The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time

Debby Flancbaum

Publisher: Urim Publications

The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time is a collection of absorbing essays about contemporary Jewish women – some known throughout the world, others known only in their own communities – who engage in extraordinary acts of kindness.

Although the women featured in this book come from all walks of Jewish life – religious, secular and everything in between – they are all linked together by a common thread: each of them contributes something meaningful to the world to make it a better place. Moreover, their commitment to Judaism provides them with the motivation to do the wonderful things that they do.

Women such as Ruth Gruber, who helped hundreds of Jewish refugees to escape from war-torn Europe, or Wendy Kay, who invites a constant stream of teenagers to her home for Shabbat, can inspire young Jewish women to reach greater heights. The Jewish Woman Next Door provides contemporary role models to admire and to emulate.

The Jewish Woman Next Door was written by a Jewish woman, a wife and mother, who wanted to show the beauty and courage that she saw all around her. She did not need to go far to find Jewish women engaged in selfless acts of kindness; very often, all she had to do was to look right next door. The author, Debby Flancbaum, brings modern Jewish history to a more personal level in The Jewish Woman Next Door.

For example, the story of Alice Sardell, who was instrumental in the rescue of Syrian Jews during the 1980s, will share information about important events that many have not heard about before.

About the Author:
Debby Flancbaum’s writings have been featured in Olam Magazine, Modern Bride, the Jewish Press, the Jewish Week and the Forward. She has an MA degree in communication disorders and worked for many years as a speech therapist providing services to developmentally disabled adults. Together with her husband, Louis Flancbaum, MD, Debby is the co-author of The Doctor’s Guide to Weight Loss Surgery: How to Make the Decision that Could Save Your Life (Bantam). She has been an active volunteer for her Jewish community school and synagogue throughout her adult life. The mother of two daughters and the stepmother of three, Debby resides with her husband in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Women profiled in The Jewish Woman Next Door:

-Marla Berkowitz
-Judith Darsky
-Naomi Eisenberger
-Zella Goldfinger
-Claire Ginsburg Goldstein
-Barbara Ribacove Gordon
-Ruth Gruber
-Myriam Gummerman
-Judith Helfand
-Jenny Kaplan, zâ€l
-Wendy Kay
-Rena Halpern Kieval
-Maureen Kushner
-Sarah Labkowski
-Rachel Bess Levine
-Bessie Fishman Newell, zâ€l
-Letty Cotton Pogrebin
-Joan Posnick
-Leatrice Rabinsky
-Paula Rackoff
-Chava Rose
-Sylvia Ruskin
-Barbara Sarah
-Alice Sardell
-Ronnie Shonzeit
-Eileen Sklaroff
-Stanlee Stahl
-Stephanie Stein
-Eve Stern
-Linda Storfer
-Maxine Uttal
-Toni Wortman

Praise for The Jewish Woman Next Door:

Debby Flancbaum, whose book “The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time” (Urim Publications, 2007) will be out in time for Passover, can still picture the pivotal moment when the idea for her project took hold. It was 1999, and Flancbaum was becoming angrier and angrier as she observed her daughter, then 15, laughing at an episode of “The Nanny” on television. (The title character was portrayed as a gold-digging Jewish employee of a widowed WASP millionaire clearly smitten by her Yiddishisms.) “I thought, ‘What message is she getting from this?’” recalled Flancbaum, a Teaneck resident who lived in Albany at the time. “I had never written before in my life, but just decided to write about real Jewish women. I decided to start with my own grandmother because it was something I knew about.” Flancbaum submitted her essay to Olam Magazine, a supplement to The New York Times, which, to her surprise and delight, published it.

“I was flying high, and that inspired me to continue with the project,” she said of the volume of essays about contemporary Jewish women engaged in extraordinary acts of kindness. Some of the 32 women featured will be familiar to the average reader; others are obscure, their impact restricted to their own communities.

Flancbaum knew she wanted to create a book that was authentically Jewish, as opposed to a book about women who do good deeds who just happen to be Jewish. That’s when she got the idea of organizing it around the theme of mitzvot.

She selected 10 mitzvot, which introduce each of the book’s 10 chapters, and then searched for women who were fulfilling them. Also, nervous about flying, without much experience traveling solo, and with a limited budget, Flancbaum chose to interview people from cities she could easily reach.

She quickly was swamped with potential subjects. “The more I did, the more I wanted to do,” she said. “One woman would lead me to another.” Not only was Flancbaum blown away by their stories, she was touched by their warmth and generosity. “People were incredibly gracious to me. They’d offer to have me sleep at their house, feed me, pick me up, and drive me back to the airport.” At a hotel in Nashville, she was greeted by a whole goody bag of food; in Pittsburgh, a Lubavitch woman treated her to lunch at a kosher deli without knowing if the book would ever be published. “It made me want to move forward. Each time I would hear a story, I felt such a responsibility to pass it along.”

Among the local women whose tales Flancbaum relates is Linda Storfer of Teaneck. Watching television one night, Storfer caught a show about Romanian orphanages. She told Flancbaum that afterward, she turned to her husband and said, “We’ve got to go get one of those children.” Undaunted by the bureaucratic maze, the couple eventually adopted a little boy, David, who has graduated from the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford and now attends Teaneck High School. Storfer, said Flancbaum, feels grateful not only to have saved one child, but also to “have had the privilege of raising him as a Jew.”

Another, Jenny Kaplan, has been profiled posthumously, after Flancbaum was overwhelmed by what she learned of the young woman’s persistence in raising funds to build Young Israel of Teaneck as she fought a losing battle against Hodgkin’s disease.

Many of her interview subjects, she noted, had overcome terrible adversity. “They have such incredible strength,” she observed. Rabbi Rena Kieval, whom Flancbaum has known for years, is emblematic. The mother of a multiply-handicapped child who died suddenly at the age of 10, Kieval at first retreated into her grief. But she emerged stronger and transformed, as Flancbaum chronicled.

Kieval turned her devastating loss into a project, Yad Yonaton (meaning hand of Jonathan), named for her son. She organizes volunteers to provide material and emotional support to the bereaved and those battling illness in her synagogue community. They cook, set up the shiva house, remain in the house during a funeral, sit with a body overnight or prepare a body for burial — in short, take care of all the tasks associated with mourning. “She just took what was the most nightmarish experience a person could have and changed it into something that honored her son’s life and memory. Most people would want to put their head in an oven,” said Flancbaum.

Flancbaum was also gratified to discover that each woman, regardless of her level of religious observance, consciously tied her endeavor to a Jewish source. In deliberately selecting women from diverse religious backgrounds, Flancbaum intended to highlight the fact that observance is not a defining characteristic when it comes to acts of chesed and sense of Jewish connection. “I wanted to dispel myths and stereotypes,” she explained.
-Jane Calem Rosen
The Jewish Standard

Urim Publications (Israel) excels in producing wonderful intellectual content to the reading world and The Jewish Woman Next Door is another example of such excellence.

The introduction to Debby Flancbaum’s book underscores a terrible injustice in mainstream media: the subtle anti-Semitism of portraying Jewish women in vulgar, unflattering manner and then cashing in on the canard. Flancbaum explains that she wants to set the reality record straight “… and positively showcase Jewish women as they are, not as they appear in the media.†The author succeeds with a compelling cross-section of heroics by Jewish women from various streams of Jewish life.

Each chapter in this 135-page hardcover describes how specific Jewish females saved one person or many people. Holocaust refugees or Syrian Jews trapped behind governmental lies and machinations found safe haven in the USA due to specific Jewish women who simply decided to save them and figured out how to do so.

One woman taught the IDF how to help bereaved fiancées deal with the pain of losing a soldier to whom they’d been engaged to marry. Other Jewish women around the globe, represented in this book, made additionally impressive contributions to society. Bereaved parents heal the pain of loneliness of similarly affected adults by sponsoring Pregnancy Loss workshops and social outings in which participants understand each other though they are strangers at first meeting.

Other women teach the public how to psychologically help someone going through extensive hospitalization and/or treatments, even how to help recovering Jewish addicts. A Jewish teen takes the devastating consequences of the tragic administration of DES and becomes an activist helping DES cancer victims with her award-winning film (A Healthy Baby Girl). Another heroine translates the Torah portions into universally- understood Sign Language for hearing impaired Jews.

There are other stories in The Jewish Woman Next Door and each one deserves repeated readings. The details of how these women persevered until they succeeded are lessons for the ages.

Famed journalist Ruth Gruber posed as a WW II general, with White House insistence and assistance for the sake of her safety, during the perilous mission she initiated to save Holocaust survivors. Jewish women, from Geneva to Westchester and elsewhere, involve their youngsters and neighbors when working with the organization, Tzahal Shalom so that disfigured IDF soldiers can lose their inhibitions and rejoin the world with active social lives and productive careers.

Someone else uses her wits and braves relevant dangers to create a “Peace Through Humor†project that brings Druze, Jewish and Muslim children together in socially enhancing activities. Jewish women with medical skills help whomever they can, regardless of race, religion or other irrelevant factors.

This book helps combat the all-too-frequent insulting portrayals of Jewish women in popular culture. The Jewish Woman Next Door is a book that deserves to be in your home, synagogue and community library.
-Yocheved Golani
The Jewish Press

Debbie Flancbaum also does much to break down hackneyed images as she positively showcases Jewish women living their lives. In “The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time†(Urim), she profiles contemporary Jewish women of commitment and passion, involved in extraordinary acts of lovingkindness. Some are secular while others are religious; some are well-known like Ruth Gruber, but most are not. They are women who work hard, often without much recognition or reward, pursuing ways of justice and peace, study and expansive good deeds, in a spirit of generosity and openness. The author writes, “Through the work that they do, they are involved in tikkun olam (repair of the world). These women are true Jewish-American princesses.â€
-Sandee Brawarsky
Jewish Week

The Jewish Woman Next Door is a collection of 30 inspiring essays about contemporary Jewish women—some celebrated figures and others known only in their communities—who engage in acts of extraordinary kindness. asked the author why and how she sought out Jewish women who have tried to make the world a better place. Is there a common theme among this group of compassionate women—who come from all walks of life and varied backgrounds?

Debby Flancbaum: I began this project with an open mind and a genuine sense of curiosity about what made each of these women tick. After all, it is a huge leap for most people from recognizing an injustice to actually trying to right an injustice. I didn’t begin with a theory about what inspired these women to do what they do. But rather, I had a huge number of questions. It didn’t take long for me to realize that most, if not all of these remarkable women, did share something in common: Each was motivated by something that emanated from a Jewish source.

SA: Can you give us some examples?

DF: Yes. Some of the women felt a sense of obligation to follow God’s commandments. For others, they were emulating an example set by a Bubbie or a Zaydie, while for other women they engaged in acts of kindness because of something they learned in Hebrew School. I remember one woman telling me that when she was a young girl she attended services at her Reform synagogue with her grandfather. When she became tired, she would put her head on his lap and look up at the stained glass windows. One Friday night, she noticed the phrase “Justice, Justice Shall Thou Pursue†woven into the colorful glass. She explained to me that reading those words changed the course of her life.

SA: What got you interested in writing The Jewish Woman Next Door? Was your approach from a feminist, Jewish, or tikkun olam point of view?

DF: The book began in a very personal way. My daughter, Jessica, was watching The Nanny on television. I didn’t like the images of Jewish women that my daughter was seeing. I felt that these images would eventually make her see herself through a distorted lens. So, I decided to write this book, to provide young Jewish women with role models whom they could admire and emulate. Of course my feminist sensibilities played a role in my desire to have my daughter see herself in a positive light and not as the shrill caricature portrayed on the TV show.

SA: What about the social action angle?

DF: What interests me most about tikkun olam is what makes people actually become involved. There is one women featured in my book who was watching a television program about the horrible living conditions in Romanian orphanages. Most of us watch such a program, feel sad, maybe even write out a check, and then roll over and go to sleep. However, this woman, Linda Storfer, finished watching the show and decided she was going to go to Romania and rescue an orphan. And over the next months, she arranged to leave her husband and two small children behind to bring home David—her beloved youngest son. I was and am still interested in what ignites a fire like that in someone’s heart.

SA: These are specifically “Jewish†women next door. Why?

DF: In terms of Judaism. I love Jewish people, Jewish food, Jewish music, Jewish art. So, interviewing these women—especially ones so involved in tikkun olam—fascinated me. And part way through the writing of this book I realized that the biggest act of tikkun olam I had ever done was bringing these women’s stories together, into the light.

Disillusioned by the media’s caricatures of Jewish women as neurotic, overbearing and materialistic, Debby Flancbaum, 50, set out to create a book that would showcase Jewish women as they really are, highlighting the work they do in tikkun olam, repairing the world through acts of lovingkindness. The result is “The Jewish Woman Next Door†(Urim Publications 2007) wherein Flancbaum provides brief anecdotes gleaned from her meetings with 30 women, any one of whom could well be the woman next door to you or me.

“I interviewed many women and they were all tremendous,†says Flancbaum, a retired speech therapist who lives in Teaneck, NJ and is a full-time nanny to her three-year-old granddaughter. “The stories I included were those that took my breath away, or made me laugh or cry.â€

The women included in this collection of stories range in age from 20-something to 90-something. Some are heroic, while others seem relatively ordinary. There is Barbara Ribacove Gordon, a freelance writer who traveled to Ethiopia in 1981 to find out the truth about the Ethiopian Jews and their persecution. A decade later she founded the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and was involved in their rescue.

Wendy Kay always opens her home to Jewish kids and teenagers on Shabbat, while Myriam Gummerman mobilized financial assistance for a young Israeli girl with a rare medical condition.

In the two-and-a-half year process of meeting and interviewing these women, Flancbaum traveled extensively and found herself emotionally and physically exhausted. “The women were very connected to me as wives and mothers, and our time together was very personal. Rarely did one or both of us not finish up crying,†she says.

“For me, what was fascinating was the leap between seeing the injustice and acting on it,†Flancbaum reflects. “What lights the fire in somebody? What I learned from doing the book is that most of the women were inspired to react to a situation because of something Judaism taught them. They went back to things they learned from parents, grandparents, Hebrew school — typically from something Jewish. I found it fascinating that even for the most non-religious women, something resonated with them from their Jewish past.â€

The story that resonated most with Flancbaum was that of her friend Rena Halpern Kieval, who has a home in Pittsfield.

“She’s a personal friend of mine, and her story is about what she did in response to the death of her 10 year old son, Jonathan,†Flancbaum says.

Kieval initiated an organization in her synagogue called Yad Yonatan, to fulfill the needs of synagogue members in times of loss. “I watched this unfold in a very personal way, as Kieval helped herself by helping other people. It sounds corny, but it’s really true.â€

The stories are interesting, touching and frequently sad. Read them and you feel gooseflesh on your skin as you learn of the courage, fortitude and conviction of a group of women who are mothers, wives and sometimes grandmothers.

“Many wash dishes, pay bills and put out the garbage,†Flancbaum reminds us in her introduction. But despite juggling chores, work, children, husbands and friends, many of these women are different because they reach out to other individuals despite their busy lives, and make a difference through their beliefs and actions.

Flancbaum tried to begin a sequel to The Jewish Woman Next Door, about Jewish men, but found herself unable to complete it. “Jewish men approach charitable work in a different way — more money raising, less hands on,†she says. “The men wanted to impress me, and they were great men, but I didn’t connect with them in the same kind of way.â€

The best thing about her research for the men’s book was “I didn’t pay for any dinners n they always picked up the check!†Flancbaum says with a laugh. “I like men — but I just had this interest in showcasing Jewish women, and that’s what it was all about.â€
-Lauren Kramer
Western MA Jewish Ledger

Book extols The Jewish Woman Next Door

“On television and in movies, Jewish women are often portrayed as neurotic, overbearing and materialistic caricatures,†writes Debby Flancbaum in her introduction to The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time. “Over time, these images are incorporated into our collective soul, and we begin to see ourselves through a distorted lens.â€

To bring the lens into sharper focus, the New Jersey-based author, whose articles have appeared in Olam magazine, Modern Bride and the Forward, spent two-and-a-half years interviewing the “Jewish woman next door,†literally.

The result is a compilation of 30 absorbing essays aimed to debunk unflattering myths about Jewish women. “To the work they do, these women are true American princesses,†says Flancbaum. One such “princess†is Cleveland’s remarkable “woman next door,†Dr. Leatrice Rabinsky (See sidebar [below]).

Since Flancbaum was searching for exceptional women best known in their home communities, she e-mailed rabbis from cities with large Jewish populations, asking for recommendations.

“If the rabbis did not know someone, they would forward my e-mail to someone who did,†explains Flancbaum in a CJN phone interview. She was soon swamped with potential candidates and then had to laboriously pare down the list. Her criterion was women whose various acts of mitzvot demonstrated the “profound connection between social action and Judaism.â€

With her perspective list of candidates in hand, Flancbaum then traveled across America to meet each woman.

“Everyone was so gracious,†enthuses the author. “Here were total strangers I had just met over the phone, yet these women picked me up at the airport, invited me into their homes for dinner, or took me to wonderful kosher restaurants. I literally fell in love with each one.â€

While listening to each woman’s story, Flancbaum says it was rare that one or both of them didn’t end up crying. “The stories were so emotional and heartfelt. Yet these women were extremely modest about the tremendous things they had done. They only wanted to talk about their particular cause, not themselves.â€

The women’s stories are strategically placed within the book’s 10 chapters, each chapter representing a different mitzvah. These chapters range from “Pidyon Sh’vuyim/ Redeeming Captives†to “Rodef Shalom/The Pursuit of Peace.â€

“I interviewed women of all ages, from every walk of life, and from every stream of Judaism,†says Flancbaum. “Their inspiration came from somewhere deep in their Jewish past. It might have been a Hebrew school lesson, a prayer taught to them by a grandmother, a friend’s advice, or even an inscription on a synagogue’s stained glass window.â€

Included in the cross-section of women represented in the book is an essay about Sarah Labkowski, mother of 12, who is the founder of Machon Chana, a thriving woman’s yeshiva in Crown Heights.

We also read about Maxine Uttal’s struggle with drug addiction and the help she received from Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others (JACS). Uttal’s experience was so profound, she became JACS’s executive director.

Two of the best-known “Women Next Door†are award-winning journalist Ruth Gruber and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who is recognized for her participation in dialogue groups composed of American Jewish and American Palestinian women. Gruber, 90, recently sent Flancbaum a fan letter about her book.

“The fact that Ruth, who is working on a movie, had the time to write something complimentary about my book meant more to me than any other praise I have received,†says Flancbaum.

Everything about the experience of meeting her subjects was remarkable, enthuses the author. “When I was interviewing each woman, I felt humbled by her experience. Then I realized my mitzvah was in bringing these women’s stories to light.â€

This mitzvah also was a costly one. “It was rare that I left an interview without writing a check†for their projects, she laughs. “But that was also part of the blessed journey.â€
-Arlene Fine
Cleveland Jewish News

Meet Dr. Leatrice Rabinsky, ‘Woman Next Door’ to many

“The theme of the Holocaust has been central to my life ever since I was a little girl,†explains Dr. Leatrice Rabinsky.

She is profiled in chapter “Kavod Hamayt, Nichum Avaylim/Honoring the Dead and Comforting the Bereaved†of Debby Flancbaum’s new book The Jewish Woman Next Door.

Rabinsky’s friendship with young Holocaust survivors in 1947 motivated her “overwhelming desire to keep alive the memory of those who were murdered, to sustain the emotional lives of those who survived, and to spread the message of tolerance.â€

To do accomplish this, Rabinsky, a pioneer in Holocaust education, conducted Journeys of Conscience trips with student groups for many years.

“What the students needed to really understand the magnitude of the Holocaust was a journey to see what they were studying,†said Rabinsky. In 1975 the Cleveland Heights High School English teacher organized the first of a long series of Journey of Conscience trips, taking students to concentration camps in Poland and then on to Israel.

“Thirty years ago the idea of visiting the concentration camps was not well accepted, and many thought I was crazy,†says Rabinsky. But thanks to the generosity of the Jewish Community Federation’s Ratner, Miller Shafran Foundation, the first group of students traveled to Poland.

Upon her retirement from Heights High, Rabinsky wrote in the school newspaper, “There is life beyond the walls of the school. I don’t just teach a subject; I teach human beings.â€

Being chosen as a candidate for this book was a great honor, Rabinsky told the CJN. “My goal has been to lay the groundwork so that Holocaust education will continue for future generations.â€
-Arlene Fine
Cleveland Jewish News

What do 32 women who live in different areas, come from diverse backgrounds, and use their own unique talents have in common? They are all making the world a better place. While “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) has become a catch phrase for social activism and deeds of loving-kindness, the enthusiastic do-gooder is often at a loss about where to begin, overwhelmed by the problems and issues in society.

Ms. Flancbaum’s essays demonstrate that the stereotypical Jewish woman is not the whining, materialistic, overly aggressive one portrayed by the media, but a true woman of valor, using her Jewish heritage and her special gifts to help others. Each of the book’s ten parts highlights a specific mitzvah such as redeeming captives, righteousness, welcoming guests, visiting the sick and love of the land (Zionism). From women who worked zealously on behalf of Syrian Jews, Holocaust refugees and Ethiopian Jews, to women who started as volunteers and now lead major charitable organizations, to women who provide a welcome haven and delicious Shabbat meals to strangers, these stories provide concrete examples of how to make a difference. An account of the author’s grandmother and daughter is particularly touching, as is one about a young woman who worked tirelessly for her synagogue while battling cancer.

This book is highly recommended for all libraries and would make an excellent bat mitzvah present.
-Kathe Pinchuck
AJL Newsletter

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