Who Knew? The History of Women at Philly Federation


The announcement that Naomi Adler will become the first female CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia caught the attention of a few longtime community leaders who thought another woman had served in the top post.

So will she be the first woman to lead the Federation? The answer: Yes and no.

She will indeed be the first female CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the organization that is recognized as the community’s centralized fundraising and grant-making body.

However, another woman, Frances Harrison, was the top professional of a precursor organization called the Federation of Jewish Charities in the 1950s. At that time, the community was organized around two complementary agencies — the Federation of Jewish Charities and the Allied Jewish Appeal. The latter, which was headed by another individual, Ephraim Gomberg, did the bulk of the community’s fundraising while the Federation of Jewish Charities was responsible for policy planning and allocating resources to local agencies.

The two groups later merged into the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia, and later still it became known by its current name, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.  

Harrison’s executive director appointment in late 1949 made national news. JTA said it marked “the highest professional position ever attained by a woman in American Jewish communal activity.”

 Harrison, a nationally known social work professional whose tenure lasted from 1950 to 1955, had in fact already been serving as executive director of the Federation of Jewish Charities.

But when her boss at the time, Dr. Kurt Peiser, whose title was executive vice president, left to become director of development at the University of Pennsylvania, her position was elevated to become the top professional.

Interestingly, the board of the agency passed a resolution officially abolishing the executive vice president position rather than giving her that title. In addition, her predecessor, Peiser, and her successor, Don Hurwitz, ran both the Federation of Jewish Charities and the Allied Jewish Appeal. 


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