During this Women’s History Month, JFS honors the woman who inspired us through the challenges of the last year: Zipporah Cohen, the President of JFS from 1904 to 1938.
A Gifted Leader
Zipporah Cohen was the daughter of Rabbi Michelbacher, Congregation Beth Ahabah’s first Rabbi and the inspiration for the all-female founders of the Ladies Hebrew Association, which is now JFS. Zipporah became a powerful figure in Richmond’s philanthropic community in her own right and shepherded JFS through the crises of the early 20th century: epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, flu; the Great Depression; the first World War.
Zipporah was a gifted leader and orator, and examples of her speeches and letters survive thanks to the Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives. She could be warm and inspirational one moment, then firm and demanding the next. After fourteen years, Zipporah tried in vain to recruit her replacement. “It was my earnest desire that one of you would become my successor, but my desire did not become a reality,” she quipped. But, like any steadfast leader, she refused to abandon her neighbors in need.
Guidance from the Past
In 1918, JFS’ volunteer leaders canceled a quarterly meeting to avoid spreading the disease during the flu pandemic. “I need not bring before you the meaning of responsibility,” wrote Zipporah in her President’s Report that year. Richmond’s needs were dire, and she was determined JFS would rise to meet them.
So, in the first days of the covid-19 pandemic, we looked to Zipporah Cohen for guidance. She lived through the last pandemic and made sure JFS served the community no matter the obstacles. Through it all, she insisted “that no crisis has come upon us of which this organization has not been able to take care of.”
Hope for the Future
“We know no matter what may come to us or how severe the test, we will be able to meet these demands, for in the hearts of our people dwell love and charity.”
Zipporah once closed a speech on JFS’ history with a declaration of hope and a promise for the future: “We know no matter what may come to us or how severe the test, we will be able to meet these demands, for in the hearts of our people dwell love and charity.” We are humbled by all the remarkable women who have been JFS people since 1849: after all, there would be no JFS without them!
Special thanks to Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives for sharing their collection and to Peter Opper, without whose book about JFS’ history we would not be so well-connected to our past.