Sheila Katz

NCJW CEO Sheila Katz speaks at the NCJW AZ brunch event on Sunday, Dec. 11, ahead of the Lion of Judah Conference’s plenary.

More than 1,000 women gathered in Greater Phoenix Dec. 11-13, for the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Lion of Judah conference, which celebrated its 50th anniversary of the Jewish women’s philanthropic movement started by the late Norma Kipnis-Wilson and Toby Friedland in Miami, Florida, in 1972.

The group was founded to recognize women who contribute $5,000 or more annually to their Federation in their own name. At that time, $5,000 (equivalent to $27,500 today) was the cost of resettling a family of four from the Former Soviet Union to Israel, according to a JFNA spokesperson.

“This conference is about empowered women who are Jewish philanthropists, the Lion of Judah, of the Jewish Federation of North America. We have not been together since COVID began and we are 1,200 strong who are learning, singing, sharing what it is to be a powerful woman who believes in giving back,” Dana Keller, chair of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, told Jewish News.

“Celebrating Women’s Empowerment,” the opening plenary featured high-powered and celebrity speakers and panelists, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from Arizona; U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning from North Carolina; and Katie Couric, journalist and author.

“This year’s conference is an opportunity to celebrate this unbelievable cadre of women leaders who are touching countless lives and strengthening Jewish communities around the globe through their collective giving,” said Carolyn Gitlin, chair of National Women’s Philanthropy of The Jewish Federations of North America. “As the influence of women in charitable giving continues to grow, I have no doubt that our ‘Lion’ will continue to make a transformational impact on our Jewish world.”

The conference included sessions and dialogue around issues facing the Jewish community such as justice and equity, communal belonging, responses to antisemitism, access to reproductive health and socially conscious giving.

Sheila Katz, CEO of National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), was a panelist in a session focusing on the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade. She also addressed issues facing women and families more generally.

“Some of the negative things happening around the assaults on reproductive rights, around the impact of COVID on moms and families, especially as the world tried to open back up and a lot of Jewish organizations tried to open back up before childcare was acceptable, are some of the reasons people turn to NCJW. We are a voice pointing out some of these challenges and what it means to open up a workforce when it’s not quite ready for women and families,” she told Jewish News.

Katz arrived in Phoenix soon after attending a Biden administration roundtable on antisemitism led by Douglas Emhoff, the Jewish second gentleman.

“You can’t exist as a Jewish organization and not focus on antisemitism. So even though NCJW’s priorities tend to be in the space of women, children and families, we also have to focus on antisemitism because we’re unable to do our work unless we address the challenge it presents,” she said.

Sigal Kanotopsky, Jewish Agency for Israel’s Northeast regional director, also spoke at the conference and told attendees a bit about her personal story growing up in Ethiopia and making her way to a Sudanese refugee camp with her family before making aliyah in 1983. They arrived safely on Shabbat during Chanukah.

“It was our Chanukah miracle,” she told Jewish News.

The Jewish Agency’s mission is to further Israel’s engagement by connecting people of all ages to Israel while simultaneously building Jewish identity.

“Thirty-nine years ago, I was on the other side of the globe and now I am in this position, helping other Jews to fulfill their dream of being in Jerusalem,” she said.

She found the conference inspiring “as a woman, as a Jew, as an Israeli” because it was an opportunity to meet new friends and spend time with old ones. Being part of a chain of women is a privilege, she said.

“My story is our story.”

Fifty-eight women from 58 Federation communities received the 2022 Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award, which recognizes female leaders who embody the spirit and vision of Lion of Judah through a commitment to tzedakah, tikkun olam and community service.

Lion of Judah have collectively raised more than one billion dollars to aid vulnerable Jews around the globe, and today over 18,000 “Lion” are making high-impact gifts through their philanthropy. JN