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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

In Memory of Jane Evans

Union for Reform Judaism
Board of Trustes
June 13, 2004

In my concluding remarks, I am going to depart from my normal custom of speaking to issues of the day, and instead use this opportunity to talk to you for a few moments about Jane Evans, an extraordinary woman who died some ten weeks ago at the age of 96. Jane, it seemed to me, deserved much more than a memorial resolution; with the exception of Rabbis Eisendrath and Schindler, she more than any other person is responsible for the shape and the character of the Union as it exists today. Sixty years ago, there was not a single Reform leader who did not know Jane Evans; the same was true 40 years ago and 20 years ago. But many of you probably never met Jane and some of you may not even know her name. This is because, inevitably, she slowed down in recent years, but also because she was allergic to any kind of self-promotion. She refused to let us trumpet her accomplishments.

And what was true in her life was true also in her death. The Babylonian Talmud tells us that Rav, the great scholar who founded the academy of Sura that lasted a thousand years, said to his associates: “Make my eulogy touching so that men may weep for me when I am dead” (Shabbat 153a). It is one of the gentler qualities of human nature to magnify the merits of the deceased. Jane would have none of this. She meticulously planned her own funeral so to avoid any false sentimentality or inflated oratory, and she gave each of the participants a specific amount of time—no more than a few minutes in each case—to speak.

So Jane would not like what I am about to do. I am going to take more time than she would have ever allotted to me. But she need not worry. I am not going to exaggerate even one iota, and this for the simple reason that there is no need to do so; the truth itself is more than sufficiently extraordinary. As Jan Katzew said in his moving eulogy, which is on our website, to be with Jane was to be in the presence of greatness

But in fact, the truth about Jane extends beyond her greatness. There are some great men and women who are not good. There are many good men and women who are not great. Jane was both great and good. Great in her accomplishments, good in her humility and utter lack of pretension, and good in her caring concern for all who sought her advice and counsel and, in fact, for all who crossed her path.

Both Jan and Al Vorspan spoke at Jane’s funeral about her extraordinary personal qualities and the range of activities in which she was engaged. Jane was a polymath—a person of great and varied learning, and she spent her 96 years engaged in tireless activity, as if she knew that only a frail fragment of the things that cry out to be done could be done in the lifetime of even the most fortunate. She was in some ways a study in contradictions—a devoted pacifist with an almost military sense of discipline and order. We could easily spend several hours simply reviewing her life’s work and still not come close to finishing the task. But today I would like to focus specifically on her contribution to this Union and to the Reform Movement.

Our Union has a three-part history. The first period was from 1873 until the 1940s; for most of this time, we were located in a few rooms in an office building in Cincinnati, Ohio. Our agenda was limited and our accomplishments were modest; the Union’s primary task in this first period was to support the Hebrew Union College, and our congregations looked to the College and the CCAR for leadership. The second period was from 1946 until 1973, corresponding to the Presidency of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath; this was the era of transition and expansion, during which the Union moved to New York, significantly expanded its programmatic offerings, developed a network of regional offices, and created the nucleus of what is now our camping system. The third period, beginning in 1973 with the Presidency of Alexander M. Schindler, marked the emergence of the Union as the pre-eminent synagogue movement on this continent and as the leader of North American Reform Judaism.

In our 131-year history, Jane served the Union for 70 years; well over half of our entire existence, and her career spanned all three of these periods. And Jane was not simply a passive observer; she was a major player in each of these three eras. Never before, and I think it is fair to say never again, will a single individual have such influence for such a prolonged period of time in shaping the growth, development, and vision of this Union.

Jane began her career in the first period of the Union’s history, in 1933; she left her position as the head of the department of decoration at St. Louis’ largest department store to join the Union staff in Cincinnati as the executive director of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. An accomplished horsewoman in those days, Jane told us that when offered the job in Cincinnati, she had a choice between going to the Union and going to the circus. She chose the Union, although some would later suggest that there was not much difference between the two. She hoped to stay only a short time while saving money for medical school, but it was not to be. Instead, Jane threw herself into what would become her life’s work, and set about radically expanding the role of sisterhoods.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Jewish women had been what we would now call social activists, and women’s groups had worked directly with immigrants and the Jewish poor in America’s urban ghettos. After World War I, however, such work was seen as inappropriate for middle class Jewish women, and it was turned over to professional social workers, who were mostly men. In the two decades after the war, Temple sisterhoods focused on more familiar domestic tasks: cooking, entertaining, serving as hostesses, and fundraising for their congregations.

For Jane Evans, however, such tasks, while worthwhile, were insufficient, and by themselves not worthy of women’s talents. Deeply committed to the advancement of women, she saw sisterhoods as the venue in which women would learn leadership skills so that they might participate in all areas of synagogue and Jewish life. A champion of social justice and Zionism and an expert in world affairs, she insisted that NFTS (North American Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, now Women of Reform Judaism) involve itself in the great issues of the day; and it did, passing resolutions and creating programs that were an example and an inspiration to our congregations and to the Union itself. Jane also understood that Jewish education and ritual observance were essential if Reform Judaism was to thrive, and she encouraged women to strengthen the Jewishness of their households. It was she who promoted the idea of sisterhood-sponsored Judaica shops in Reform Temples; she believed that sisterhood women, if properly trained, would not only sell ritual objects in their Judaica shops but would see the marketing of such objects as an opportunity to promote their use by teaching women what these objects were about.

When the second period of the Union’s history began in 1946, Jane’s career took on a new dimension. Maurice Eisendrath, the newly elected President of the Union, was intent on moving the Union to New York and expanding it dramatically. His staff in those days, however, was tiny—himself and a handful of executives. But he was wise enough to recognize the immense talent of Jane Evans, and once he had secured the approval of the Union Biennial to make the move, he placed responsibility for carrying it out in Jane’s hands. Not only did Jane oversee the move, the location of the New York property at 838 Fifth Avenue, and the construction of the building, she worked with her sisterhoods to obtain the funding for the new structure. The House of Living Judaism was the house that Jane built and that NFTS built. During the fifties and sixties, Jane continued to direct NFTS, but was also a trusted advisor to Rabbi Eisendrath in all things; while she applied her administrative talents to the challenges of rapid expansion, she also lent her counsel and her voice to the deliberations on social justice, civil rights, and war and peace that were such a prominent part of the Union’s agenda and in many ways the distinguishing characteristic of the Eisendrath era.

Jane retired from NFTS in 1976, three years after Alex Schindler assumed the presidency of the Union. In this third period of the Union’s history, Jane’s role was somewhat more limited, but her influence was still considerable, even though she now worked mostly behind the scenes. She still came into the office almost every day. She was responsible for the exhibits at 838 and then at 633; she advised Alex and then me on a range of issues, and worked closely with our administrative staff; she had special expertise in the human resources realm, and was the first person to whom we all turned when questions or problems arose related to personnel matters; she worked with Monika Hamburger on the move from 838 to 633; she was the head of our collective bargaining team with the labor union, and handled this responsibility faithfully for a quarter center after her retirement from NFTS.

In many ways, Jane was—and I think she would forgive me for using this phrase—the ultimate “company man.” She was utterly devoted to this Union—in many ways the very backbone of this Union—but always without compromising her principles or her humanity. Jane was a committed pacifist in a world where very, very few Jews are pacifists. When I was director of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) and my office was next to Jane’s, I frequently discussed our support for Israeli military action; when I was director of the Commission on Social Action, I talked with Jane about UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now Union for Reform Judaism) support for American intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. Jane could not be completely comfortable with either of these positions, but neither would she publicly oppose them; instead, holding tight to her convictions, she expressed her views quietly, with tact and dignity, and accepted that hers was not the majority view. Also, although she was the head of our bargaining team and the official voice of management, she was most often the person to whom non-management personnel would go when they had a problem, when they needed help, or when they just wanted someone to talk to. Because they knew that this management spokeswoman would always have time for them and would never accept that an employee of the Reform Movement was being treated unfairly.

Every now and again, someone would see this little old lady walking the corridors of the Union, and would make the mistake of thinking that we were keeping her around as an act of charity. But if there was any charity at work here, it was in the other direction. It was she, who even in her nineties was hardly lacking for activities in her life, who was doing us the favor. Our Union is a maelstrom of activity, dynamic and a bit chaotic, with more than its share of tensions and egos; and amidst the turmoil, it was Jane who was our anchor, our historical memory, our voice of sanity, reassurance, and hope.

Like so many of you who knew her, I am sorry now that I did not spend more time with her when she was here; that I did not learn more about her and the work that she did; that I did not sit with her even a few more hours a year to hear her talk about the people and events that shaped our history.

Still, we have much to be thankful for. She lived 96 years. In fact, she lived 1,000 years if achievements can measure the length of life.

Our rabbis tell us that there are two kinds of tears that are shed upon the passing of an individual. One is demaot shel ashan, tears that disappear like smoke, and the other is demaot shel perot, tears that enrich the earth and bear fruit (Shabbat 51b). Our tears, I think, will be demaot shel perot—enriching tears, because her words, her work, and her character will go on to brighten the pathways and bless the lives of this Union, this Movement, and all peoples.

Zecher tsadik l’ivracha—May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.


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