October 11, 2005
Week 99, Day 2
8 Tishrei 5766 

Jane Evans--Part I
By Kevin Proffitt

Jane Evans (1907-2004) was associated with the Union for Reform Judaism for 70 years--a remarkable accomplishment attained by an astonishing woman! From 1933 to 1976, Jane served as the Executive Director of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now the Women of Reform Judaism). With keen foresight and a bold embrace of modernity, she guided the NFTS into the forefront of social advocacy. She championed the rights of women, children, minorities and the oppressed in society. She spoke out on issues of war, peace and civil rights. She also helped administer the Union, particularly during its move from Cincinnati to New York City in 1951. As Union president Rabbi Eric Yoffie has noted, together with past presidents Maurice Eisendrath and Alexander Schindler, Jane Evans was the person most "responsible for the shape and the character of the Union as it exists today."

In 2003 Rabbi Adrienne Scott, then a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, wrote her thesis on Jane Evans. Titled "An Analysis of Dr. Jane Evans' Professional Contributions to the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods," Scott's thesis is the only full-length study of perhaps the most significant woman in the history of the American Reform Movement. As part of her research, Scott interviewed Jane--then 95 years old--in her New York office on November 22, 2002. Here are excerpts from that interview that relate stories from Jane's life in her own words, used with Rabbi Scott's permission.

(Raised in Brooklyn, Jane attended a number of colleges, ultimately graduating from Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati. In this passage, Jane talks about her student days at Xavier and what role Zionism played in her life.)

JE: I was very involved in liberal causes in college...While I was not involved, in college, in Jewish affairs, at no time was I in any sense not aware of being a Jew and aware of Jewish issues. I considered myself at a fairly young age, in my teens, a Zionist, but let me draw this quick distinction: I was quite opposed to what I considered political Zionism. You must realize that in my teens I did not foresee the creation in my lifetime of the State of Israel, and thank God, it has happened in my lifetime. I was technically a Zionist in every way, very much a cultural Zionist, and I rather spurned, to be honest about it in retrospect, the very ardent, many extreme political Zionists. But at no time was I not deeply involved in Zionist thought, the cultural Zionist.

(Following graduation, Jane worked as chief of the interior architecture department at a New York City architecture firm. She later moved to St. Louis to become head of the decoration department at that city's largest department store and to teach art classes at the local YM-YWHA. Here Jane talks about this little- known part of her life, as well as her invention of a common household device.)

JE: I was a designer in St. Louis, Missouri and it happens that I did work in a home for a gentleman who, at that time, was president of Emerson Electric Manufacturing Company...And he said to me, "Have you ever thought of the fact that the electric fan is pretty ugly and no one has ever changed it? You know, straight blades, etc.?" I said, "No, I haven't thought of it." And he said, "Well, I wish you would and, if you wish, come up with something and bring it to me."....I said to myself, "Fans are horribly noisy." And that's because the motors tended to vibrate through the face of the fan onto whatever it was standing, so I designed a fan with curved blades and with a different type of frame and with a motor on a different position so that the vibration was carried off. And Emerson bought it! But, I made the greatest mistake of my life....I discussed what royalties would be and I decided a lump sum was to my advantage and they paid me the lump sum that I asked for and the truth of the matter is the fan was a huge success and sold 25,000 its first year and went on for years. I probably would be a wealthy person, which I am not, had I taken a royalty, but that's an amusing aside.

Those who knew Jane will find it easy to understand that she recalled this memory not with regret but with humor. While many of us may bemoan what might have been, Jane moved on. Without seeking fanfare or financial reward but with a smile, she went on to devote her life to Judaism and to helping others.

(In this excerpt Jane summarizes her philosophy of life.)

JE: [Former Union President Alexander Schindler] referred to me as a renaissance woman because I have been interested in many fields...I chose as a model for myself in an age of specialization to live a life of diversification. I've really tried to do that. You see, I try to keep a little balance between whatever it is I do and achieve and hope to achieve professionally, and having at the same time not [to] concentrate in one field only....Any person, whether considered a minor leader or a great leader, has achieved his position not solely by himself, but through the cooperation of many other people. I've never for a moment thought that whatever I have accomplished, and there are those who think I've accomplished a great deal, by no means have I ever believed that it is solely [through] my ability, my intelligence, my knowledge....I have done certain things, but I've done them with the help, the cooperation, and perhaps even the influence that I have helped to create [in] many other persons, so that many achievements should never be 'I did it' but should always be 'we did it,' even if we can't name every single person that is involved. But I don't want you to interpret this as I have a certain humility, which I do have. It isn't humility, it is reality. People should not be given credit for what they do as if only they did it.

Next week: Jane Evans talks about her decision to join NFTS and her long career as a Jewish professional.

Kevin Proffitt is the Senior Archivist for Research and Collections at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has worked since 1981. A frequent lecturer on American Jewish history and consultant on synagogue archives, his publications include Starting from Scratch: Creating the Synagogue Archives.

For more information, visit the American Jewish Archives web site.

Register for the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial Convention in Houston, click here.

Help the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita by donating to the URJ Disaster Relief Fund and to read about how Reform Jews are reaching out to others in response to the Hurricanes (see the blog)

Do you know a teen who regularly checks e-mail and is interested in exploring Jewish issues? Then iTorah is for that teen. A weekly e-mail on topics of Jewish interest written by the leaders of NFTY and Kesher. Visit the iTorah website to sign up.
10 Minutes of Torah is produced by the Union for Reform Judaism - Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning and the American Jewish Archives. Visit our Web site for more information. ©2005