At 100, S.F. National Council of Jewish Women continued on

At the dawn of its 100th birthday, the San Francisco chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women is showing some signs of aging. But the chapter's core members aren't too worried about its future health.

"Truthfully, I don't think the organization will ever die," said 81-year-old Bernice Glickfeld, in a honeyed Southern drawl. "Our generation has taught our children that Judaism is about mitzvah and tzedakah," she said, elongating the last syllable of each word.

"The chapter is surviving now due to people like us," chimed in Jean Colton, 82. Along with Glickfeld, she is co-chairing the NCJW's Centennial Birthday Reception Monday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "But we really shouldn't be doing it anymore."

The oldest volunteer Jewish women's organization in America, NCJW was formed in 1893 with a primarily secular mission. It has been heavily involved with numerous social causes over the years — from birth control to child care.

The NCJW fought the Johnson Act of 1921, which restricted the number of immigrants to the United States. The following decade, it established free job-skills classes for those left unemployed by the Great Depression.

More recently, NCJW has been at the forefront of the child-care movement. Its program HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters) offers support to predominantly black and Hispanic mothers in preparing their kids for elementary school.

The San Francisco chapter, formed in 1900 by Hattie Hecht Sloss, held its first meeting at Congregation Emanu-El. Among the many projects it has sponsored: a program for phoning shut-ins, food for the homeless and a "rap room" providing a forum for local junior high school students to air out their difficulties. Its Caboodle Home Learning Program, a project singled out for praise by Hillary Clinton, produces instructional kits for the Head Start program.

NCJW's social group for seniors eventually morphed into the Montefiore Senior Center. Initially held in the basement of former Congregation Beth Israel, the group held afternoon coffee and tea meetings three times a week. NCJW then moved the group to a Seventh-day Adventist church, before it came under the auspices of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Glickfeld recalled a time when the nascent organization held an event at the Montefiore Center that called for kosher cooking and she was in charge of making 100 matzah balls. There was just one hitch — she had no idea how to make them.

Glickfeld improvised. Unable to tailor the recipe to make the requisite number, she instead made 10 batches of 10 each.

Although it may not have been her finest hour as a chef, Glickfeld still laughs when recalling the incident.

The group's steady decline in membership, however, is no laughing matter.

For a variety of reasons, membership in the chapter has dwindled from more than 1,000 in 1975, when Glickfeld served as president, to its current count of 350. That decline has affected a number of Jewish — and non-Jewish — volunteer organizations, which are taking steps to recruit younger members.

"This generation just doesn't have the time that ours did," said Glickfeld. "All the young people are just trying to keep their heads above water."

Colton agreed. "Plus, this is a very cosmopolitan city with a lot of options," she said, "so people have to decide what they want to do with their free time. I just don't think volunteerism is 'in' the way it used to be."

Colton remembers when the NCJW's chief money-maker, the Bargain Mart, was a bustling business in the '60s. When Colton donated an ancient stuffed tiger that had been with her family for decades, the very next day she saw it paraded down a street by a stressed-out parent and an ebullient child.

However, sales at the thrift shop have slowed.

The chapter, a bit past its salad days, is seeking younger women to carry on the work of the volunteer organization. Both Glickfeld and Colton have been with NCJW for almost 50 years and have seen its most active members advance in age.

"We have a very dynamic children's drama service," said Colton. "It's a traveling theater company that performs for children in special education programs throughout the Bay Area. The actresses who really gave it its start were all in their 20s.

"And it's just a sign of the times," she continued, "that the actresses doing the most work in the program are now in their 60s and 70s."

Another sign of the times, according to Glickfeld, is that while tzedakah "used to mean giving time, now it means giving money.

"Maybe that's the key to success," she mused. "I always hated the idea of fund-raising, but it seems like one of the only ways volunteerism can survive."

"It's true," added Colton. "It's really sad, but the whole tenor of the times has changed."