Jewish Women International (JWI) began in 1897 as Ruth Lodge No. 1, the Daughters of Judah, B’nai B’rith’s first auxiliary, just as women were beginning to emerge from the home and into the public sphere.
During World War I and II, dozens of B’nai B’rith auxiliaries- later termed chapters- began to evolve and B’nai B’rith members began to volunteer, like many other American women, on behalf of the war effort: rolling bandages, providing nursing services in military hospitals, selling war bonds, and providing hospitality to the troops. Following the wars, members began to focus their efforts on taking part in projects to improve the quality of life of children, including establishing the Children’s Home in Jerusalem (today known as the Residential Treatment Center) to help young Holocaust victims who immigrated to Palestine.
By the 1950’s, the organization truly became vibrant: purchasing land and building a new facility for the Children’s Home (now known as the Residential Treatment Center), launching a national newspaper, Women’s World, and in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League, introduced programs to teach tolerance to school children.
In the 1960’s, B’nai B’rith Women began to tackle the issues of illiteracy, poverty, and appropriate housing for senior citizens. Through Operation Stork, a first of its kind program that B’nai B’rith undertook with the March of Dimes, members worked to educate lower income women about the importance of prenatal care.
Pioneering Jewish women like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug led the way to the women’s movement and B’nai B’rith women answered the call. In the late 60’s and in the next two decades, the organization’s focus shifted to activism. In 1968, five years before Roe v. Wade, B’nai B’rith Women called for laws that would protect women from having to seek often life-threatening illegal abortions, a right that the organization has strongly affirmed throughout the years. In 1972, B’nai B’rith Women became the first Jewish organization to back the Equal Rights Amendment and support such issues as pay equity, family and medical leave, and women and infant health care issues. Internationally, the organization convened a coalition to assist imprisoned Jewish activist in the Soviet Union and to encourage authorities to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate.
By the late 1980’s, B’nai B’rith Women’s growth as an organization devoted to its own agenda and programs prompted a re-evaluation of the historic relationship with B’nai B’rith. In 1995, B’nai B’rith Women declared its independence, by changing its name to Jewish Women International (JWI). Over the years, JWI has grown and evolved into a strong, independent, and influential organization making significant contributions on behalf of women locally, nationally, and internationally.
The focus and mission of JWI was forever changed in July, 1988, when a 41 year old member was shot to death by her estranged husband in the parking lot of her place of employment. This shocking murder spurred the organization to embark on a campaign to break the silence about domestic abuse in the Jewish community. What began as a vibrant grassroots initiative has grown into a multi-faceted international agenda dedicated to building safe homes, healthy relationships and strong women. Today, JWI is focused and committed to ensuring that all women have the safety and protection they need to live full and healthy lives. In 2003, JWI proudly participated in The March for Women’s Lives and re-affirmed its continuing commitment to work to ensure women have the ability to exercise their legal right to reproductive choice.
JWI understands that domestic abuse is one kind of oppression affecting the health and safety of women around the world and has engaged in a strong advocacy campaign to address important global issues of injustice. JWI through its national and international coalition building and lobbying efforts has actively participated in eradicating injustice in women’s lives in many areas including violence against women, reproductive choice, human trafficking, and banning assault weapons.