Hannah Greenebaum Solomon

Founder of the Jewish Women's Congress and first president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Excerpted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA). For more information on Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, go to JWA’s Women of Valor online exhibit.

Hannah Greenebaum Solomon was born on January 14, 1858, the fourth of ten siblings. Hannah’s father, Michael Greenebaum, was part of the earliest group of Jews to settle in the frontier city of Chicago. The Greenebaum clan was large, prosperous and very close.

Childhood Influences

Hannah’s parents set an example of strong civic involvement. Her mother organized Chicago’s first Jewish Ladies Sewing Society, where they made clothes for the needy. Her father founded the Zion Literary Society, and was a volunteer fireman. Before the civil war, he famously battered down the door of a Chicago jail, demanding freedom for a fugitive slave captured that day.

Hannah was thirteen years old when the great Chicago fire of 1871 decimated the city. Though the Jewish community was particularly hard hit, the Greenebaum house was spared. While thousands were fleeing the fires, Hannah’s parents crowded as many families as possible into their home.

The Greenebaums kept a kosher home, and observed the Sabbath. But Michael Greenebaum also helped found Chicago’s first Reform synagogue, and advocated moving the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday because he strongly believed in "the importance of adapting religion to the needs and welfare of people."

Chicago Woman’s Club

In 1876 Hannah and her older sister Henriette were elected to the elite Chicago Woman’s Club. "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 ever had met." Many of Solomon’s ideas for the National Council of Jewish Women stemmed from her experiences with the Chicago Woman’s Club. The club emphasized philanthropy and education, with a course of study that was often as demanding as a first year college curriculum..

Marriage & Motherhood

Solomon describes the two all-important strands in her life as her family and the National Council of Jewish Women. At the age of twenty-one she married businessman Henry Solomon, and the strand of family completely dominated her early years. She devoted herself to raising her three children– Herbert, Helen, and Frank.

When Hannah, in her mid-thirties, began to organize the NCJW, she had the strong support of her husband and children. Even in her busiest years, however, family still came first for Hannah. Her autobiography contains more doting reminiscences of children’s crayon portraits, her oldest son Herbert’s chemistry experiments, and cooking her famous sweet and sour gefilte fish, than it does details of her career.

"We Will Have A Congress"

In 1890, Chicago was chosen as the World’s Fair exhibition site. One year later, the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers decided to organize events for women of every religious denomination. The well known, well connected Hannah Greenebaum Solomon was the obvious choice to head the Jewish women.

"Two questions were at first involved: one,—should we have a congress; two,—would it have permanence?…In a flash, my thoughts crystallized to a decision: we will have a congress out of which must grow a permanent organization!" But with no existing associations or lists of Jewish women and without the aid of telephones and modern travel, locating participants was difficult work.

Jewish Women’s Congress

Solomon’s years of planning and hard work brought an overflowing crowd of women to the Congress. For four days, speakers like Ray Frank and educator Julia Richman addressed a series of subjects centered on religion, Jewish history and philanthropy.

On the final day, growing enthusiasm culminated in a vote to form the National Council of Jewish Women. A committee quickly drew up a statement of resolutions to define the new organization’s goals. Council would work to fulfill its obligations to Judaism through education, fighting anti-Semitism and assimilation, and social reform. Hannah Solomon was then elected president by acclamation as the entire hall rose, applauding.

The New Council

Members of the newly founded National Council of Jewish Women carried the energy and optimism of the World’s Fair events back home. By the Council’s first Triennial convention in 1896, NCJW was an organization of fifty sections and over 3300 members. Many sections had already founded permanent social service institutions as well as religious education schools for girls. Study Circles, where members discussed the Bible, Jewish culture and history, were flourishing with over half of NCJW’s membership participating regularly.

The young Council’s identity was still uncertain, but one question was already clear: would it become primarily a religious organization or a women’s volunteer agency? For Solomon, philanthropy was an expression of Jewish faith, and an important area of work for NCJW. But she found no reason for a specifically Jewish organization to define itself through social work when non-sectarian charities were equally effective. On the other hand, she saw NCJW’s goal of religious renewal as unique. As president, Solomon tried to steer Council towards Judaism as its defining principal.

Radical or Traditional?

The late nineteenth century saw Jewish men yielding their traditional responsibility for religious observance to women. Council members took their new role seriously. They hoped to combat the growing trend of assimilation among American Jews with a renewed commitment to Jewish family life.

Study Circles were a key part of their plan. Women’s religious education in the Jewish community was still a radical idea at the turn of the century. But as Solomon and others argued, how could a mother make a traditional Jewish home when she was ignorant of her own culture? Council depicted and believed in its radical step as a means of renewing tradition instead of breaking new ground.

While Solomon was one of the first women to speak from a synagogue pulpit, she still agreed to leave issues of religious authority to men. She did not question the rabbis who praised Council’s efforts to renew Judaism while still dictating the meaning of its traditions. Instead Solomon invited the rabbis to lead Study Circles. Even as they boldly trespassed onto new ground, Solomon and the early NCJW maintained that a Jewish woman’s greatest power was through influence, not authority.

Controversy

Despite Solomon’s plea to "leave all religious questions to the quarrels of the Rabbis," divisive struggles between NCJW’s Reform and Orthodox members developed around the Sunday Sabbath controversy.

Like her father, Solomon personally supported the radical Reform policy of moving the Sabbath to Sunday. She felt that conforming to American custom would encourage more widespread observance. To many Council women this idea was sacrilege. Concerned by Solomon’s outspoken opinion, these women determined to force Council to explicitly affirm its support of the historical Sabbath.

Solomon spent much time deflecting attempts to raise the question, hoping to avoid the divisive issue. Finally one member moved to block Solomon’s re-election, arguing that she could not vote for any woman who did not "consecrate the seventh day as Sabbath." Solomon’s response became famous: "I do consecrate the Sabbath. I consecrate every day in the week." The triumphant Solomon was re-elected by acclaim once again.

The troubles surrounding the Sunday Sabbath issue continued to plague Council. NCJW avoided the strife by avoiding religious issues. When Solomon resigned as President in 1905, citing health reasons and the need to rest, Council had shifted its emphasis to philanthropy.

Ardent Expansionist

As a leader, Solomon focused on building consensus and fostering collaboration. When NCJW joined the National Council of Women in 1894, Solomon called it an important first step. She saw no reason why Council’s Jewish identity should preclude it from working with compatible Christian groups towards social change.

Solomon’s unifying vision was also her greatest contribution to the early, disorganized social welfare system in Chicago. She created structures to monitor available services, avoid overlap and fill in gaps. One of the most important organizations Solomon founded was the Bureau of Personal Service in 1897. During the thirteen years she served as the Bureau’s head, she coordinated and implemented relief efforts among agencies working with Jewish immigrants.

Jews Among Women

As Council grew, it came to represent the voice of Jews among American women’s associations. Affiliation with these groups was extremely important to NCJW’s middle class, German-Jewish women, signaling their acceptance among the wealthy, gentile elite. But unlike white Christians, Council members did not have the luxury of identifying primarily as women. Rising anti-Semitism forced them to continually defend their Jewish identity.

A striking example of Council’s different priorities was their lack of support for suffrage. In 1917, NCJW rejected a proposed resolution advocating women’s voting rights. Solomon, now Honorary President, was an adamant proponent of the suffrage movement and close friends with Susan B. Anthony. But even her endorsement did not sway Council.

For the NCJW, issues like Jewish immigrant aid and America’s entry into World War I took precedence over women’s rights. Most importantly, Council continued to justify its work as an extension of the traditional role of the Jewish mother. From their point of view, Jewish women did not need the power of the ballot box to play an active role in changing society.

A Powerful Legacy

In her later years, as well as after her death, Solomon was celebrated again and again for her trailblazing work. The National Council of Jewish Women still evokes Solomon’s words as an inspiration to "improve the quality of life for women, children and families and… ensure individual rights and freedoms for all."

Solomon spoke boldly and with conviction in an era when Jewish women’s voices were rarely heard. At the same time, she advocated a return to the traditions of Jewish motherhood. Ironically, Solomon helped perfect the tools later generations would use to challenge these and other traditions. Her example of powerful speech and organization paved the way for new, more radical possibilities.

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