Honoring the Deborahs of Los Angeles

July 31, 2019

While Jewish women share a common history with Jewish men, their stories are less known. In the Tanakh, the great stories focus on the actions of men, but woven through these stories are the actions of remarkable women: Miriam the prophetess, Deborah the Judge and Queen Esther, the heroine of Purim. These women were Judaism’s earliest agents of change, not because they bore the title of leader, but because they used courage and wisdom to do what they knew to be right.

This is why I was excited to work on an exhibit highlighting the special contributions of Los Angeles Jewish women to their communities, from the first settlers to today. The exhibit, Being Deborah, is in recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month, presented by the City of Los Angeles with event co-chairs Councilmembers David Ryu and Bob Blumenfield.

Deborah is known for issuing authoritative and fair judgments over an entire nation and earning the highest respect from the Jewish people. Likewise, the Jewish women presented here are leaders because of their courage and consciences. Jewish women in Los Angeles have rich histories of leading change, often in the face of opposition. These women paved the way for an equality of gender, equality of intellect and equality of compassion, which has created a foundation for a better world.

Los Angeles Jewish women pushed the boundaries of patriarchy as early as the first Jewish settlers in 1850. Joseph Newmark, a lay rabbi, began conducting informal Sabbath services, establishing the Congregation B’nai B’rith (today’s Wilshire Boulevard Temple). However, his wife, Rosa, did not sit idly by, content to mother the couple’s six children. Instead, in 1870, Rosa Newmark founded the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society in Los Angeles. The charities afforded by that organization originally were devoted to Jewish women and children, but the society was available to help others. The acclaimed Jewish Family Services traces its beginnings to the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society. She died in 1875 at age 67.

Hannah Greenebaum Solomon stands out as one of the most impressive Original Disrupters. Solomon refused to let her sex dictate her fate. In 1893, dissatisfied with being asked to serve coffee like a waitress at the men’s World Parliament of Religions, Solomon founded the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), an action she knew the Jewish community would challenge. Solomon said, “To join an organization of women, not ladies — and one which bore the title ‘club’ rather than ‘society,’ was itself a radical step.” She died in 1942 at age 84.

The NCJW has enjoyed a long history of catalyzing social and political change to improve the quality of life for women, children and families. In 1909, Rachel Kauffman heeded Solomon’s call to action and recruited 15 progressive women to start the NCJW Los Angeles. Today, NCJW LA programs provide education and advocacy on issues that impact women and children in economic justice, human trafficking, reproductive justice and gender-related violence.

Also in the early 1900s, Dr. Sarah Vasen broke the glass ceiling in medicine. Vasen studied obstetrics and gynecology at a time when women were not encouraged to build careers in the medical profession. Vasen became a practicing physician at Kaspare Cohn, which later became Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She was the first Jewish female to practice medicine in Los Angeles and the first Jewish woman to hold a supervising position at the hospital. Vasen died in 1944 at age 74.

Los Angeles Jewish women pushed the boundaries of patriarchy as early as the first Jewish settlers in 1850.

Two Jewish women, entertaining audiences through both comedy and drama, stand out as change makers in the entertainment industry: Fanny Brice and Carmel Myers. Brice, whose comedic and vocal talents were showcased in the Ziegfeld Follies and on radio, proved women can be funny in a remarkable way. Portraying Brice on Broadway (1964) and later in an Oscar-winning turn in the film “Funny Girl” (1968) launched the career of singer and actress  Barbra Streisand. Brice died in 1951 at age 59.

Carmel Myers proved to the world a woman could be Jewish and a Hollywood bombshell. Myers told Samuel Goldwyn (formerly Goldfish) in 1915 that if her career depended “… upon hiding the fact that I was born a Jew, I’d rather not have one.” According to Jewish Women’s Archives, she acted in “more than 70 films, was an early television talk-show host, led a production company that packaged radio and television shows, held a patent for an electronic synchronizer that controlled studio lights, and imported and distributed French perfume.” She died in 1980 at age 81.

World War II impacted the lives of Jewish women and men. At age 10, Bea Abrams Cohen relocated to the United States from Romania. She later joined the U.S. war effort, working in a factory. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Pfc. Abrams arrived in Great Britain, where, according to the website Women of World War II, she mimeographed top-secret documents and worked KP duty. Cohen spent 70 years supporting military and Jewish charities, including dedicating 35 years to the National Ladies Auxiliary of the Jewish War Veterans, assisting children who had cerebral palsy. She died in 2015 at age 105.

As a young woman in 1944, Holocaust survivor Frida Berger was loaded onto a wagon and taken to the Sevlus ghetto from Comlausa, Romania. Not long after, the Nazis transferred her to Auschwitz. American troops liberated her from Salzwedel on April 14, 1945. In 1966, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, where she and her husband bought a meat market. Today, she cooks for hundreds of homeless and people in need.

As life returned to normal after the war, interest in athletics returned. However, many disapproved of a career in sports for women. Thelma “Tiby” Eisen was not discouraged. Eisen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, playing softball, and by age 14, was participating at the semi-professional level. Eisen joined the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, where she quickly became one of the league’s top players. Eisen died in 2014 at 92.

Around the same time, Rosalind “Roz” Wiener Wyman became the youngest person elected to the Los Angeles City Council at 22 years old and only the second woman elected. Wyman’s presence challenged the male-dominated council to hear the perspective of a young woman on equal terms. Her strong will and intelligence changed Los Angeles for the better. Wyman was instrumental in bringing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, and to this day, Dodger Stadium is described as “the house that Roz built.”

As Wyman was inspiring women in Los Angeles to pursue public life, Ruth Handler’s iconic toy, the Barbie doll, was inspiring legions of young girls to imagine they could be whomever they wanted. Coinciding with the women’s rights movement, women in the 1960s and 1970s were outspoken in their demands for equal rights, opportunities and greater personal freedom. Barbie debuted in 1959.

In the 1900s, men dominated the anthropology field, tending to interview mostly other men. In the 1970s, Barbara Myerhoff shifted this paradigm. The 1976 Academy Award-winning documentary short “Number Our Days” turned the camera on her, as she explored a community of elderly Jews living in Venice, Calif. Myerhoff died in 1985 at 49.

In 1973, Barbi Weinberg became the first woman to oversee a major federation when she was elected to lead the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. In 1984, she co-founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which today — according to the Institute — is the largest research institute devoted exclusively to the study of U.S. interests in the Middle East. 

Sherry Lansing made headlines in 1980 when she became the first woman to lead 20th Century Fox. In 1992, she became chairperson of Paramount Pictures, a title she held until 2005. Six of the 10 highest-grossing Paramount films were released during her tenure and 80 percent of the films under her tenure were profitable, a track record unmatched by any other long-term studio management leader. 

Carolyn Leighton caught the inequity of women in tech as early as the mid-1980s when she launched Criterion Research, a technology and aerospace consultancy. The stories of frustration she heard from the brilliant, well-educated women in the companies she worked with inspired her to launch Women in Technology International (WITI) in 1989, just as the internet and digital revolution swept through California. WITI began as an email network but soon grew to a global organization reaching more than 2 million people. The powerful advocacy of Leighton opened the door to future generations of women in technology. “It cheats all of us, and our country, out of innovation,” she said of the tech industry’s neglect of female talent.

Leading a movement of inclusivity, Rabbi Denise L. Eger set a new path forward as the first female and openly gay rabbi to be chosen president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. She is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami. Eger has worked extensively with people with HIV/AIDS, and is an expert on Judaism and LGBTQ civil rights. In 2008, Eger officiated at the first legal wedding for a lesbian couple in California. 

Donna Bojarsky uses her intellect, influence and drive to bring together communities of Los Angeles, catalyzing change in her hometown. She is the founder of Future of Cities: Leading in LA, promoting innovative leadership in Los Angeles; founder of the New Leaders Project, designed to support young Jewish leaders; and co-founder of LA Works, the city’s largest volunteer action network.

In 1973, Barbi Weinberg became the first woman to oversee a major federation when she was elected to lead the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Gloria Allred continues to move mountains in the legal sphere. Over the course of her 43-year legal career, Allred has won numerous honors for her legal work on behalf of women’s rights and minority rights. Her firm, Allred, Maroko &  Goldberg, handles more women’s rights cases than any other private firm in the nation. In September 2019, she will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Talented individuals in the entertainment industry have unparalleled opportunities to change the narrative around women and their capabilities. Two female Jewish trailblazers are Mayim Bialik and Israeli actress Noa Tishby. Bialik played a neurobiologist for nine years on “The Big Bang Theory” and holds a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA. She leads a green and holistic life, and is raising two sons, whom she seeks to teach the principles of being the change we wish to see in the world.

Actress and activist Tishby broke ground as a producer selling the first Israeli show to HBO, creating a strong connection between the Israeli entertainment industry and Hollywood. Tishby also founded Act for Israel, which focuses on distributing truths and combating falsehoods about Israel through social media. 

Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) was founded to give voices to Jewish women through theater. The company, led by artistic director Ronda Spinak, debunks the stereotypes of Jewish women. JWT is the first company to put the stories of both Iranian Jews in America on stage as well as stories of Los Angeles-based female rabbis. JWT has collected the stories of other female rabbis from around the world. 

Sharon Nazarian’s role as the senior vice president of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) places her in contact with heads of state, foreign ministers and leaders of Jewish communities across the globe. Passionate about her Iranian heritage, Nazarian launched the Nazarian Initiative — an initiative designed to familiarize young Jews with Persian culture and society − through the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Chava Shervington is an advocate for dialogue about racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community. Shervington realized the only way to address the issues Jews of color faced — isolation, exclusion and often omission from the entire Jewish narrative — was to actively educate the larger community about diversity in Judaism. A past president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, Shervington co-planned the first Jews of Color National Convening, consults with Jewish organizations, and has been featured in media such as the Chicago Tribune, JTA and the Jewish Channel, discussing intersections of Judaism, race and racism.

Tabby Refael is an Iranian American Jew. As a young girl, she fled post-revolutionary Iran to the United States with her family. In 1989, the U.S. granted her refugee asylum. Refael, whose writing has appeared in the Journal, co-founded 30 Years After, an agency that empowers Iranian-American Jews to embrace civic responsibilities as engaged Americans.

As more Jewish women stand up to be heard, we acknowledge one final Jewish woman who led the way for others and truly represents the spirit of Deborah: Barbara Yaroslavsky, who died at age 71 in 2018.

Yaroslavsky was an inspired public servant who committed her life to helping others. She married Zev Yaroslavsky in 1971 and, while he pursued a career in public office, Barbara left her mark on the Jewish community as well as on nonprofit and social-service agencies involved in education and health care.

Yaroslavsky is remembered for her work with the Los Angeles Commission on Communities and Family Services, which lifts poverty-stricken families into self-sufficiency. She held a board seat on the Friends of the Saban Community Clinic and the Jewish Community Relations Council, which serves as the local Jewish voice on government policy for Israel and world Jewry. She also served on the Medical Board of California and spent three years as the board’s president. When she died, she was serving on the California Board of Registered Nursing. Barbara Yaroslavsky’s life inspired many and continues in her memory.
There are many more women around us who work unrecognized to better their communities, but we hope this list inspires everyone to honor the work Jewish women do to make the world more equitable for all.

Dylan Kendall founded Hollywood Arts and now runs the home goods business Dylan Kendall Home. Find out more at dylankendall.com.

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