The pouring rain could not keep a contingent of NCJW/Essex members away from Temple B’nai Abraham on Sunday, April 30 to hear NCJW CEO Sheila Katz in conversation with Senior Rabbi David Vaisberg.
Sheila, who was named NCJW’s national leader in 2019, has more than doubled the number of NCJW advocates to over 210,000 strong working collectively to ensure that the rights of women, children and families are protected, translated into public policy and upheld in our courts. Her path took her from teaching at the elementary school level to rising through the ranks at Hillel International to becoming one of only two women CEOs of a legacy national Jewish organization.
Sheila traced her history in the fight for equality and justice, and the choices she made along the way. Sparked by her mother’s illness and disability, Sheila realized at an early age that when things are more accessible it’s better for everyone. “When one person rises, we bring others with us,” she said
That is especially true when it comes to gender equity, and the role of women in the workplace. And, it starts early. Women should be making the same as men in their first jobs out of college, setting the stage for equity for a lifetime. But, data shows that still is not happening, nor is it happening in practice. Early in her career, when asking for a raise, Sheila was told instead to “get a husband.”
That was also one of many turning points for her, and shined a light on some fundamental truths. NCJW (and NCJW/Essex) says it operates on and is inspired by Jewish values, but Sheila asked, are we really putting them into practice? She implored us to pay attention, reminded us that our budget dictates our values, and explained that issues like abortion access and equity, childcare and paid family leave are really at the heart of what our organization does.
Abortion has been at the top of the agenda lately, as it is a harbinger of an all-out war on women in the United States, As a Jewish organization, NCJW has an important perspective to add to this conversation. Abortion bans represent a threat to religious liberty, she said, as the Jewish faith prioritizes the life and health of the pregnant person.
The thought-provoking, and frankly disturbing reality, according to Sheila is that Christian nationalism is making its way into our legal system, and it is up to all of us to speak up loudly – in our community, from the bimah, and elsewhere – because each person has the capacity to make a difference.
Sheila ended on a hopeful note: “I have hope because I think about history,” she said, telling a story about Rosa Parks, who was a trained organizer before she stepped on the bus.
“If enough of us do one thing, then one of us will change history.”