Each spring, congregations, Jewish schools and organizations throughout the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys gather at the Jewish Federation’s Women’s Forum luncheon to honor their nominees for the community’s Women Who Make a Difference. The Women’s Forum, occasionally attended by local officials such as Representative Judy Chu, features a keynote speaker, a community-wide tzedakah project decided on by the organizing committee, and honorees receive certificates and recognition from the entire community.
The Women’s Forum is a longstanding tradition in the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys–but few people today realize just how long. Veteran Women’s Forum organizer and past honoree Barbara Schwartz of Temple Sholom of Ontario has kept her notes from the early days of the program. “I don’t remember when it really started,” she says. “I was honored in 1996. Originally the Women’s Forum committee was all volunteers. I chaired it for two years, and after that [Jewish Federation Associate Director emerita] Marilyn Weintraub took over.” Schwartz pulls out a binder and flips through it to look for the earliest notes she has. “My list goes back to 1981! In 1981 I think we were still part of the LA Federation.”
Nationally, Women Who Make a Difference began as a program to promote women’s philanthropy. The Jewish Federations of North America estimates that $205 million of its annual campaign revenues come from women, and that women decide charitable giving in more than 90% of affluent households. However, although donation statistics are one way of expressing women’s importance to American Jewish life, they fall short as a way to recognize the full value of the work women actually do in their communities.
Schwartz explains why that matters when planning a community-wide event like the Women’s Forum. “One year we went to OC, but they were only honoring one person. We had to have donated a certain amount to be able to attend—and we had. I went to the Los Angeles Federation’s forum once; someone I knew was being honored. They just had each woman stand up at her table while they showed pictures on a screen.”
Kim Banaji, the Jewish Federation’s Program and Community Outreach Coordinator, says that by contrast, the Women’s Forum celebrates a significant group of honorees each year, chosen by their own congregations and community organizations. “We need to recognize the immense contributions of women to Jewish life,” Banaji notes. “Some are longtime community leaders, some are younger innovators who start new programs for their congregations, and others are the regular volunteers you can always count on and who make things work. The Women’s Forum brings our whole community together to honor them.”
Susan Ivory, honored by Temple Beth David in 2018, has been a member there for a decade and chairs the synagogue’s Adult Education committee. She also serves as the synagogue’s liaison to the Jewish Book Festival. But she says, “I was flabbergasted when [Sisterhood President] Carol Ozer texted me that I was TBD’s honoree. I actually said, ‘Carol, is this a mistake?’ To get the honor for work I enjoy doing, at this time in my life; it’s heartwarming, because you don’t always get the kind of support for your work that you might when you’re younger.”
Being named encouraged her to do more in the larger community, Ivory says. “I had never participated in these luncheons until I was asked in 2018, and over the years I hadn’t been coming to Jewish Federation’s events. That luncheon was so much fun, like being queen for a day. I got to meet women from the previous congregation we’d belonged to. So I went last year as well. I’m not real social, and it’s difficult to go in cold, but last year I didn’t even tell anyone I was going and it was a blast. At these luncheons you get in conversations with people you may not see any other time of the year. I’m going to be a grandmother and I’m already planning to sign [my new grandchild] up with PJ Library and get more involved.”
Melissa Levy, the Youth Director at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, was named last year and is one of the youngest women to be honored in recent years. “I was thinking I was too green to be given that kind of recognition, as I remembered past PJTC recipients like Sondra Dreshner and Ginny Blitz having given decades upon decades of service,” she says. “I felt honored when Nancy Carlton [PJTC’s Sisterhood President] told me, and it was a nice added level of appreciation to be recognized and get a little ‘pampered’ for a morning.”
However, Levy says, the Women’s Forum had a deeper impact on her as well. “My favorite part was meeting the other honorees and learning about how they were helping their communities. I’ve received emails from a few other synagogues asking for help and brainstorming or to meet with me and talk through programming and ‘how I do it’ since that award as well—so I feel like it’s a good way for members of different communities to organically learn about and from one another.”
And that’s really the point, says Schwartz. “The Women’s Forum is very important, because it’s the one time during the year we all—mostly women, but also families and friends—get together.” The format of the event has changed somewhat over the years, she says, from a workshop with breakout sessions to a one-woman show, but the purpose is always to give the women of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys not only recognition but a program with substance and a chance to connect with each other.
She adds that working on the planning committee has been valuable as well. “We always had a large committee with women from all the different locations in the greater community, and we got to know each other. I live in Upland, which is kind of far, but to this day when we see each other at events we catch up.”
The 2020 Women’s Forum will convene March 26th at 9:15 a.m. at the Courtyard Marriott in Monrovia. For more information and to RSVP, please contact the Jewish Federation office at (626) 445-0810.
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.