NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Four years after the National Council of Jewish Women was established in 1893, the NCJW New Orleans Section was born. It was just before the turn of the 20th century when Jewish women in New Orleans, all volunteers, came together and developed programs aimed to improve the quality of the lives of women, children and families.
"But the special thing is that doesn't mean Jewish women or Jewish children, it means everybody," NCJW New Orleans Section President, Susan Kierr said. For the next dozen decades, their dedicated service to community has thrived.
"In the early days 120 years ago, we (New Orleans) were a port of entry for so many immigrants, and we rose to the task, and we made such a huge difference on the docks, welcoming immigrants. A lot of them were Russian immigrants who couldn't speak English. We were right there with diapers for the babies and food for people coming off of the trains and the boats. That was our birth," explained Kierr.
Even with its very first service project in 1898, education has been at the heart of the New Orleans Section. "It (first service project) was devoted to teaching cooking, sewing and housework to young girls, and then it evolved into being an industrial school for girls," NCJW Past President Loel Weil Samuel said. "It was not training you, me, the people who lived here. It was training the people who were coming and settling into New Orleans," Samuel said.
Generations of women have made a difference through the decades. The first academic scholarships were awarded in 1903.
"My first year as (NCJW) President, a man reached out to me who's mom was helped back in 1950. He lived in Canada, and he wanted to give a donation to scholarship in memory of his mom," Shellye Farber said. Farber, who's another Past President of the local NCJW said they continue to help students with college tuition and books today. Records indicate they've awarded more than $250,000 to 38 students just since 2004.
From its community child care fair, to its Hippy program, NCJW members feel they've changed lives. "I meet people who learn to read because of our Hippy program, and now they're fully employed," Kierr said.
"It's (Hippy) home instruction program for preschool youngsters, and we were one of the first, and it was done in conjunction with the Orleans Parish School Board," explained Samuel referencing the Hippy program. Hippy volunteers train parents and preschoolers to get them ready for regular school.
For Sarah Covert, who says trying to make the world a better place is part of her identity, NCJW was a perfect fit. She recalls her very first experience with a service project. "We did a bean bags and books campaign at the library where we gave out bean bags to anybody who was willing to sign that they would be willing to read to their kids every night," Covert said.
Their services empower young people, older people, and everyone in between. If the elderly and disabled for example couldn't get to the zoo, the NCJW brought the zoo to them, sponsoring the Audubon Zoomobile.
"It took animals to all the different schools, hospitals, special education schools, and we contributed the funds and the volunteers," said Samuel. Similar to therapy animals today, the Zoomobile left smiles on so many faces.
In partnership with the Jewish Community Center, their ACE program, Alzheimer's Care and Enrichment engages patients with activities and offers their loved ones or caregivers a break.
Then there's FOX 8's consumer advocacy program, the FOX 8 Defenders staffed with NCJW volunteers, one of the organization's longest running programs. The FOX 8 Defenders have taken on 12,000 cases, which are consumer calls and online complaint forms, and they've saved consumers thousands of dollars.
"We are probably approaching the $3 million mark," Defenders Exec. Dir., Susan Tramontana said. She says volunteers have tackled everything from contractor fraud and nuisance potholes, to growing concerns over squatters. "We are a fantastic resource center. If we can't supply the success immediately, I've got the resources to help the people help themselves get that success," she said.
While helping consumers, the FOX 8 Defenders also educate them. That was part of the foundation the late Babs Isaacson laid out when she created the program, 25 years ago.
In August 2005, every program in the New Orleans Section came to sudden halt. "I was not about to have NCJW go down the tubes because of someone named Katrina," Farber said.
Like so many, the hurricane scattered the New Orleans section's 1,000 members across the country, but a determined Farber used email to reach out and keep the section running. "It just was so important to me to get us back up and running because we are so needed, even in good times," Farber said.
Service isn't all they're passionate about in NCJW. "Some people want to be helping individuals in the community, but other people are irate and passionate about policy in the city, in the state, in the country," explained Kierr.
NCJW members are also advocates. One by one, these women and hundreds of other members who make up the NCJW New Orleans Section are leaving a mark on the community, just as generations before them for the last dozen decades.
"All of us have different interests, but we all come together as this really powerful force. We're excited to have the history behind us," Covert said.
On Saturday, April 22, the Greater New Orleans Section will pay tribute to its 120 year history and the women who led the way with a special birthday gala celebration at Metairie Country Club.