Historical society celebrates contributions of Jewish women in Michigan

Rachel Moulden for Digital First Media

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Detroit labor leader Myra Wolfgang (right) was the fiery labor leader who devoted her life from the mid-1930s until her death in 1976 to the members of the Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union. Courtesy the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan

Myra Wolfgang may not be a household name, but in 1975, she was deemed one of “Detroit’s 10 Most Influential Women.”

As a labor leader, Wolfgang (1914-1976) gained national attention when she walked into the Woolworth’s Department store on Woodward and Grand River in Detroit and blew a whistle, signaling the start of a pink-collar sit-down strike that lasted for eight days.

The co-founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women is just one of many Jewish women in Southeast Michigan celebrated in a recent project by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan.

The society, based in West Bloomfield Township, launched the Michigan Women Who Make a Difference Project in 2012. The project is a community research effort to collect the stories of Jewish women who helped shaped their communities.

“We found when looking back into the past that women’s stories were often not included,” says Wendy Rose Bice, executive director of the society. “When many organizations were founded back in the day, men took overseer roles, while women worked at the foundation level. As a result, women’s names were often left out and they didn’t get credit for their work.”

Bice says her predecessor, Aimee Ergas, research director for the project, was doing some historical research when she discovered the wide variety of female leaders in Jewish history and wanted to share their amazing stories.

“We really want to focus on reaching out into the (Jewish) community and focus on getting stories from elderly women who remember their olden days in order to be able to share their stories with others,” Bice says.

The project continues to collect “her-story,” and in 2015 the Michigan Humanities Council awarded the society a Heritage Grant to expand the project statewide. The long-term goal for the project is to create a free database open to the public that would be accessible through the Jewish Historical Society website. The database would include articles and blogs written by a series of featured guest writers.

The project also turned out a book, “Michigan Women Who Made A Difference,” published in 2015 (available at the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan website for $24, $27 with shipping). It features 125 Jewish women who helped to shape their Metro-Detroit communities. It includes women such as:

• Blanche Hart, who created the Fresh Air Society, which would eventually be known today as Camp Tamarack, in Bloomfield Hills. The camp provides enriching Jewish camping experiences for children and families.

• Early female athlete Miriam Edwards Kushner (1911-2004), who was all-city in basketball, field hockey and tennis attended Central High School in Detroit. She became a distinguished concert pianist, performing at the Book Cadillac Hotel, and playing on radio station WXYZ-AM from 1928 to 1930. She and her husband, Aid Kushner, helped star the Leo M. Franklin Archives at Temple Beth El, where they served as volunteer archivists 1984-1998.

• Marj Jackson Levin (1925-2007), a journalist and fiction writer for local and national publications for more than 30 years, in 1969 became a founding member of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization of Women and was among those who “walked through the front doors of the Detroit Athletic Club,” in protest over their women-through-the-back-only policy.

On Monday, the society will celebrate the stories and achievements of the Jewish Michigan women who helped to build and shape their communities. The conference is free and will include a speech by Linda Borish, a writer from Western Michigan University who studied Jewish women in sports, and a workshop on “How to Preserve Women’s Voices and Stories,” led by Ergas. The conference also will have panel discussions on women’s roles in the past and cultural barriers women still face today.

“We refer to history so often, but we don’t seem to really recognize it,” Bice says. “When we fail to include women’s stories we are not representing half of the population and it ends up being a one-sided discovery process. We have to understand that history is really relevant and because of it we will have lessons we can learn from our past.”

• The Michigan Women Who Make a Difference Conference will be 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. June 27 at Temple Emanuel, 1715 Fulton St. E. in Grand Rapids. For more information about the upcoming conference and the Michigan Jewish Historical Society, visit michjewishhistory.org/.

 

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