Social advocate,JCRC pioneer now battling for women

She is averse to battleground metaphors, but Nancy Kaufman, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, says there may be no other way to characterize the conservative political climate than as “a war on women.”

That’s part of the title of Kaufman’s talk on Thursday, Nov. 8 in San Francisco, at an event sponsored by the council’s San Francisco chapter. The full title is “The War on Women and Our Counterattack” — and in an effort to clear the fog of war, Kaufman will lay out her strategies for a counteroffensive.

“This is a time in the world when the voices of women need to be much stronger,” she said last week in a phone interview. “We don’t like to use military terminology, but if you turn on the news every day you can see there is an attack, and it’s mind-boggling.”

She pointed to comments by Republican Senate candidates Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri suggesting rape victims have no reason to abort a pregnancy, and to legislative efforts to roll back reproductive rights.

Nancy Kaufman

“We’ve seen attacks on reproductive rights, personal defamatory attacks,” she said, using as an example how talk show host Rush Limbaugh verbally assaulted activist Sandra Fluke after the law student advocated for contraception. “The 90 percent of women who use contraception are tired of this.”

Blending righteous anger with an infectiously upbeat personality, Kaufman, 61, exploded onto the national Jewish radar as a relentless advocate for social justice.

“Her energy and talent for bringing people together — and her passion for it is just incredible,” said Janice Prudhomme, director of the San Francisco chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. NCJW is a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who, inspired by Jewish values, try to turn progressive ideals into action.

Before Kaufman joined NCJW in 2010, she had a distinguished career as a public servant, advocate and nonprofit leader. In her native Massachusetts, she founded a community action agency then went on to become an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services under then–Gov. Mike Dukakis.

In 1990, she was recruited to head the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, which at the time had a staff of three. She helped turn the Boston JCRC into an advocacy powerhouse, launching it onto a national stage alongside the S.F.-based JCRC and turning it into a blueprint for others to follow.

In her 20 years there, Kaufman broadened the organization’s goals with a commitment to social justice issues. Under her tutelage, the JCRC started taking on issues of mental health, child welfare and literacy, among others. She also ushered the largely suburban membership into the inner city to tutor youth.

In addition to advocating vigorously for Israel and taking the region’s elected officials on tours of the Jewish state, she lobbied energetically in the State House, pushing legislators to pass measures approving gay marriage and the divestment of public pension funds in companies that invested in Sudan and Iran. She also led interfaith efforts to reform health care.

“I was content, happy,” she said. But in 2010, when “a headhunter called with an opportunity to work on women’s issues [for NCJW], I thought I owed it to myself to consider it.”

Accepting the top job at the National Council of Jewish Women meant moving to New York, which provided a much bigger playing field — and a serendipitous proximity to a new granddaughter.

Kaufman was educated at Brandeis University, and she has a master’s degree in social planning and community organizing from Boston College as well as a mid-career master’s in public administration from Harvard University. Her many honors include an honorary doctorate in public service from Northeastern University.

Three years ago, she convened a roundtable whose participants considered how social justice might become a more central part of American Jewish life.

“The Judaism I grew up on — ‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’ — takes those issues seriously,” she said. Her commitment to social justice, whether in Israel or the United States, grows from the same root. The war on women is present in both countries, she said, although the legal root differs.

A war on women’s rights in this nation violates constitutional guarantees, Kaufman said, whereas Israeli law honors no such rights: “As the religious right gets more powerful, we see these personal attacks — issues like segregated buses,” she said.

She is already planning another trip to Israel for the country’s 65th anniversary in 2013. The junket will include non-Jewish women leaders.

“We will be looking at Israel through a gender lens,” she said.

She pays homage to both female and male leaders for advancing the rights of women and families: Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Vice President Joe Biden and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

There have been victories, she noted, pointing to a recent decision in U.S. District Court in Missouri. On Sept. 28, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit challenging a requirement that businesses offer employees contraception coverage through health-care insurance.

“We are not without our heroes,” she said. “But don’t assume. Our kids have taken what they have for granted.”


Nancy Kaufman will speak at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8 at a program of the S.F. chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. 5 p.m. reception and Q&A for NCJW members. At the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $25 at door with reservation only. RSVP by Nov. 6 to [email protected] or (415) 346-4600.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.