St. Louis ideas, activists star in national NCJW conference

National Council of Jewish Women held its triennial national conference in St. Louis last week, drawing about 300 participants. Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The National Council of Jewish Women put the spotlight on St. Louis this past weekend by holding its triennial conference here for the first time in more than two decades.

“It was an opportunity to showcase a lot of local experts who are coming in to speak and help educate women at the sessions,” said Ellen Alper, executive director of the local section of the organization. 

“We bring in all of the collaborators and partners that we work with locally to share some of the groundbreaking work in St. Louis. But also we talk globally about what is happening on all of these issues. It’s been really remarkable in some of the sessions because the information we share allows us to go back to our home communities and do a much better job of working on issues.”

The last time NCJW held its conference in St. Louis was in 1990 at the Adam’s Mark (Hyatt Regency) downtown. This year, about 300 participants from across the nation gathered in Clayton at the Ritz-Carlton on Thursday through Saturday for 16 educational workshops, a showcase of programs initiated by other NCJW branches, and a hefty serving of camaraderie and team building.

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The organization also dealt with an array of bylaw issues, budgetary matters and the selection of new officers and board members. The event generally serves as a way to determine and announce priorities for the group to focus on during the coming three years. This year, opposition to human trafficking was front-and-center on the agenda with appearances by activists on the issue as well as a survivor of the practice.

Other guests included Anna Holmes, founder of the Jezebel blog; military assault litigator Susan Burke; and Dr. Shelley Sella, an abortion provider.

One local name was prominent on the agenda: St. Louisan Marilyn Ratkin, who was given the group’s Visionary Leadership award for her work on various projects, including the Healing Hearts Bank, a microloan program that she leads.

“I’m humbled because of the fact that I really feel like I stand of the shoulders of the women of the St. Louis NCJW,” Ratkin said. “I’m only here doing the work that they set out. We’re here to make a difference.”

She said the program has given out 26 loans to victims of domestic violence. Recipients often need such help just to stay employed.

“They might pay for bus transportation or tires for the car or car repairs,” Ratkin said. “The whole idea is that they need to get to work every day to make a living to make money so they can move into financial independence.”

Other showcased programs included a method for encouraging youth book clubs in  Cleveland, a women’s advocacy training program in Los Angeles, a dinner theater fundraising idea in San Antonio and an Israel mentoring concept in Minneapolis. 

St. Louis also was well represented in the showcase with a “Mama-Palooza” fundraising event, Wife-Widow-Woman Program and a successful leadership-training initiative. 

Alper, the local NCJW director, said six sections of the organization have picked up on a  Back to School Store idea that St. Louis premiered in 2001. That program helps economically disadvantaged youngsters prepare for the start of school by “shopping” for supplies and clothing.

Sue Tilis, a Dallas section member who sits on the national board in New York, said the conference is all about trading brainstorms.

“That’s really important for people to connect with each other from different parts of the country and hear what different groups are doing,” she said. “They take that information back to their own communities, because we all have similar needs.”

Jan Schneiderman, an Omaha, Neb., section member and past national president, said she loves seeing what the other branches of the group are up to.

“What St. Louis is doing is a section’s dream because they are fulfilling the needs of women, children and their families,” she said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

Local women were a big part of the action here as well. 

“They are a wonderful organization,” said Karen Francis, president of the Ballwin chapter of the American Association of University Women, who presented a workshop on bullying issues faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. “They’ve got advocacy. They’ve got women who are very empowered, and they take on the tough issues.”

Other workshop topics ranged from online outreach strategies to seminars on voting rights, the courts, abortion and immigration, as well as a session on the problem of human trafficking, a major theme at the convention. Showcase presentations from sections in New York and Florida also highlighted ways to raise the profile of the issue.

“St. Louis is one of the top 20 cities in trafficking and a lot of people don’t know about it,” said St. Louis section president Marlene Hammerman, who said the NCJW would be working to draw attention to the problem. “It is modern-day slavery, so it resonates as a Jewish issue as well because of our history of being slaves ourselves.”

Linda Slucker, the organization’s national president, said she thought that NCJW’s efforts would really empower people to take action.

“This is a big issue,” she said. “People are not aware it is happening in their own communities and that they can do something about it.”