The Reformer: Hannah Greenbaum

She founded the National Council of Jewish Women.

Hannah Greenbaum Solomon was a social reformer who founded the National Council of Jewish Women. Today, over 120 years later, the NCJW remains a highly effective volunteer organization committed to helping the least fortunate Americans.

Born in Chicago in 1858, Hannah came from a close-knit family dedicated to Jewish values of charity and good deeds. Her mother organized the Jewish Ladies Sewing Society, which made clothes for the poor, and her father was a passionate abolitionist who broke down the door of a Chicago jail in an attempt to free a captured fugitive slave.

Like her parents, Hannah was committed to improving the lives of those in need. In 1876, she and her older sister Henriette were invited to join the Chicago Woman’s Club, a philanthropic and educational organization. Hannah said, “Our entrance was significant for the organization as well as for us, as we were not only the first Jewish women invited into it, but were probably the only Jewesses many of the members had ever met.”

At age 21, Hannah married businessman Henry Solomon and had three children. In the years to come, as Hannah became increasingly busy organizing Jewish women to improve American society, her first priority was always her family. She felt that there was no more powerful force for change than the traditional Jewish mother.

In 1891, Hannah created a Jewish Women’s Congress, originally meant to be a temporary element of the Chicago World’s Fair. Hannah was so successful at putting together a group of exceptional Jewish women determined to change the world that she made the Jewish Women’s Congress permanent. Renamed the National Council of Jewish Women, Hannah’s organization had over 3300 members by 1896. The Council’s mission was to create a more just society, and fight anti-Semitism and Jewish assimilation.

Hannah was a feminist trailblazer who did important work outside the home, but maintained the highest respect for women who focused on the domestic sphere.

Hannah said, “Who is this new woman? She is the woman who dares to go into the world and do what her convictions demand. She is the woman who stays at home in the smallest, narrowest circle, foregoing all the world may offer to her, if there her duty lies.”

In the last decades of her life, Hannah focused her energy on helping impoverished children of all backgrounds. She advocated for the rights of juvenile delinquents, and worked to increase legal penalties for child abusers.

Hannah Greenebaum Solomon died in 1942. Her autobiography, Fabric of My Life, was published posthumously. Characteristically, Hannah devoted more of the book to funny anecdotes about her children than her own impressive accomplishments.

For a lifetime of service and charitable works, we honor Hannah Greenebaum Solomon as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.

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