April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Historic Women of New Jersey

March is Women in History month, and while a few decades ago it would have taken hours of scholarly research to find any Jewish women other than Deborah, Jael or Esther who were recognized to have risked life and limb for the good of others, things have changed. And some of the women who put their lives on the line in service of their country and our freedoms are from New Jersey.

At one time—in the memory of some of us of a certain age—the idea of women fighting anyone or anything but their husbands, serving in the military, or in the medical profession as anything other than a nurse, would have been almost unthinkable.

Today, women in are the front lines, taking up swords of battle in every endeavor.

Who would have thought that women would fight side by side with men in the U.S. armed forces? Yet the Department of Veterans Affairs reports there are 1,853,690 female war veterans and 214,098 women currently on active military duty. There are another 118,781 in the reserves and 470,851 in the National Guard. Eleven percent of all military commanders are women.

Among these patriotic American women were and are Jewish women who have filled the ranks and served with honor—yes, as nurses who served the physical and spiritual needs of the wounded—and also as pilots during World War II, who flew planes to be used in combat over the Atlantic. One of those women was Selma Cronan. “From the time my mother took me on a two-dollar airplane ride in Asbury Park, New Jersey in the 1920s, I fell in love with flying and I knew I was going to become a pilot someday.” Cronan began her service in 1943 with the WASPs (Women Air Force Service Pilots), and flew new military aircraft and tow targets from one place to another across the continental United States.

Another veteran of World War II was Charlotte Chaney of Perth Amboy, a trained nurse who volunteered for the Army Air Corp in 1944 and served as part of the Red Cross in Europe. In 1945 she was sent to Dachau. She remembered, “Skeletons, actually skeletons, how they could walk around?” She said there were lice, tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery. The people were so starved, they could not eat anything but gruel and hid the food they were given under their mattresses, afraid they’d have to save it for later, lest it be stolen.

Women rabbis were not so common in 1979 when Bonnie Koppell joined the Army Reserves. Following her basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey and U.S. Army Chaplain School, she became the first female Jewish chaplain ever to serve in the United States military.

In 1991, when Operation Desert Storm began, she was placed on active duty and sent to the Academy of Health Sciences, a unit of the 5th Army Headquarters at Fort Sam Houston. There she served the spiritual needs of the American casualties brought back from ground offensives in Iraq. She was called to duty again in 2003 and spent a month in Germany at the headquarters of the United States Army in Europe and then served in support of Operation Noble Eagle. She celebrated Hanukah with Jewish service members in Kuwait and Afghanistan, and later deployed to Iraq, where she brought Passover sedarim to soldiers in Baghdad and Taji in 2006.

New Jersey women didn’t have to be in the military to fight the good fight.

Born in 1903, Justine Wise Polier’s battle began when she worked in a textile mill in Passaic after she finished college. Before coming to Paterson’s mills, she attended Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe and Barnard, taking advanced economic courses before going to live in a settlement house to teach English. She also did research at Barnard on women’s workplace injuries and studied “workmen’s compensation.”

In the Paterson mills, she saw people were working in deplorable conditions who wanted to organize themselves into unions, in the days when bosses broke heads for less. Polier joined the battle for workmen’s compensation and organized labor in 1926, while attending Yale Law School. She commuted regularly to Passaic where she spoke against the “feudal tyranny” of the mills during the great textile strike. Years later she became known as the “fighting judge” and the first woman justice in New York State. In 1941, she became Special Counsel to Eleanor Roosevelt in the Office of Civilian Defense.

Not every war for truth, justice and the American way is fought on the military battle field. Political battle can be dirty and vicious, too. And New Jersey has a home-grown tigress fighting for those values every day in Trenton.

Loretta Weinberg, the majority leader in the State Senate, is turning NJ Governor Chris Christie’s political life miserable by leading the investigation into “Bridgegate,” four days of deliberate lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that tied up Fort Lee, Englewood Cliffs, Englewood, Leonia, Teaneck, Bogota, River Edge, Hackensack and Paramus—where her constituents live and work.

While many people in their 50s start looking longingly at retirement, Weinberg started playing hardball in New Jersey politics and is still a winner as she faces court battles, corrupt politicians, major political defeats and the loss of her life savings in the Madoff scandal. She bounced back from all and is leading one of the most high-profile corruption investigations in New Jersey history—which simply empowers her to accomplish even more on other fronts, like helping New Jersey’s veterans get their full benefits. Not bad for a grandma from Teaneck.

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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