NCJW members unload boxes of toys headed for Israel as part of the Ship a Box to Israel program launched by NCJW Tikvah branch, Vancouver Harbor, 1947. (photo from JMABC L.11998)
Much of the work of Jewish women in Vancouver has occurred, both historically and still today, behind the scenes. The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia is trying to change that with its online exhibit, More Than Just Mrs. Accessible at morethanjustmrs.wordpress.com, the exhibit discusses the history of the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah-WIZO (CHW) and Na’amat, the three predominant Jewish women’s organizations mid-century. It includes audio clips from local women who worked for these organizations and focuses exclusively on the work of the B.C. chapters.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the Jewish community in B.C. and its history,” said Michael Schwartz, coordinator of development and public programs at JMABC, located in the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver. “When it came to these chapters of the organizations, I knew a few of the stories but wanted to fill in the gaps and learn more. I thought we should look at the organizations in greater detail, at the differences in their philosophies and the influential women who worked for them.”
The website has an introduction and then individual sections on each of NCJW, Hadassah and Na’amat, each one containing letters, certificates and other historical material relevant to the work the organizations performed. There are a total of six audio clips online but those who want to hear entire interviews may visit the Jewish museum offices to listen to them.
The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse into Jewish life in Vancouver in the 1940s and ’50s: its fashions, the organizations’ priorities and their fundraising strategies. These women were professional volunteers, individuals who were not content to be “just Mrs.,” and insisted on devoting their time and talents to improving and meeting the needs of their local communities and communities in Israel and elsewhere. The name for the exhibit was drawn from an interview with one of the volunteers some 20 to 30 years ago, wherein she mentioned the phrase, “More than just Mrs.,” adding that, for her, doing this volunteer work was an opportunity to step out of her husband’s shadow.
NCJW supported an orphanage in Holland, for example, sending regular shipments of food and clothing to the aid of the 220 destitute war orphans being cared for in Bergstichting. The exhibit includes a letter from the orphanage dated April 1947, describing the difficult conditions at the orphanage. “The physical condition of our pupils being still rather week [sic], we had to fight with a scarlatina [scarlet fever] epidemic during five months,” wrote the director. “Sixty of our people were taken with this illness. But fortunately, your valuable gifts reached us just in those distressful months.”
The online exhibit was launched in September 2013 and some 2,500 people have visited the site since it was launched. Schwartz estimates it takes 60 to 90 minutes to read the material, which was produced by Annika Friedman last summer with the aid of Young Canada Works, a granting program subsidized by the federal government. Schwartz said another online exhibit is being produced this summer under the same program. Called Oakridge: The Final Frontier, it will chart the rise and decline of the Jewish community in the neighborhood. Elana Wenner, a master’s candidate in Jewish studies at Concordia University, will be interviewing community members and gathering photographs, videos and other relevant materials for the new exhibit. To contribute and for more information, Wenner can be reached at [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.