June 30 wasn’t a triumphal, upbeat sort of day to retire on. After 33 years at the National Council of Jewish Women, most as director of Washington operations, Sammie Moshenberg’s final day began with the Supreme Court’s decision to side with Hobby Lobby in its opposition to providing birth control in its company health plan. The decision was a devastating loss for a progressive Jewish women’s organization that promotes reproductive rights.
Then came the news from Israel that three missing teenagers had been discovered murdered in the West Bank, sending the Jewish world into mourning.
The Supreme Court decision “will have far-reaching consequences,” Moshenberg said in a telephone interview July 3. “The events in the Middle East are extremely troubling and tragic.”
After 33 years as lobbyist, grassroots organizer and public face for NCJW, she said Washington has changed less than one might think. Her successor, Jody Rabhan, finds a similar set of issues to those Moshenberg encountered when she first came to Washington.
“Since the 1980s they’ve appeared in different guises – funding for human needs, women’s rights, church-state separation,” Moshenberg said. “All those issues persist.”
As Washington director, Moshenberg understood the two sides of NCJW’s work, said CEO Nancy Kaufman.
“Sammie appreciated both the importance of the grass roots and having a seat at the table in Washington,” she said. “She knew where we should be and around which tables we should be sitting.”
One such “table” is the issue of judicial nominations. NCJW’s BenchMark campaign, which Moshenberg will continue to consult on, educates the public about the nomination process and works for the approval of progressive nominees.
A Baltimore native, Moshenberg taught for several years in inner-city Baltimore schools and worked as a writer before NCJW hired her for a communications job in its New York office in 1981. Two years later she moved to Washington.
“She has been a real partner with me,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) who spoke in the House on June 9 in praise of Moshenberg.
A member of NCJW herself, Schakowsky said that she has worked with Moshenberg on reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, the minimum wage and economic justice.
“Her understanding of the legislative process and her mobilizing outside groups to get something done has been essential,” she said.
“Sammie is iconic in a way,” said Lori Weinstein, executive director of Jewish Women International, which collaborates with NCJW. “She’s been such a leader.”
Sometimes, to lead you have to sit down and be counted. That’s what Moshenberg demonstrated one day last fall on Constitution Avenue with the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop.
“She came to me and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’m going to get arrested,’ ” Kaufman said.
Moshenberg joined 200 other women on Sept. 12 to protest congressional inaction on immigration reform. Linking arms and singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” they sat down in an intersection, stopping traffic until police removed them. Moshenberg was one of 100 protesters who were arrested.
Asked about the police record she must have accumulated during three decades in Washington, Moshenberg said she was only arrested one other time. That was in the 1990s at an anti-apartheid rally at the South African embassy. “It’s not our usual M.O.,” she admitted. Both arrests were expunged from her record. “But there were hundreds of demonstrations along the way,” she added.
If the issues are largely the same, technology has radically changed how the organization reaches its membership and motivates it to action, even if that act is an email or the click of a mouse. “Today, because it’s easier, the ability to generate numbers quickly is very important,” she said.
Washington partisanship is nothing new, she said. “But now it’s more difficult to find someone to work across the aisle.” Washington gridlock is helped along by big money, brought about by Supreme Court decisions. “Unfettered campaign contributions have an impact on every issue.”
To fill Moshenberg’s position, NCJW promoted from within. Rabhan has been Washington office deputy director since 2013. She first came to NCJW as a graduate fellow and then worked as a lobbyist for the group for six years.
She left the organization to raise her family and returned, initially, as a consultant.
“I’m delighted we can promote someone from within,” Kaufman said. “It’s a dream you have as an organization. Jody is well connected, politically plugged in. She has an appreciation for the grass roots and is very organized.”
Rabhan said she’ll continue working on NCJW’s core issues, including anti-sex trafficking legislation and gender equality in Israel.
“We call ourselves a faith-based progressive women’s organization,” she said. “We are progressive women grounding our work in our faith.”