The amazing tale of the Union of Jewish Women
The late President Nelson Mandela called them “an amazing group of women” because of the work they had been doing in the townships since 1994.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year.
In 1931, it started as a small group of women who were committed to making a difference in the South African Jewish community.
Today, the UJW has about 1 500 members and boasts branches in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Gqeberha, and East London. It’s the only women’s organisation in South Africa that works for Jewish and outreach communities, says National President Bev Goldman.
A couple of years after its formation in Cape Town, the UJW became a formal organisation based on three pillars – Judaism, feminism, and broad humanity. “The women became involved in communal affairs and education – not only Jewish education but in outreach communities,” says Goldman.
“Right from the beginning, the members of the union were involved in outreach projects across the country. With an enormous amount of poverty and in areas where there wasn’t sufficient education or medical treatment, the union got involved in fighting for women’s rights and improving the situation for everybody.”
The UJW became a force to be reckoned with, says Goldman. Its action resulted in South African Jewish women voting for shul committees for the first time, in 1933.
“In 1936, the union had its first national conference,” Goldman says. “In 1940, Jewish women were allowed to join the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. By 1941, there were 52 branches of the union across the country. In those days, there were many little country and rural communities, and the Jewish women in those communities were encouraged to become part of the union. They started their own branches. Suddenly, within 10 years, all the little towns had a branch of the union. They made a huge impact.”
Goldman became a member of the UJW in the 1970s before becoming part of the executive in about 2006. “Then I joined manco, [the management committee of the of the UJW], and my mentor at that time was Lynne Raphaely,” recalls Goldman. “I admired what she was doing for the union. Because of her, I decided to become more active in it. The rest is history. Here I am today as national president, which is a huge privilege and honour. It’s something I never imagined in my wildest dreams.”
In 2010, the UJW had a vacant seat at a table at a women’s event. “The fundraiser and project manager asked me if I wanted to join, and I did,” recalls Karen Kallmann, the chairperson of the UJW’s Cape Town Branch. “While I was sitting at the table, I chatted to a few of the women and thought, ‘I would love to get involved.’ So, I joined a group and the executive at the same time.”
Kallmann says one of the UJW’s biggest achievements is the Kensington crèche in Cape Town it has been managing for 80 years. “In 1942, the union opened a crèche there. We raise funds for it, help manage the staff, and provide food and teachers in collaboration with other organisations.”
What also stands out for Kallmann is how the UJW has responded to crises. “For example, in the 1940s, the union was very involved in the war effort. It got involved in the South African war appeal.”
The UJW has also invested itself in the education of girls and women. “In Cape Town, for example, the Hebrew School Association was conceptualised, funded, and run by the union for a long time until those organisations got funding from the department of education in the late 1970s,” says Kallmann. “The union was involved in building schools, employing teachers, and providing bursaries, especially for underprivileged women, to study nursing and teaching. It brought teachers from King David Schools in Johannesburg to the townships to teach early childhood education methods.”
The UJW is also involved in adult education, especially for its members – a seminar it had on inherited diseases resulted in the formation of the South African Inherited Diseases Association, says Kallmann.
Two of the union’s groups which strike a chord for Kallmann are its Simcha Group, which runs an aftercare facility in Khayelitsha, and its Constantia Group, which provides meals and teddy bears for children who appear in cases of abuse.
About 1 397km away, Johannesburg UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals, cooks and delivers food to more than 100 elderly Jewish people 365 days of the year. “In some cases, the only human connection some of these elderly people have is with the volunteer who delivers the meals,” says Goldman.
Recently, the UJW made a substantial donation towards the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth Leisrael’s efforts to shelter and educate Ukrainian orphans in Israel.
Many women have shone through the UJW. “All the presidents have been wonderful, each one of them having left a fantastic legacy, particularly the late Miriam Stein,” says Goldman. “According to women in the International Council of Jewish Women, she was the most active and incredible president of the union. Another former president, Ray Wolder, a city councillor in Johannesburg, was responsible for bringing the Israeli hippy kindergarten education programme into South Africa. Then, of course, the founder of the union, Toni Saphra. Without her, there probably wouldn’t have been a union. She was completely dedicated to ensuring that Jewish women had a voice.”
According to Kallmann, another particular heroine was Sallie Kussel, the UJW’s national organiser from the 1940s until the 1960s. “She literally bult the union. She would go to every town and village and recruit Jewish women to be part of the union. There was also an amazing woman called Pearl Mandelstam, the national president of the union, who did a huge amount to grow the union and work with other organisations to do good, but also to show that Jewish women were doing good work in the general community.”
In addition, “Our volunteers are phenomenal,” says Goldman. “They are the ones who keep us going all the time.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UJW provided food for hundreds of thousands of children, particularly in rural areas, and educational packs for kids who couldn’t go to school, says Goldman. “We empower women and give them skills which will enable them to be self-sufficient.”
“Bags for New Beginnings” is a current major UJW project. “We fill baby bags with everything a new-born baby needs for its first month of life,” says Goldman. “They are distributed to provincial and national hospitals that have indigent mothers giving birth.”
Moreover, “We are working towards Mandela Day and Mitzvah Day,” says Goldman. “We will give toothbrushes and toothpaste to children in many schools. In one of the Mandela Day projects, we provided school shoes for quite a few thousand children who had never had their own pair of shoes.”
During its 90th year, the UJW invited all of its over-80-year-old members to a breakfast. “A few of them spoke about their experiences in the union and what the union means to them,” says Kallmann. “Our women support each other. The union creates many friendships and has friendship clubs, where people get together and do activities like knitting. It helps connect people who would otherwise be quite lonely.”