Land? Being Jewish in New Zealand, Pacific Press, Auckland, 1995

Bell, Leonard and Diana Morrow, Jewish Lives in New Zealand, Godwit, Auckland, 2012

Jewish Review, April 1937

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