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Women's History Month

By JCC Milwaukee March 8, 2021
lizzie black kander and esther leah ritz portraits

Celebrating a legacy of women’s leadership in the Milwaukee Jewish Community from 1895 to today.

Lizzie Black Kander (z”l) founded the Keep Clean Mission in 1895, which soon became known as the Settlement House, and was initially created to help Americanize the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who had recently arrived in Milwaukee. As the first president of the Settlement House, and a strong advocate of vocational education for women, Kander oversaw its sewing, cooking, dancing, dressmaking, and woodworking classes as well as the public baths that used hot water from an adjacent brewery. In 1901, Kander sought to create a printed booklet of recipes for her students and published the now-famous Settlement Cookbook. Since the first edition that Kander had to fund herself after being denied $18 in funds from the all-male Settlement House board, there have been more than 40 editions printed and more than 2 million copies sold making it the best-selling fundraising cookbook ever. It became a sustaining source of revenue for the agency for many years. Over many decades of service to the community, the Settlement House evolved to become the Abraham Lincoln House, then the Jewish Center, then the Jewish Community Center. on Prospect before becoming the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center we know today.

Esther Leah Ritz (z”l) was the first woman to serve as chair of our JCC board (1966-70) and the first woman chair of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation (1978-81). She later held numerous elected positions in the national and international Jewish communities, including president of the board of trustees of the JCC Association of North America. In the sixties and seventies she was a leader in empowering women’s voices both professionally and as volunteers by leading the creation of a resolution known to many women in our community as “the white paper” on “Women’s Role in Communal Leadership and Decision Making” which was formally adopted by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation board in 1976. The resolution called for, among other things, “That the federation commit itself to a plan for achieving equal representation of women on all committees, including the nominating committee, executive committee and board; that women’s organizations be recognized when ‘top community leadership’ is called upon for community mobilizations; and that qualified women be given equal consideration for professional staff vacancies for all federation positions.” She is recognized through the naming of the Ritz Theater in the Soref Education Wing of our facility, and the JCC Association’s premier leadership development training program is also named in honor.

Nancy Kennedy Barnett, current chair of the JCC Board of Directors, has been an active volunteer in our Milwaukee community for over 30 years. After a career in nursing, she considers herself blessed to be able to give back through organizational work and committing random acts of kindness. In addition to chairing our board, she is a Lifetime Trustee of Congregation Shalom, a Second Generation Speaker and board member for the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, an advisory board member of Repairing Together – a program of MJDS, and sits on the Advisory Council for Israeli Bonds. In 2014, Nancy was awarded the Esther Leah Ritz Emerging JCC Leader Award from JCC Association of North America. She co-chaired the 2015 JCC Maccabi Games held in Milwaukee and the Strategic Planning Committee and was the first chair of our JCC Culture of Philanthropy Committee. In her past life she was a soccer coach, Little League Coach and Cub Scout leader for all three of her sons; and a member of the Fox Point Auxiliary Police for 12 years.

Women who have served as the Chair of our JCC Board of Directors:

Women in Jewish Communal Professional Leadership at the JCC Today: