When Sheila Katz became the CEO of the venerable National Council of Jewish Women four years ago, the threads in her life that wove her passion for social justice into her work already were strong and clear.
As the youngest woman ever to lead the oldest Jewish women’s nonprofit organization in the country — she was 35 then — and as one of the few women of any age to lead a Jewish nonprofit, Ms. Katz already has made history. Now, though, her path has led to an intersection with one of the most vital political issues of our time.
When she took her job at the NCJW, she couldn’t know that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, sending a woman’s right to a legal abortion back to the states (although it has become re-federalized in the months since). The organization has fought vigorously to regain that right ever since.
On Sunday, April 30, Ms. Katz will talk about the NCJW, the rights for which it advocates, and how she became its CEO, at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. (See below.)
“I’m excited to be able to talk about my journey, my mentors, the people who have helped me — and also the things I am trying to do to make it more normal to see women and people of diverse ages in these roles,” she said.
“Women make up about 80 percent of all employees in the nonprofit Jewish sector, but that’s not who is being promoted, and who is at the top of those organizations.”
Ms. Katz lives in Washington, D.C., now, but she grew up in Suffern, in Rockland County; she went through the public school system there. She was active Jewishly; “I went to the Reform Temple of Suffern, I was the social action vice president in NFTY,” the Reform movement’s youth group, and “I spent one summer at Kutz Camp, and I worked at Crane Lake camp.” Those are both summer camps that the Reform movement runs.
She also was deeply affected by her mother’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. “I was in high school then, and we went from being a family that didn’t have to think about money too much to being a family where one parent was no longer able to work, and the other parent had to stop working to take care of her. It was a whole change in reality for me.”
She began to think about disability inclusion. “That’s a lot of what led me on this path,” she said. “When at first you don’t see the issues around inclusion, and then all of a sudden you do, it starts to create a roadmap for so many other things.
“The reality was that my mother was in a wheelchair, and it was all very matter-of-fact. Things were accessible, or they were not. And then you notice that the world isn’t very accessible.”
Ms. Katz went to Ithaca College. “In college, I created a tour guide path that was physically accessible for people with disabilities,” she said. “In many ways, I still do disability inclusion work. I just added on more. It was a great training ground for gender justice, LGBTQ inclusion, and a variety of other issues that I worked on for the next decade.”
Ms. Katz was accepted into Teach for America; she spent the two years after she graduated college teaching fourth and sixth grades at PS 260K in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood; she also earned a master’s degree in education from Pace University in Manhattan. “Being a teacher was the hardest job I ever had,” she said. “It’s harder than the job I currently have. I am glad to advocate for teachers, and for our public school system.”
But she realized that as much as she loved the challenges and joys of teaching elementary school kids, she wanted to work with older students. “I wanted to work in higher ed, and I thought that Hillel would be an entry into that,” she said, so she moved from the formal work of the classroom into the experiential education that Hillel provides.
Her first job at Hillel was at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “I left there over equal pay and gender justice,” she said. She had just won the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence award. “It’s Hillel International’s highest honor for employees, and at the time I was one of the youngest to have received it,” Ms. Katz said. It’s a major big deal, and she was thrilled.
“So when I came back afterward, I thought that it was a good moment for me to ask for more money. Not only were they not interested” — and not only was she making a very low salary compared to her male peers — “but somebody there — somebody who was not a professional — said to me that I should go get a husband, not a pay raise.
“And I said that I don’t think that that will happen between today and tomorrow….
“That ended up changing my life.”
There were two parts to that change.
First, Ms. Katz called Shifra Bronznick, the New York-based founder and president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, and Ms. Bronznik coached her through her salary negotiations. “I still talk to Shifra all the time,” Ms. Katz said. “She’s a very important person in my life. She’s one of my mentors.
“Now, when I think about who I was then, and what I didn’t know yet about the world, and about how unfair the world is for women and families — now I try to help other people to advocate for themselves, and to change the system.
“One of my favorite things about my job is when women call me the same way I called Shifra, to ask for support and advice.” She tries to help them, just as Ms. Bronznick helped her.
The other life-changing thing that Ms. Katz did was to move to Washington; she left her job at Chapel Hill but she didn’t leave Hillel. Instead, she moved up. “Things skyrocketed for me,” she said. She started a program called “Ask Big Questions” for Hillel “We raised millions of dollars and were on several hundred college campuses very quickly,” she said. “The program really filled a need; college students really needed help in having conversations with each other. Not only across differences, but just with each other, at a time, in 2011, when technology was starting to take over.”
That’s when Eric Fingerhut became the president of Hillel International. “He promoted me to vice president, making me the youngest vice president in Hillel’s history, and one of the first women in that role.”
“I was proud to have had the same opportunity that so many men have had — to be seen for my potential, not only for what I had done but for what I could do. I am so grateful to Eric for that opportunity.”
There was an incident that marred Ms. Katz’s work with Hillel. In 2019, she was one of the women who came forward to say that she’d been harassed by one of the Jewish world’s most prominent philanthropists, Michael Steinhardt, in 2015.
“I see this as a moment when the #MeToo movement was brought to the Jewish community,” Ms. Katz said. “It’s not that people hadn’t had the experience before, but now we were able to look at what happened in the organized Jewish community.
“And now the community is a little different. We haven’t fixed everything, but we have gotten to the point where we are able to talk about it without the women who bring it up being pushed out of the workforce.
“That is progress on the road toward what we are looking for — full equity and safety.”
In October 2018, then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh survived a controversial confirmation process and won an extremely divisive Senate battle to become a Supreme Court justice. He was accused of sexual harassment, “I was outside the court that day, protesting,” Ms. Katz said. “I hadn’t planned on being there very long, but I wanted to be there, for history’s sake. I ended up being there all day long; I was almost arrested, because I was there so long, and I was dehydrated. I took a Lyft home, drank a lot of water, and thought to myself that this is the work that I should be doing.
“And just then, I got an email from a recruiting firm, asking me if I’d consider applying for the job at the NCJW. I advise people to play their cards close to their chest in a situation like this, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wanted this job.”
Emotions and expectations are difficult, though, particularly for women. “When I applied for the job, I knew that really my application wasn’t a stretch. I was the vice president of a global organization, managing a multimillion-dollar budget and a large team. But there were a few times when I had to remind myself about that. It was difficult for me to throw my hat into the mix for that job — but I’m proud that I did.”
Her courage was rewarded. Not only was her application taken seriously, it won her the job, which she began in the summer of 2019.
“I’ve been CEO now for close to four years,” Ms. Katz said. “I like to half-joke that I don’t recommend beginning a new job as CEO during an unprecedented health crisis, particularly one that affected women disproportionately. I’ve been really proud of the work that we’ve been able to do at NCJW.
“During covid, we were one of the few Jewish organizations advocating for childcare. There was a moment when I took this job when I wondered if we still need NCJW — and I realized that yes, we do.
“We still don’t have women at the center of the Jewish community. We shouldn’t have the assumptions that we do about the superpower of moms,” the idea that women can do everything, even if they’re blindfolded, moving backward, and wearing stilettos. Instead, “moms should be supported. They should have options.
“Remember the great resignation?” That was the covid-era phenomenon that saw many people leaving the workplace, many because they could not do all the tasks newly assigned to them. “That great resignation wasn’t random,” Ms. Katz said. “It was the great resignation of moms.”
In Livingston, Ms. Katz plans to talk about what NCJW has done and is doing now. “We always have been the leading Jewish organization focused on abortion and reproductive care,” she said. “We founded the first 10 birth control clinics that turned into Planned Parenthood,” working with birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger to do so.
“We turn 130 years old in September,” Ms. Katz said. “We are the oldest Jewish women’s organization in the country. We have more than doubled our size in the last two years; we are also the fastest-growing Jewish legacy organization. We’re multiracial and multigenerational.
“A lot of organizations are scared to be involved in reproductive rights, but we aren’t.”
Now that abortion has been turned over to the states, women from states where the right seems still to hold shouldn’t be complacent, Ms. Katz said. Some of the threats are obvious — to the chemical abortion drug mifepristone, which might be banned nationwide. Some of it is because “if we do not have bodily autonomy, we aren’t free, and if other people don’t have it, if they’re not free, then we’re not free either, whether or not it affects us directly.”
On a more practical level, many more people will come to states like New Jersey and New York for abortions, and they attract protesters, many of them also from out of state. “The Venn diagram between antiabortion activists who protest outside clinics and neo-Nazis is one big circle,” Ms. Katz said. “And we’ve called lots of synagogues to tell them that they’re near abortion clinics, and they have to talk about security.”
Despite the grimness, she has hope, Ms. Katz said. “I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t have hope.
“We started the Jewish Fund for Abortion Access right after the leaked Dobbs decision” last May, she continued. “We raised more than $1 million, and we helped more than 10,000 women get access to abortions. For me, of all the things I look at with NCJW, I am most proud knowing that we helped real people in need gain access to their dignity.
“The Jewish people are going to win back abortion access for everyone in the country,” Ms. Katz added. What’s going on now “is a great violation of religious liberty, and we as the Jewish community have a unique role to play. That’s why it’s important that we learn what Judaism says about abortion, and that we advocate for it as Jews.”
Even those Jews with the strictest views of what halacha allows “need to be advocating differently, because the people they love will not be prioritized over the well-being of a fetus, and that is not what Judaism believes.” The Dobbs decision, and the others that followed it, are based on a narrow reading of the Christian tradition being imposed on all of it.”
Ms. Katz has a list of accomplishments too long to fit here; almost randomly, among other things, the Jerusalem Post named her as one of the world’s 50 most influential Jews in 2020. That year, the Center for American Progress named her as one of 2020’s faith leaders to watch. She’s been working with the Second Gentleman, Douglass Emhoff, and the White House on antisemitism.
And last year, “I had the great honor of being Ithaca College’s commencement speaker,” Ms. Katz said. That’s her alma mater. It was an emotional experience, she said. In fact, “it is still a blur. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. I was so honored.”
The college’s commencement speakers always are alumni chosen by the graduating class. The college has a very strong performing arts department, so “they have a lot of people in the TV world who come back as speakers,” Ms. Katz said. Last year, an honorary degree went to Jeff White, a visual effects supervisor and creative director for George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, who graduated from Ithaca in 1998. “I had my own fangirl moment with him,” Ms. Katz said.
Even nearly a year later, she still floats as she talks about her part in Ithaca’s graduation last year. “To be invited as a faith leader, to be selected by the senior class — I was really honored. And every single Jewish parent there came up to me afterward, to tell me how moved they were to have someone talking about Judaism from the main stage.