NCJW San Francisco History

For over a century the NCJW has been at the forefront of social change in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have championed the needs of women, children, and families while courageously taking a progressive stance on such issues as welfare, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom.

The qualities that stand out about our organization are our courage and collaboration:  the courage to take stands for human rights and to take action as well as to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society:  women, children, and the elderly. Our Council has also shown a steady understanding of strength in numbers, partnering with many government agencies and non-profit organizations over the past century to achieve our goals. 

Highlights from Our History

August 27, 1900 - Hattie Hecht Sloss invites 157 of her closest friends to convene a San Francisco Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, founded seven years earlier in Chicago. The first meeting is held at Temple Emanu-El at the invitation of Dr. Jacob Voorsanger.  The first board and officers read like a who’s who of San Francisco’s prominent families with names such as Lilienthal, Brandenstein, Grabstein, and Gerstle, in addition to Sloss. 

Council established San Bruno Settlement House to aid newcomers to San Francisco with classes for boys and girls and a Sunday school for both. Aiding immigrants (and later veterans) would continue to be a theme of our service for many decades to come.

In the early years, we collaborated with YMHA, Bnai B’rith, Council of Women, National Education Society, Pioneer Women, California Club, and city government. The issues at the forefront then prompted legislative reforms in various areas, such as immigration, equal suffrage, child labor, white slave trafficking control and abolition, consumers’ league, peace commission, and health centers for women and children as well.

A Big Sister movement was highly successful under Council until it became independent in 1932, the same year we were the first organization to urge the governor of California to appoint a director of education for the state. This aspect of starting a project and getting it going, then releasing it to its own mechanics, would come to define the Council’s approach.

We were concerned about disabilities such as blindness and deafness, leading efforts to provide hearing aids in public buildings and offering public classes in Braille transcription. In 1929 we offered the first class for Seeing Eye Dogs on the West Coast.

During the Depression, we established an Opportunity Shop, one of the earliest business incubators, since it helped support 30 newcomer families, enabling them and others to make a living by providing fine food products and handiwork for sale. (We provided some of the machinery to make the goods.) It was staffed six days a week by Council volunteers and their husbands. Later, it would morph into the Bargain Mart, the thrift shop that Council ran for 30 years, until it was closed in 2005.

During World War II, among many other activities, we turned our Council House (purchased in 1939 at 2129 California Street) into an open-house canteen staffed every day with our volunteers. For two years we served 35,000 men and women in the Armed Forces. Members also visited men confined to veterans’ hospitals under a Serve-a-Camp program and assembled hundreds of Hannukah gift boxes for inmates at state institutions.

In 1946, Council formed a “Twenties” group (for women between 20 and 30 years of age), who made The Lucinda Weeks Home for Handicapped Children their special project, repairing toys and providing parties for the children. And later, in the 1950s, high school age girls formed the "Councilettes" and undertook program of social activities and community projects, such as supplying books for the children at Juvenile Home and assembling packages of educational materials for children in depressed areas overseas in the Council’s Ship-a-Box program.

In 1964 we formed Women in Community Service, a program to help young women attain self-sufficiency through Job Corps. Our partners were the National Council of Negro Women, the National Council of Catholic Women, and Church Women United.

In 1982, with Council’s support, Jewish Family and Children’s Services added a Drop-In Center to Parents Place, one of the first family resource centers in the country. The Montefiore Center for Seniors, which still exists at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, was originally run largely with Council funding and staffed by Council volunteers. The Council also started a project called Menorah Mart in 1986 at Menorah Park, a senior residence on Sacramento Street, where we offered groceries for the elderly who couldn’t get out of the building or go food shopping for themselves—until 2002.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s, Council sponsored the Children’s Drama Service, many of whose participants joined our organization. It provides live musical performances for children in special education classes at 40 schools in the Bay Area and is still active after 50 years. During this period, also, the Council started offering Study Groups that provide exposure to cultural events and performances, tours of iconic businesses and institutions in the Bay Area, and other educational and social opportunities for members.

In the 1990s Council members created and distributed Caboodle Kits to Spanish-speaking children and parents in support of the Israeli-founded program, HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters).  The kits were used in the Head Start Program and the San Francisco Unified School District to help prepare preschoolers for kindergarten. 

As early as 2005, Council thought of offering a new program to end human trafficking in sex and labor. Today that has developed into the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking, co-founded and operated by NCJW San Francisco, Jewish Family and Children Services, Jewish Community Relations Council, and New Israel Fund.  It also led to a broad convening initiative which resulted in the launching of the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking, a collaboration between government and nonprofits committed to ending human trafficking through collaboration, education, outreach, advocacy, and supporting survivors of human trafficking. For more information on that click here.

All along, we have continued to build strong networks of relationships with other activist and advocacy groups, as well as with our local governmental departments. Underpinning all of our work is the foundational desire to empower women and children and to press for policies and legislation by local, regional, and national governments that honor our democratic ideals of equality and human rights for all.

The booklet “50th Anniversary Gold Book, 1900 – 1950” of the San Francisco Section was helpful in preparing this brief summary.