Nancy Kaufman

“Despair is not a strategy.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, May 2022

NK:  I’m Nancy Kaufman. I was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1951.

JW:  Please tell us a little about your childhood before you got involved in women’s issues, maybe some of the things that led you to who you are.

NK:  Out of necessity I became a feminist very early in my life, very sadly, because when I was six-and-a-half years old, my 36-year-old father dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving my mother with three children under the age of nine at age 34. This was in 1958 when there wasn’t much of a women’s movement, and she wasn’t exactly prepared for the life that she was now going to have to lead and to go to work and to have to take care of three children. I think that was my earliest experience of understanding something about the world we live in, the way women are treated, particularly single women, single parents, and the economic realities for women. It really was a branding of my mind and body and soul that I’ll never forget.

JW:  Would you say any part of your ethnic or religious background had an influence on you?

NK:  Absolutely. First of all, it was the Jewish community that enveloped us, surrounded us, and supported us as a family in Boston. I understood the importance of community and the support of community and in my case, particularly the Jewish community. I was an active person as a teenager in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. As a Jewish woman, I got my training in speaking. I got my training in organizing, and then basically Jewish values of social justice and pursuing justice came very early.

JW:  When did you actually get involved in the women’s movement itself?

NK:  I think it was when I graduated Brandeis University in 1972. I was an anti-war activist mainly, but I saw that the men were running the show in that movement, and that was very concerning to me. I think that when I really first began was in graduate school in social work. I was in community organizing in graduate school and organized a women’s group; it was the first women’s group I was in. So that was the mid-’70s. And I’ve been organizing women’s groups ever since. I think it came actually first through consciousness raising and through support.

JW:  Tell me a little about your involvement at that time. What did you organize?

NK:  Mainly was organizing, again, in small ways, women on campus. I was working in 1972, ’73, believe it or not, an important year, in an adolescent counseling center that was doing abortion counseling for teens. The Roe issue was first and foremost in my mind. I went from not being able to find places for young people to get abortions to at least being able to get them to New York during that period. That was the first issue that I started organizing around – choice and around abortion – which is why it’s so painful now to be where we are for all of us. It’s just unbearable to think that 50 years later this is what we’re dealing with.

That became a thread and a theme throughout my life, of women having a choice, women having a right to choose. That was the beginning. I worked in homelessness in the Dukakis years and antipoverty and always was about organizing women. I was running an anti-poverty agency at the ripe old age of 28. Who was it? It was the women in the housing projects. It was women that I organized. It was very local. It was very much about organizing women to make a difference, to feel their power, to understand they can make change, and we did. We made a lot of change.

When I came into the Jewish community, which was in 1990, the first thing I did was organize a Jewish Women’s Network. Believe it or not, in 1990, I was the only woman around the table of the Jewish agency executives in Boston for many years, and nationally, there weren’t a whole lot of them either. I always thank Ruth Messinger for coming in 1998 to work in the Jewish community, so I had a buddy. It’s when I met Heather, it’s when I met other people.

But most of my organizing really until I came to NCJW was local, was in Massachusetts, was a Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, it was the Jewish Women’s Network. It was very local. I helped organize the first chapter of NOW in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until I took the job at National Council of Jewish Women in 2011 that I started organizing nationally. I was a local supporter of Planned Parenthood. I was very local, but that’s when I started being involved nationally in the movement.

JW:  I’d like to go back to the local stuff and then we’ll go to national. You said you actually organized in some neighborhoods, is that right? In Boston? Any particular one, any story you remember in particular?

NK:  I know a couple of wonderful stories. I was working north of Boston, about eight miles north. It was a community action agency that had been kicked out by the mayor of the city at the time. They had an opt-out provision, and it was really women who were the ones who suffered the most at losing this community action agency because they lost their Head Start program, they lost the ability to organize in their housing projects, and it really upset me.

I was working at the time in city government, and I went to the Office of Economic Opportunity, OEO, at the time, and I said, “This is ridiculous that we don’t have a community action agency anymore because the mayor exercised the opt-out provision,” which was the first time ever in the history of that piece of the legislation and regulation. I said, “I really want to start a new community action agency.” They said, “Well, if you can get the city councils of Malden, Medford, and Everett to agree, then we’ll give you a planning grant, and you can do that.” I said, “Okay.”

So, what did I do? I organized the women to come to the city council meetings. We got the three city councils to approve it. I was the staff member. My boss was a man, very political and very tied into the machine in the city of Malden, which was a pretty Democratic town, but very patriarchal. I was staffing the search committee. I was 28 years old and one day I said, “You have all these candidates – I could do this. I should be the executive director.” What I remember is that he thought he would be able to control me.

JW:  That was his first mistake.

NK:  I was a staff member so he thought, “This is great. I’ll put her in, and then she’ll do our bidding through the community action agency.” I played along with that and then I got the job. Then he wasn’t so happy once I got the job. But it was the women in the housing project in low income, and I had a wonderful experience. 25 years later, Judy, I went to give the annual meeting speech at this community action agency in Malden for their 25th anniversary.

I was sitting next to a woman attorney who was on the board, and she leaned over, and she looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place her. And she leaned over and she said to me, “Do you remember what you told me when I was 20 years old and a single mom with two children?” I said, “No, I don’t remember.” She said, “You told me I could be anything I wanted to be, so I decided that I could be a lawyer. And I went to law school.” It was an incredible moment.

So, I was very local. I’m a Tip O’Neill “politics is local” kind of person. I was all about organizing local. I did that for several years, and then I worked in homelessness. A lot of the family homelessness was all women and children, so I was working on that and trying to find paths out of homelessness for the women. And then I developed a Jewish women’s network to try to organize Jewish women to take action.

National Council of Jewish Women did not have a chapter in Boston, so we didn’t have a Jewish women’s Hadassah, but that was Israel. It was not local organizing, so there wasn’t a Jewish women’s presence. I did mainly secular Mass Women’s Political Caucus, NOW, but I always had an eye towards organizing. I could organize Jewish women to really make a difference in the world, that would be something I’d want to do, so that opportunity came when I got the position at NCJW.

JW:  I also want to ask you about organizing the first NOW chapter in the area. What was that like?

NK:  Wow, that was so long ago. I think what it gave women was an opportunity to have a voice and to feel like they were making a difference, or could make a difference. I was very young and I was really new at it. I was very much a soldier. I think I was at the first organizing meeting. I forget what year that was. I was in college then or in graduate school. I wasn’t like a leader in that. I was an organizer. I was a soldier in that.

JW:  And the Women’s Political Caucus, too.

NK:  It was already in existence, but I immediately gravitated to that when I got involved in local and state politics. It was all the smart, wonderful women because don’t forget when I’m talking now, when I worked at the State House of Massachusetts, which was in the early ’80s, there were very few women. There were very few women in the legislature, there were very few women. I was in a senior position. Particularly as a Jewish woman, in those days it was highly unusual.

You realize the culture, and this was Boston, you must remember the macho Irish establishment where the Cardinal ran the show. The Catholics definitely ran the show, so it was very lonely because I always went to find women who I could associate with. The Mass Women’s Political Caucus became my second home because I was politically engaged. I was involved again in local. I was living in Beverly, Massachusetts, so I was involved in the Democratic City Committee, but it was the women who were doing all the organizing always. We were the people that did that.

JW:  Were there any particular issues you remember?

NK:  The ERA was always an issue. We were in a very liberal state, thank God. Even when we had Republican governors, we were in a liberal state. Mainly with social welfare issues that we were working on at the time, we helped establish the first Governor’s Commission on status of women. That came out of that. I was in between. When I had a baby and I left the anti-poverty agency and I was working as Acting Director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, and we published something called Up the Down Escalator, and it was all about economic issues related to women in terms of income assistance.

And later, fast forward, my last position in state government in 1989 was as Deputy Commissioner of the Welfare Department. I was very close to the issue of welfare assistance, how it helps, how it harms; employment and training, how it helps, how it harms; how do we engage people in training.

But teenage pregnancy prevention was a huge issue. One of my great stories about that was when I was working for Mike Dukakis. I was very close to Kitty Dukakis, who was an activist, an amazing woman. She chaired my governor’s committee on homelessness and happened to be Jewish. And I’ll never forget being in the governor’s office. I’d always enlist her every time there was an issue that I wanted her help with from the governor because he took her seriously.

And we were sitting in his office one time, we were trying to push for him to put money in the state budget on teenage pregnancy prevention, and the three of us were sitting there, and Mike Dukakis looks at the both of us. He says, “I don’t understand. Why don’t they just say no.” And Kitty looks at me and she says, “Michael, they are not going to just say no, so that’s why we need to do teenage pregnancy prevention.” It was such a perfect moment. I was someone who just found people to enlist in my causes everywhere I went. But that was a huge issue, and we did a lot in that area of teenage pregnancy prevention. It’s nice to work in a state where you have resources.

JW:  What really drew you to working with Jewish women? I know that you are and I am too. But you really took it to a different degree.

NK:  Total accident. It was not by design whatsoever. I used to say I was an active Jewish woman, but I wasn’t working in the Jewish community. I had worked in local government. I’d worked in state government. I worked in anti-poverty. And back in 1990, when Mike Dukakis wasn’t going to be going to Washington, and I wasn’t going to be going to Washington, I was going to need a job. I was still in the administration. I had about eight months, a year, and someone just came to me and said, “You should apply for this job as head of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston. This guy is retiring.”

And I had no idea what they did because I really wasn’t engaged in the “Jewish” part of the community. I was engaged personally. I was intrigued. Organizing in the Jewish community is like an organizer’s dream come true. I was curious about it, so I called the only person I knew who was the head of the Jewish Federation, a guy who had come and found me in state government because he wanted money, really, to start group homes for mentally ill, mentally retarded. I called him and I said, “What do they do?” And he said, “Well, that’s a good question. I’m going to come and take you to lunch. I’m going to bring all the propositions from, at the time, NCRAC, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.”

He comes to my office at the Welfare Department, and he has all these policy documents, and they have a position on poverty, and minimum wage, and women’s health. And I’m like, “How come I’m in state government for eight years, and I have no idea that the Jewish community has a position on this stuff.” He said, “That’s the problem. It’s like the best-kept secret.” And it was a time, Judy, it was before we became politically present, and had lobbyists and all the stuff we have now, and it was annoying because the Jewish community votes and supports candidates, and if they would stand up and make themselves heard, I knew they could make a difference.

I was intrigued. I was really intrigued. He said, “Look, it’s an independent agency. I can get you an interview. That’s all I could do.” So, I went for the interview. And they were asking me questions. One of them asked, “Well, you haven’t been to Israel in 24 years. How are you going to do this job?” And I said, “Well, I went as a 16-year-old, and I love Israel. I’d be glad to go back.” And then they said, “Well, you don’t know federal policy. You only know state.” I said, “Well, I can read.” And when I walked in the room with 14 people to interview me, half of them I knew because they were all Democratic activists in Massachusetts, so I had these epiphanies going on, which is, “Okay, I have got to just connect the dots here. We could really do something,” and that was what influenced me.

And then I thought I’d be four years in the job and go back to a Democratic administration in Massachusetts, and there wasn’t one for 17 years, so I got hooked. But I got hooked in a good way because the values were such that they aligned with my values, and the organizing was, as I said, it was an organizer’s dream come true because it wasn’t organized. In those days other than the Reform movement and the work of David Saperstein, which was in Washington, it wasn’t hitting local.

I used to say they were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in homeless shelters. They weren’t organizing. They weren’t using their power to really make a difference in the city. Demographically, the Jews had moved out of the inner city to the suburbs and they had never come back. We were absent. My desire was to reconnect the largely suburban Jewish community to its urban roots and there was no better way to do that than by organizing around women’s issues.

JW:  What were some of the issues that you worked on in the beginning?

NK:  After the Rodney King horrors in LA, it was a concern that Boston would erupt and there was a bunch of us inter-religious, inter-ethnic, interracial folks who had been working together for a long time, because again, I had come out of the other world. We started meeting and talking. During that time, this was the early ’90s, there was a stabbing of a gang member in a church in Boston during the funeral of another gang member. It was the height of the violence stuff.

One of my black minister colleagues did a call to action and he called everyone to come together in a church in Boston. The rabbis were calling and saying, “Well, what should we do? Should we go?” There were no synagogues in the city. I called them like a good community organizer would and I said, “Gene, what do we do? What are we supposed to do?” He said, “Well, come.” Then he said, “How about this? You get together a group of rabbis and I’ll get together a group of black ministers and let’s talk about what you can do.”

Of course, when we did that, we started meeting in a synagogue basement. The rabbis are typical top down and said “My synagogue wants to come into the city and clean up a park.” The black Minister said, “We don’t really need you to come clean up our park. We need jobs for our single female-headed households.” That lightbulb went off. I said, “Okay.” The Jewish Vocational Services, this amazing employment agency that was training Russian women in microenterprise with Department of Labor money from the wave of immigrants that have come. I said, “What if they could develop a program for black female heads of households?”

I went to the head of the agency and she rightfully said, “Well, Nancy, that’s fine, but we can’t just come in as a Jewish agency, we need a partner.” I went back and I said, “Okay, they need a partner.” I said, “Okay, the Black Ministerial Alliance will be your partner, and we will open up the doors of the churches. If they will develop a program on microenterprise for female-headed households in our churches, that would be great.”

We did that, and from there, it went on, amazing numbers of initiatives and programs that I was able to do wearing the Jewish hat and yet being able to do it, because we were all about interfaith and interconnections. Then I would say, fast forward, we were instrumental. We became the first member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which at the time was an IAF affiliate but took on the campaign for affordable health care. I’d love to call it RomneyCare during the 2012 campaign because RomneyCare preceded Obamacare.

JW:  I’m very well aware. I’ve worked on that issue a lot.

NK:  It was something we really organized around. We did stories and parlor meetings and it was an amazing campaign because we were able to bring, based on self-interest, the entire community together. We won. I’ll tell you, standing there with Romney, Kerry, Kennedy, at Faneuil Hall was pretty unbelievable. During the campaign between Romney and Obama, I remember being called by the Jewish press and said, “Oh, you worked with Mitt Romney. How was that?” I said, “Well, it was great. He gave us affordable health care.” Not what this campaign wanted to hear.

JW:  I want to say the nation thanks you because when we were working on the ACA, we brought that up all the time. This is not new, it’s RomneyCare, so thank you.

NK:  We incubated a lot of amazing kinds of initiatives. Again, it was doable. Gay marriage was another one that we took on, the first Jewish community in the United States and the Orthodox community didn’t walk away. I engaged them and we had testimonies by many, many people. Of course, it was Massachusetts again but that was a time when our partners in the black community weren’t so sure, particularly the men, about gay marriage. But we went down that route. Those are the issues that I worked on a lot over those years.

JW:  Now please talk about moving over to the national scene.

NK:  Also, an accident. As I said, I thought I’d be there for four years. I was there for 20 years and was getting itchy but felt like, all right, I love local and whatever. I got a call from a headhunter who says, “I have a job with your name on it.” I said, “Well, what is the job?” They said, “CEO of National Council of Jewish Women.” I knew Sammie, I knew what they had done. Nationally, I was familiar.

JW:  Tell us who Sammie is.

NK:  Sammie Moshenberg was the Head of the Washington office of NCJW, a terrific professional who I knew because of having been involved with the national. I had shared the National Association of Jewish Community Relations Councils. I always felt like I was aligned with NCJW. She said, “You have got to read this job description.” I said, “I’m not really looking for a job.” She said, “Read this job description. The first CEO in 120 years.” I went, “Really? I don’t know if that’s good news or bad news.”

They’d had internal administrators. The board was like the old-fashioned model where the board was an operating board, not a governing board, and that had changed. I said, “I have to have Israel in my life.” She said, “Well, they do women in Israel.” I went, “Really? That I didn’t know.” Anyway, long story short, I said, “Okay, whatever.” Not really thinking that I’d actually do it but it was very compelling and it pulled me. If I was ever going to go anywhere, it was going to be New York.

It was great. It was wonderful. I really was able to put all the pent-up energy I had around women’s issues, because that was always my main interest, into that. In both United States and Israel actually developed something called Connecting for Impact. We organized feminists’ cohort, started three years ago. The second one actually is coming to Washington this weekend.

But we did a huge study for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2018, of the status of the women’s movement of women in Israel and did a conference on International Women’s Day with 250 people. We had 50 women come from United States and 200 from Israel and it was the first time they had all gotten together across sector lines. Palestinian, Jewish, Ethiopian, Orthodox, everything you can imagine. It was very powerful and the research basically said that there’s no organized effort other than the work that the Israel Women’s Network had tried to do, but it was mainly research-oriented, and that the connectivity, there needed to be a connection; Connecting for Impact.

We created that, and we created the first feminist cohort. It was all feminist leaders of NGOs in Israel who were advancing women’s issues. Until then, we had just had a granting program where we gave out grants to organizations. The idea was to create the connectivity that we know happens when you get together. That was very powerful. That was great. Then, of course, I walked into the issue of choice we had, that had started the program, Courts Matter. Because no one was paying attention to the courts and the importance of the courts, although now we know, we did that at our peril.

We organized around that and we did a lot of work around lifting up the importance of the courts, both in districts and states and nationally in Supreme Court. I feel we lost a lot of those battles. We won the Bork one, but so what? It’s tragic to me. It just makes me crazy. But the issues I focused on were reproductive justice, the courts, and protecting the vote, and promoting the vote.

JW:  Very important.

NK:  Our sections to understand that, yes, they can be involved in electoral politics. They just can’t be supporting a candidate, but they can be organizing. We did that across the country. I felt really great. Then we did a strategic plan. I was in New York, and I said, this headquarters should be in Washington, not in New York and I put it into the strategic plan. I said, “We should close the New York office and consolidate everything in Washington.” That was in 2016, 2017.

The board said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I said, “it’s not about me.” I was thinking, “What’s my exit strategy here?” Judy, we all need one. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that I had moved to New York when I was 59, having left my entire life and career in Boston, and that at 69, I wasn’t going to move from New York to Washington, and Trump was President, and all the above.

I said, “Good timing. I’ll give a year’s notice. I’ll commute and I will pass the baton.” I feel very good about that. Very happy to still be very involved. I’m still doing women’s organizing. I organized a women’s CEOs group at the beginning of COVID, of Jewish Women CEOs, of which I’m happy to say there are a lot more now than when I started, many dozens more. When I couldn’t find two, there are now lots. Because I felt that women were having a disproportionate burden around COVID in terms of taking care of family and agency and board, all the above.

That has continued, actually. I’m now signed on as a senior advisor to the Safety Respect Equity Coalition Network. I was a founding member, three years ago, which was after the MeToo, Time’s Up stuff began. We decided that MeToo is WeToo, and the Jewish community isn’t exempt, even though they like to think they were.

JW:  Great. What does that do exactly?

NK:  It has developed a set of commitments. There are 150 agencies now that have signed on to a set of best practices in their organizations and has really done training and lifted up the voices of women in those organizations and forced them to have policies around sexual harassment and to promote safety and respect in those organizations. I’m doing this organizing of these women’s CEOs, and I’m about to do women’s COOs because there are a number. I’m doing a lot of coaching now, too, of women in the C  suite. I seem to have developed a sweet spot of number two women who are working for charismatic (narcissistic) males, of which we have a lot in the Jewish community.

JW:  I’ve heard that.

NK:  That’s been interesting and fun. I’m continuing to be my activist self and trying to continue. I seem to be organizing women everywhere I go. I’m in an adaptive leadership network. I organize women around women’s issues. I have a wonderful group. We call it, The Wonderful Women’s Group. Blu Greenberg, do you know Blu, who is the Orthodox feminist who founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance?

JW:  I’ve heard of her, but I don’t know her.

NK:  She’s in her 90’s and this is a great story. She and Heather Booth had not met and they met at the book party of Joyce Antler on Radical Feminism at NYU. Blu, right before COVID, about five or six months before COVID, offered to have a dinner at her home in Riverdale for Heather and her friends. Heather brought together her New York friends, unbelievable people. Many of them I didn’t know because they were from the first wave. I mean, they were Muriel Fox and Marilyn Webb and Gina Glantz. I was like, these are amazing people. Letty Pogrebin and Joyce Antler.

It was just unbelievable. It was one of those when incredible women get together and we just went around the table and there were seven or eight of us. When COVID started, I said, Heather laughs at me, she’s an amazing organizer, but I’m a different kind of organizer. I said, “Why don’t we all get together for a Sunday Zoom call and talk to each other?” We’ve been meeting now once a month since COVID to just talk. I mean, it’s just an amazing group of women. To talk about the issues of the day. That’s been a lot of fun. I guess, I’ll be organizing till I go to the second place. Last place I’m going to go.

JW:  You’re still in New York?

NK:  I’m still in New York. I’m still on the Upper West side. I’m still loving it. I was walking around yesterday and realizing that I really am a city girl. I’m not a suburban girl. I mean, you can take the girl out of Boston but you’ll never take Boston out of the girl. I got to New York and my daughter said, “You can drop your accent now.” I said, “Well, sorry, I’m not dropping my accent. I’m not dropping my teams, but I’ll otherwise be a New Yorker.” Now I’m a grandparent with three grandchildren, two girls, and a boy. I’m trying to make them feminists, but we’ll see.

JW:  I guess, you would say that the women’s movement affected your whole life?

NK:  I would say that the women’s movement affected my whole life, yes.

JW:  How has it affected your whole life?

NK:  I think, probably the most significant thing is that it merged with my Jewishness. You can’t stand idly by, and it gave me the tools to understand that we can’t agonize, we have to mobilize. What I like to say is, despair is not a strategy. As women, look at the history of the women’s movement. We’ve, certainly, had our ups and downs. I was screaming at the television during Mrs. America, that series, because it was like, are you kidding me? But I think about the major social change and the ability to really create change, to me has come mainly from women.

I truly believe that if women were running the world, and I’m not saying every woman because we know we have some that don’t. But for the most part, where women are in charge, in nations or in communities, change happens. As far as I’m concerned, the thread of organizing has been with me. A lot of it, again, has to do with that early experience of watching my mother be so alone. There weren’t women’s groups. She didn’t go to therapy. I mean, you didn’t do any of those things but she was really suffering. She suffered a lot.

She died at 66, way too young, but she really suffered. She held it together for 10 years to raise us. When I went off to college in ’68 she totally fell apart and had a major breakdown and really, depression. It was horrible because she had held it together because she had to raise three children. Was so interesting, fast forward, her life was very tragic in a lot of ways and she had developed health problems. But her last few years when she was in Jewish community housing for the elderly with a lot of women, she came alive.

The thing about the women’s movement was that women were able to share the pain and share the joy and we supported each other and it made it possible to really make the differences we’ve made and we’ve made a lot. We have a little setback here but I really believe if we organize, we will win. We can’t give up. I’m glad the next generation, Judy, is picking up the baton and I’m very proud. This weekend, the NCJW is giving the first Nancy K. Kaufman Enduring Leader Award to a woman in St. Louis who has been doing this work.

I feel very wonderful about the circle being complete and having handed it over, not to the next generation, but to the next, next generation. It has skipped a generation which is also wonderful. Anyway, really, every part of my life has been influenced by my feminism and by women. They’ve been my rod and my staff. It’s really important and I’m really glad that you’re all documenting this because we don’t want to lose the stories.