Onstage at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., late last month, liberal lion Ruth Messinger was talking about social justice when she turned to the audience.
“If Sheila Katz is here, and I think she is, a shout-out to her for being the bravest person around,” said Messinger, former head of American Jewish World Service.
The applause was immediate. It was less than a week after Katz had gone public in a story in the New York Times about sexual harassment she faced from prominent Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. And the next day, Katz would be announced as the next CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, the liberal advocacy group.
Katz will join NCJW this summer after 12 years working at Hillel International, where she climbed the ladder to the role of senior vice president for student engagement and leadership, and where she pioneered the “MitzVote” voter engagement campaign. At NCJW, she will succeed Nancy Kaufman, who has led the organization since 2011.
In a phone interview last week, Katz, 35, said she will focus on advocating and lobbying on four central issues to the Jewish feminist organization’s mission: reproductive rights and access to health care, a strong and independent judiciary, civic engagement and voting rights, and promoting inclusive policies in Israel.
Messinger, who is close with both Kaufman and Katz, said the NCJW made an excellent choice for its next chief executive.
“I was just hoping for a strong, new and — dare I say — young director,” Messinger said. “I think that the strengths Sheila brings to the job are very much that she’s passionate about social justice work, but she’s also analytic and strategic. She’s incredibly bright, thoughtful and committed to her job.”
‘Radio silence in the Jewish world’
Katz steps into the role at a time when her profile is bigger than it’s ever been. She’s been lauded by many for going public about Steinhardt’s behavior. In a first-person account she wrote for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Katz described Steinhardt’s repeated advances.
“It wasn’t funny the first time … Steinhardt asked me to have sex with him. It wasn’t funny the second time, either,” she wrote. “It wasn’t funny the third time, or the fourth time in that meeting. It wasn’t funny when he attempted to auction me off to two men in his office for $1 million. It wasn’t funny when, before I left, he told me it was an ‘abomination’ that I was unmarried and childless, and that he would not fund my work because of that fact.”
Steinhardt provided the Times with a statement that called his comments “boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb” and said that they were meant humorously, calling them part of his “shtick.”
Katz said she struggled with the decision to take her accusations public, but was frustrated after years of voicing them through institutional channels only to see Steinhardt face no repercussions. Last year, after an internal Hillel investigation confirmed her account, Hillel International stopped soliciting donations from Steinhardt.
Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, declined to be interviewed for this article, but said in a statement that Katz “truly embodies the leadership qualities and innovative spirit that Hillel International seeks to develop in all our professionals.”
Last September, the New York Jewish Week published an article about the Hillel investigation. But with no victim’s name attached, Katz said there was no wider response.
“I really felt like I did everything else …” Katz said. “An article came out that didn’t share my name and said that these things were true and then nothing happened. It was radio silence in the Jewish world. It was a hard moment for me because I felt like I’d done what I needed to do. But it wasn’t received in a way that led to any change.”
Katz said she channeled some of that frustration into the Safety Respect Equity Coalition, a group working to combat sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the Jewish world on whose executive team she serves.
But in March, Katz took her story public in the Times, along with six other women. It sent shockwaves through the Jewish philanthropic world. In the aftermath, a number of Jewish institutions with financial ties to Steinhardt released statements saying that they stood with the victims and condemed the philanthropist.
“There was a tipping point moment,” Katz said. “For the first time I can remember, organizations and the foundations came forward in support of the victim. My hope for the future is that victims of sexual harassment don’t have to come forward and become vulnerable and take on the risk of retaliation, but rather that Jewish institutions take on the policies that make sure these things don’t happen.”
Early role models
Katz grew up seeing a range of ways in which women in her family contributed to their Rockland County, New York, community. When she was young, her parents operated a business together. But when Katz was in high school, her mother’s multiple sclerosis came out of remission, limiting her to a wheelchair almost overnight.
Her mother’s ailment left Katz with few women in the workplace around her. (Her grandmother had already retired after working as a secretary in Brooklyn). But she admired her mother’s insistence on doing volunteer work and building her local community — which Katz said she does to this day — and grew more attuned to certain issues.
She got increasingly involved in NFTY, the Reform movement youth group, where she says she learned the values of leadership and correcting injustices.
“That experience really opened my eyes to just looking at things differently in our society,” Katz said. “I hadn’t even noticed that the synagogue I went to wasn’t handicap accessible before it impacted my mother.”
But during a time when she didn’t have many working women to emulate, she became particularly drawn to one on television.
Katz has a lot of role models; Messinger being one. Kathy Manning, the first woman chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, was another. But there’s one woman whom Katz admires so much she was brought to tears when the two met: Oprah Winfrey.
“I didn’t have that many people to look up to who were women in a workplace and who were leading from a place of vulnerability and respect,” Katz said. “In her show, I found somebody who was leading from a place of curiosity and kindness that I really wanted to emulate.”
A few years back, Katz got to meet her idol in the flesh. Winfrey was hosting an event at what was then the Verizon Center in D.C.
“Of course I went and it’s about 10,000 Type-A women and about five men. She walks in and a whole group of us just started screaming and crying,” Katz said. “I managed to muster up the strength to say ‘Thank you’ through the tears.”
In her position at NCJW, Katz will oversee a network of some 90,000 activists in 28 states. Katz said the women who make up NCJW’s volunteer ranks come from a range of backgrounds: military partners, working women, stay-at-home mothers.
“It’s grassroots, there are so many phenomenal Jewish women who are opting in in a volunteer capacity to fight for the things they believe in,” she said.
And she insisted she isn’t daunted by the scope of her responsibility, she feels ready. She’s long been an activist herself, she’ll now just be ostensibly leading 90,000 of them.
In January, when the leaders of the Women’s March in Washington were accused of anti-Semitism, and a number of prominent Jewish institutions withdrew their sponsorships, Katz marched anyway. On Facebook, she “hosted” an event called “Jewish Women March for Justice at the Women’s March” along with three Jewish women who joined the march’s steering committee after others withdrew: April Baskin, Yavilah McCoy and Abby Stein.
Asked about her decision, Katz told WJW she would follow up with an answer after having more time to consider it, then declined to do so.
“Now more than ever, in today’s polarized political climate, we need a feminist movement rooted in Jewish values,” NCJW President Beatrice Kahn wrote in a statement announcing Katz’s hiring. “Through her deep experience giving a voice to young activists and developing innovative approaches to critical problems in the Jewish community, Sheila has her finger on the pulse of today’s women’s movement.”
Katz said she’s thrilled to be taking over at this time of heightened political activism, particularly among women. But she also thinks of the way she fits into NCJW’s history, recounting the story of how the organization came about. In 1893, Hannah Solomon was asked to organize a group of Jewish women in the planning of the Chicago World’s Fair.
“When they arrived they were asked to serve coffee instead of being a part of the conversation, and they simply weren’t having it,” Katz said. The women walked out and NCJW was born. “I’d like to think that if Hannah Solomon were around here in 2019, she’d be a dear friend of mine. We’re not done yet, we’ve done and accomplished a lot and there’s so much more to do.”