In Behalf of the Jewesses
c. November 15-19, 1896 — First Convention of the National Council of Jewish Women, Tuxedo Hall, New York City
Members of The National Council of Jewish Women, Ladies and Gentlemen: — Without a doubt a movement towards unity is in the air. Everywhere we see traces of its influence. The lesson that in union is strength has been learned again, and the women of our times have caught it up. The idea existed that women had inherent incapacity for convictions and co-operation. Women could never work together, so it was said. It cannot be said now. The work of this Council since the Parliament of Religions convened and to-night’s gathering are refutations of the statement. Jewish women can work together, and working, can achieve definite results. Vain and empty, indeed, would be words of welcome to-night, when so hearty a greeting is in evidence on all sides. Whether we look or whether we listen, we are aware of an ocean of sentiment and feeling which overwhelms us, and at this auspicious moment my lips must tremble as I ask you, even in the words of Moses, Who am I, that I should address you in behalf of the Jewesses of this great City? And yet, back from the eager faces before me, come the inspiration and the courage, and involuntarily my lips utter the words which went forth as a command and a promise to Abraham, the patriarch, “Be thou a blessing.”
In bidding you welcome to our city, our homes, and our hearts, in extending a hearty greeting to representatives of an organization that numbers Jewish women of almost every state, I am thrilled by possibilities which may be the outcome of this convention. On the other side of the ocean, mothers in Israel, weary of the battle and blindly foreseeing a happier lot for their children, wend their way to the church, and their lips utter words which their hearts cannot feel. They forsake Judaism, forgetting that their greatest and strongest weapon against the enemy called anti-Semitism is, as we have learned so well, greater knowledge, greater faith, greater love. How beautiful is the contrast to-night, here in the West. The women of Israel have convened to-night, fortified in our faith, because of a renewed interest in it, more reverent in our feelings, because of a better understanding of our Judaism, and united by a strong bond of affection, because we know that we are sisters in a common religion. It almost seems as if we could see the Temple of old take form again, and Jerusalem’s walls rise, for the glory of Israel has returned.
So much for the promise that went forth to Abraham. Let us not forget the command in the words, “Be thou a blessing.” Upon every Jewess, and more particularly upon the women of this Council, is laid the duty of being God’s missionary in the fullest sense of the word. We are not necessarily to win souls by an aggressive propaganda, which too often repels rather than attracts, but simply by the quiet force of a beautiful example. Every true Jewess is a priestess, and by the very strength of her unobtrusive belief is a witness for religion; and when faith in God is the source of her virtues, truth and integrity, gentleness and purity the foundation stones of her life, then truly is she a blessing in Israel. The mother in Israel was never chosen for active warfare in the cause of religious truth, but she was expected to be a witness of religion in her home. And therefore I say that which my heart impels me to speak. May our deliberations be not only harmonious, pervaded by sweet sisterly affection and love, but above all, may the outcome of the deliberations be tangible and perceptible to the physical eye, as well as to the eyes of faith and reason. Let us not attempt too much. Let us be specific. May this convention end its deliberations and find those who have assembled, each of them, a blessing for Israel. May we feel sufficiently inspired that the future may evidence the earnestness of the present. Let us begin with the most important, the Sabbath, Israel’s bulwark from time immemorial. May it be brought nearer to our hearts in such fashion that every one, every daughter of Judah, may hallow it in truth. God be thanked, there are noble hearts which throb for the poor, and intelligent minds to distribute wisely the means intended for those whose lot has not fallen in pleasant places. But if not from our ranks, then from where, shall come those who shall teach our children by religious example, and kindle within them the sparks of faith, that which will keep ever burning the lamp of hope, ever glowing the coals of confidence in the God of Israel? Let the impulse of Sabbath keeping among Jewish women be here fairly started and carried into practice. Let it be sounded forth in clear, unmistakable tones, the resolution that the Deborahs in Israel have taken, to lead their children out into the broad highways of religion and not by devious by-paths.
There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants, and we who are blessed with the sweet memories of a home wherein God dwelt know too well that even to a child there is no purer, sweeter joy than that associated with the poetic sentiment which is the halo of Sabbath or festival. Sabbath! That is the word which we, as Mothers in Israel, must brave again. Ours it is to be the saviors of our people. Ours it is to arouse courage and hope in the leaders of the nation’s destiny. They need our sympathies, our active aid. Even into the Promised Land of old the command went forth, “Take the women and children with you,” and when down Sinai’s mighty heights the Lord’s voice rang out in thunder tones, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” even the women joined in the answer, “We will do and we will hearken.” This be the spirit of this convention. Let us not only hearken, but let us do. We have left our homes and our children to consult and become acquainted the better with our duties as Jewesses, to devise means and gain enthusiasm for their better rearing as truly religious Israelites.
Worthy citizens of this blessed republic, let us use our time well, so that our sacrifices may be pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Let us return to our homes filled with the determination to reinstate the Sabbath at least in our hearts in its pristine glory, as we have seen it. This accomplished in our homes, there need be no fear that the Temple will be neglected. On the west wall of the splendid gallery in Berlin, more beautiful, I think, than all the rest, hangs a picture of heroic dimensions. In the background stands the Temple ablaze, the walls in ruins, the conquering hosts riding proudly by. In front, leaning on his staff — it seems almost Janus-like, with a double vision — is the pathetically beautiful form of lamenting Jeremiah; and in that double vision we perceive a ray of hope that will not permit us to depart. Jeremiah sees the past with its ruin, but he almost seems to say, “I see the future with its fully restored, twice augmented glory.” For lo! by his side stands a daughter of Israel, who, with a touch, has thrilled him. On such as she is he founds his hope; on her, as once in Egypt’s slavery days, for to her prayer, the prayer of the daughter in Israel, the Almighty will hearken. Once more were his lips about to utter, “How dwelleth desolate the great city,” but now his voice uplifts in prayer, “Return us, O Lord, unto Thee, and we will return, renew our days of old.” Need I continue the picture? The Temple of Judaism is afire, the walls are in ruins, the foes, agnosticism and atheism, are marching by as conquering heroes. Our rabbis, Jeremiahs in will and energy, are lamenting over the condition of things. Members of this Council, yours it is to send the thrill of hope to the hopeless, and by your touch arouse a new enthusiasm, a greater love for our dear Judaism.
This working for our religion can be the only reason for our existence. In every corner of the earth you will find the Jew a patriot in the best sense of the word. The Jew knows no sectarianism in communal work. In matters philanthropic and educational we shall always join our Christian sisters, for this we need no organization; it is for a better knowledge of our history, our religion, and our-selves as Jews that this Council was called into life. Let us have a long and useful existence, let us labor for the preservation of our sacred heritage, until the whole family of Judah shall have become a blessing unto the Lord.
Ladies and Gentlemen, to-night indeed is a gala night, a night which I shall never forget. The privilege of having addressed you was indeed almost a small one compared with the privilege I now have, that of introducing to you our beloved President, Mrs. Hannah Solomon.
Mrs. Solomon’s name has become almost a household name to-day, and when I say that the responsibility and the work of this great Council have rested upon her, and when I tell you that she has won our confidence and our love because of her wise and just rulings in all matters, I must then only add that we love her, that we pray for her, and hope that her efforts will be crowned with the success which we know she wishes for it.
Source: Proceedings of the First Convention of the National Council of Jewish Women, Held at New York, Nov. 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, 1896 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society), 1897 pp. 43-47.