By Dr. Carol Bub Fromer
Lion of Judah
It was 1970, in Miami, when Norma Kipnis-Wilson z”l envisioned a path for elevating women’s significant leadership in the field of collective philanthropy. She strongly believed in creating an avenue and opportunity for women “to make significant financial and personal commitments to effectuate positive change.”
In a groundbreaking effort, she and her close friend Toby Friedland z”l, along with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, succeeded in launching a $1 million woman’s campaign. A Lion of Judah would become the symbol, as Norma said, of “the strength of Judaism and the Jewish people.” The gold Lion pin was created as a piece of jewelry that is proudly worn by each member and recognized worldwide.
Today, the Lion of Judah community has grown to nearly 18,000 women from 146 Federations around the globe. Every two years, many of those Lions gather at an International Lion of Judah conference in the United States. It was at the most recent conference, in December 2022, that I heard whispers of a new program that was about to be launched by the Jewish Federations of North America called the Lion Behind the Pin. The concept was intriguing to me.
The idea of the program was born through an all-too-familiar story, when a Jewish woman in Memphis stumbled across a gold Lion pin in an estate sale at a local jeweler. The jeweler knew nothing about it, except that it was brought to him by family members of a deceased relative. The Jewish woman, herself a Lion of Judah, suspected there was more to the story and notified the local Federation, which retrieved the pin and was able to identify its original owner. It turned out that the pin belonged to one of the founding members of the Lion of Judah program in Memphis.
Shelley Robbins and Debbie Lazarov, two Lions in Memphis were especially touched and moved by this event. “Maybe our families don’t understand why we’re wearing it,” said Marlene Gerson, another Lion member. So, they set out to create an initiative, as Shelley said, to answer the compelling question “How do we tell the next generation what the value is in the person wearing the pin.”
The gold Lion is certainly beautiful and impressive. It is neither delicate nor nuanced. It is, for sure, a “statement piece,” as it was intended to be. However, the Lion Behind the Pin program aims to shift the attention from the pin, to the woman wearing it. Each Lion receives a special kit, which includes a velvet-lined case for the Lion pin, along with a letter, to be written by the owner, of what the Lion means to them. There is also an option to bequeath the pin to someone special, as well as information on endowing the pin for a future recipient. What a wonderful way to create a legacy, to impart meaning to future generations. It was not long before I came across an example of that very concept.
While preparing for our May 18 Lion luncheon, where we launched the Lion Behind the Pin program, I came across an article called “Exploring My Identity with My Bubbe’s Lion of Judah Pin.” The author writes, “My Bubbe’s sense of purpose and self was tied to her connection with her local Jewish Federation, so she was quick to become a Lion of Judah. Because (she) didn’t work a paying job, her name was never on a paycheck and she never made co-worker friends. Instead she found an intellectual community with shared values and made a name for herself in a way that she was passionate about…. Now, glancing at my late Bubbe’s Lion of Judah pin reminds me of this strong, feminist leader who did her part to contribute to her community.… My Bubbe taught me not only to wear the lion but to be the lion: empowered, confident, aggressive, protective and fearless.”
This article is part of the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Rising Voices Fellowship and was written by Dodie Altman-Sagan, the granddaughter of Phoebe Altman z”l who lived in Easton and was a very active member of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. I cried tears of joy when I discovered the connection, as Phoebe was such an important mentor to me when I moved to the Lehigh Valley, and I have such fond memories of her.
Fast-forward to last week, when I had the honor of hosting our local Lions at my home for the luncheon. It had been quite some time since our local “pride” had gathered, and I thought that springtime presented the perfect opportunity to reawaken our sisterhood. Our Lehigh Valley Lions are an incredible bunch! They are not only loving, fun, smart and engaging women, but in 2022, their charitable donations amounted to over $580,000, almost a quarter of our annual campaign. In a community of our size, that is quite an impressive feat.
The room was abuzz with laughter and chatter and the warmth and camaraderie of old friends who had not seen one another in-person for a while. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful the bond of philanthropy is and how sustained altruism creates such strong friendships, connections and respect among women, even if they don’t one another on a regular basis. This natural and nurturing environment offered the perfect opportunity for me to introduce these special ladies to the Lion Behind the Pin program, and it was very well received and sparked a spirited conversation among them.
I want to thank all the Lions of our Lehigh Valley community, not only those who attended the luncheon, but also those who were unable to. Your level of commitment and dedication continues to inspire me. Thank you for setting an example by your actions, your kindness and your strong belief in a Jewish future for generations to come. You made May 18, 2023, a most memorable and special day for me.