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making a difference for 90 years

Jewish women's group focuses on social justice projects

Article from the Winnipeg Free Press,  January 9, 2016

On the afternoon of June 29, 1925, Ann Green welcomed a group of women into her Polson Avenue home. The occasion for the get together was the first official meeting of Winnipeg's newest volunteer service organization, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

According to the meeting minutes, the focus that afternoon was on establishing social welfare and immigrant aid committees to assist Winnipeggers in need.
Ninety years later, the focus and format of NCJW meetings in Winnipeg remains largely the same. Meetings are still held at members' homes, minutes are recorded, committees are established, social justice projects are put into action and Winnipeg is made stronger for it.

The NCJW was founded in the United States in 1893 with a mandate to further human welfare in the Jewish and general communities. It took a few years for the organization to arrive in Canada, but once it did, Winnipeg became a hotbed of NCJW activity and leadership.

"We have a tremendous depth of history and leadership here," says Cindy Lazar, president of NCJW Winnipeg section. "We have an impressive number of former presidents and national presidents in Winnipeg, and women who have been dedicated to rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work for decades."

One of them is NCJW's national president, Sharon Allentuck. The Winnipegger joined NCJW in the late 1970s, following in the footsteps of her mother, aunts and sister. She credits the success and longevity of the organization to the programs it organizes, the issues it addresses and to a leadership that is open to new branches, new members and new ideas.

"I believe that the reason NCJW continues to thrive... is because we are progressive, inclusive and relevant," Allentuck says. "We try to keep up to date with the issues that affect all Canadians."

Keeping up to date often means creating programs and projects where none has existed before. In 1949, NCJW established Winnipeg's Golden Age Club, the first seniors' drop-in centre in Canada. Then, for 20 years beginning in the 1970s, the organization voluntarily conducted audiometer testing in dozens of Winnipeg elementary schools. More recently, NCJW has addressed the issues of literacy, human trafficking, missing and murdered indigenous women, affordable child care and organ donation.

 "We recognize that women really want to make a difference to things they care about," Lazar says. "We don't set a rigid agenda. If a member is passionate about a particular project, and that project does good in the community, then we will throw our support behind it and help her make it happen."

It is that opportunity to make a difference that attracted 27-year-old Yelena Maleyev to the organization.

"I was looking for a women's group that was not only focused on growth and development of its members, but also dedicated itself to contributing to social causes and our community at large," Maleyev says.

She joined NCJW in 2014 and immediately established a branch for young professionals. Since then, a second new branch, mainly made up of South American immigrants to Winnipeg, was also started.

Much has changed in Winnipeg since Ann Green called the first NCJW meeting to order almost a century ago, but the interest in the women's volunteer service organization and the need for the women's volunteer service organization clearly remains.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press, January 9, 2016