NCJW CEO Sheila Katz Talks ‘Barbie,’ Abortion and Harvard

Sheila Katz (left) and Rabbi Dana Saroken at Beth El Congregation’s Wit, Wine, & Wisdom fundraiser (David Stuck)

Sheila Katz began her conversation with Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Dana Saroken at the congregation’s annual Wit, Wine, & Wisdom fundraiser with an anecdote about the hit movie “Barbie.” On Aug. 25, 2023, the rabbi and the National Council of Jewish Women CEO had both just left the premiere of “Golda,” the Helen Mirren film about Israel’s first female prime minister. Over drinks, they discussed the movie they had just seen, the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon and the vision “Barbie” had for female leadership — which may have been informed by the naive experiences of Barbies who had never ventured out of Barbieland, but still stood out with its all-female Barbie supreme court and Barbie electoral branch.

Fittingly, Katz arrived at Wit, Wine, & Wisdom dressed in Barbie pink, which she described as her secret weapon as a woman in a leadership position.

“I started wearing bright colors when I was going to be in rooms full of all men,” she said. “It was annoying at first that people would comment on what I was wearing, because men don’t get watched in that way. But how you dress defines how you want to be perceived as a leader. … It became a bit of a power move.”

A staunch advocate for reproductive rights, equal pay and other gender-equity related causes, Katz has been named as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post and one of the top 10 religious influencers in the world by Religion News Service. She also spearheaded efforts for the United Nations to acknowledge sexual violence committed on Oct. 7 during the “Hear Our Voices” U.N. special session.

She is the latest to speak at Beth El’s Wit, Wine, & Wisdom event, which serves as a fundraiser to keep synagogue programming free and accessible for members of the local community. Past speakers have included CNN anchor Dana Bash, Obama administration speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, who was selected by the Forward as one of the 32 most inspiring rabbis in the country.

Most of the funds raised through the event benefit The Soul Center, Beth El’s offshoot focusing on Jewish-themed mental health and mindfulness programs. This year marks its eighth year of operation. The 2024 fundraiser quickly sold out, with over 400 guests attending.

“The hope is that when you bring a group of great people together who care deeply … that it’s a way of not only coming together and finding strength, but looking forward to the chapters ahead,” Saroken said about Wit, Wine, & Wisdom. “We need that spark of hope, and we need that sense of belonging.”

The Soul Center’s services are especially relevant right now, as the past few years have been a difficult time for Jewish women. In addition to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, rolling back the right to abortion. As one of the creators of NCJW’s Jews for Abortion Access and Rabbis for Repro movements, Katz was heavily affected by this decision, describing it as “devastating.”

“[NCJW] has been a part of every single major civil rights legislation,” she said. “We were advocating for voting rights before women had the right to vote. We have to look back on that and celebrate that, and then we’re going to have to talk about how much further we have to go on reproductive rights. We’ve taken a wrong turn and gone backwards.”

Katz also discussed the current situation for Jewish students on college campuses — who have reported increasing incidents of antisemitism following Oct. 7 — and the congressional testimonies of the university presidents at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania. As a former educator who also once worked with Hillel International, Katz believes that, while the backlash to the presidents’ reluctance to condemn antisemitism on campus was warranted, the fact that they were all women played a significant role in the harassment they received and in two of the university presidents resigning.

“What [former Harvard President Claudine Gay] said is almost unforgivable,” Katz said. “And there were also people looking to take her down for being the first Black woman to hold that position. While I don’t know what that’s like … those are things we have to hold to be true at the same time.”

Saroken ended the night by inviting Katz to offer a blessing over the wine, a tradition at Wit, Wine, & Wisdom events. As Katz raised her glass to the packed ballroom, she said, “May we each proceed with compassion, curiosity and love, and when the arc of the mortal universe feels like it’s taking too long to bend towards justice, may we have the resilience and community to keep fighting together.”


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