Jewish women first organized themselves on a national scale at the end of the 19th century. The pioneer organization was the National Council of Jewish Women in America (NCJW), which was followed by many others around the world. From the beginning of the twentieth century, some of these local Jewish women’s organizations tried to establish activities on an international level, modelling themselves on the International Council of Women (ICW).

Hannah Solomon

In 1899, NCJW President Hanna G. Solomon encouraged the creation of the Union of Jewish Women of England, and in Berlin in 1904 she helped create the German Jewish women’s organization, Judischer Frauenbund. Speaking that year in St. Louis, Solomon expressed the importance of an international bond among Jewish women: “And so we need internationalism for Jewish women, that shall bring them together to utilize their strength in perpetuating the great moral truths we hold for the world.…”

Bertha Pappenheim
Bertha Pappenheim

The official founding of ICJW is dated to 1912 when, at a meeting held in Rome, the leaders of Jewish women’s organizations from the United States, Britain, and Germany, voted to establish a worldwide organization of Jewish women, with Bertha Pappenheim from Germany as its first president.

At first the international organization of Jewish women remained theoretical. The opportunity to become a truly international Jewish sisterhood occurred only in 1920, when NCJW sent delegates to Europe to study the problems of European Jewry in the aftermath of World War I, and to explore ways of assisting them.

Rebeka Kohut
Rebekah Kohut

Two World Congresses of Jewish Women were held in Vienna in 1923, and in Hamburg in 1929, in order to renew international ties with European Jewish women, suspended during the war. These meetings were initiated and financed largely by NCJW of America, which sent large delegations, and were chaired by Rebekah Kohut.

The first Congress in Vienna, in May 1923, brought together delegates from Jewish women’s organizations from over 20 countries. The five main topics discussed were: the duties of the Jewish woman within the community; the problem of refugees and orphans; the situation of homeless girls; aid for emigration; and support for Palestine. Relocation to Palestine was recognized as a humanitarian solution and a way of providing sanctuary for European refugees.

The second World Congress of Jewish Women, in 1929, in Hamburg, Germany, demonstrated Jewish women’s solidarity on an international scale. 200 representatives from 14 countries came together to discuss subjects of common interest and to form a world organization of Jewish women. These meetings enabled Jewish women to meet and exchange views on important issues and to participate in determining the destiny of the Jewish people. They were recognized by Jewish communal leaders and by leading Jewish institutions. However, World War II prevented this success from being converted into practical implementation, and the activities of Jewish women’s organizations were not renewed until after World War II.

The Post-War Period

Immediately after World War II, the National Council of Jewish Women decided to revive its overseas program and to participate in the rescue actions of the Joint Distribution Committee. At their 1946 Convention, they agreed to re-establish the international Jewish women’s organization, which had been effectively dormant for nearly twenty years. Some of the European activists had disappeared, and others had resigned from public life, but the International Council’s last president, Rebekah Kohut, was still alive. For the sake of continuity, she was asked to head the organization. After two years of preparation, an international meeting was held in May 1949, in Paris, at which ICJW was endowed with some of its basic structures and its principles were defined. Many of those apply to this day.

The International Council of Jewish Women was defined as a federation of national women’s organizations, independent of each other, and apolitical in nature. Its objects were essentially: “To promote friendly relations and understanding among Jewish women of all countries; to further the best and highest interests of humanity; to uphold and strengthen the bonds between Jewish communities throughout the world; to support the principles of the United Nations Bill of Human Rights; and to improve the status of women.”

Based on ‘Jewish Women in a Changing World, A History of the International  Council of Jewish Women, 1899-1995′, by Dr. Nelly Las – see her updated JWA Encyclopedia entry here.

The historical archives of ICJW are kept at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, and the searchable catalog of our archive can be accessed online here.

Past Presidents of ICJW

1859-1936Bertha Pappenheim
Established worldwide organization of Jewish Women, Rome – 1912
1949-1951Milded WeltUSAReconstitution Meeting, Paris, France – 1949
1951-1954Gladys KahnUSA 2nd Convention, New York, USA – 1951
1954-1957Pearl WillenUSA3rd Convention, London, United Kingdom – 1954
1957-1960Antonia RobinsonUSA4th Convention, Jerusalem, Israel – 1957
1960-1963Antonia RobinsonUSA5th Convention, Basel, Switzerland – 1960
1963-1966Frances RubensUnited Kingdom6th Convention, Cleveland, USA – 1963
1966-1969Isabelle BrownUSA7th Convention, London, United Kingdom – 1966
1969-1972Shoshana HareliIsrael8th Convention, Jerusalem, Israel – 1969
1972-1975Rosa de HerzcegArgentina9th Convention, Toronto, Canada – 1972
1975-1978Rosa de HerzcegArgentina10th Convention, Melbourne, Australia – 1975
1978-1981Eleanor MarvinUSA11th Convention, Atlanta, USA – 1978
1981-1984Marice Halper-RubinsteinUSA12th Convention, Jerusalem, Israel – 1981
1984-1987Leila SeigalSwitzerland13th Convention, Bournemouth, United Kingdom – 1984
1987-1990Stella RozanFrance14th Convention, Vancouver, Canada – 1987
1990-1993Helen MarrCanada15th Convention, Jerusalem, Israel – 1990
1993-1996Helen MarrCanada16th Convention, Johannesburg, South Africa – 1993
1996-1999June JacobsUnited Kingdom17th Convention, Paris, France – 1996
1999-2002June JacobsUnited Kingdom18th Convention, Jerusalem, Israel – 1999
2002-2006Sara WinkowskiUruguay19th Convention, Sydney, Australia – 2002
2006-2010Leah AharonovIsrael20th Convention, Monte Video, Uruguay – 2006
2010-2014Sharon GustafsonUSA21st Convention, Cape Town, South Africa – 2010
2014-2018Robyn LennAustralia22nd Convention, Prague, Czech Republic – 2014
2018-2022Penelope ConwayUnited Kingdom23rd Convention, Sydney, Australia – 2018
2022-Lilian Grinberg Mexico24th Convention, Jerusalem, Israel – 2022