December 4, 2022

HBI Thanks Founding Board Member, Janet Zolot

By Amy Powell

When Janet Zolot announced her retirement earlier this year from the HBI Board of Advisors, it was truly the end of an era for HBI. Zolot, an original board member, has been here for the entire 21-year journey. More than that, she was an integral part of HBI’s founding.

To Zolot, getting involved in Jewish women’s causes came naturally. It was part of her upbringing. Her mother was president of the Philadelphia chapter of Hadassah and her father was president of the Beth Sholom Synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I grew up in a world where everyone was involved in doing things for the Jewish community,” said Zolot. “My mother was so positive about her Hadassah involvement that I went to the meetings and ended up as president of Philadelphia Hadassah with 37 groups and 10,000 people. It was quite a responsibility.”

It was during her years as National Hadassah vice-president that Hadassah formed the National Commission on American Jewish Women, an effort to find out what was known about Jewish women. Chaired by Brandeis Professor Shulamit Reinharz, who later became the HBI founding director,  the group tried to answer questions about what concerned American Jewish women, if they felt like part of the Jewish community, if their Jewish identity, Judaism or Israel was meaningful to them and how to address their concerns, strengthen their connections and bring greater Jewish meaning to women’s lives. “It was a really exciting, forward thinking time for National Hadassah,” Zolot noted. The Commission hired Brandeis Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, who later became HBI’s co-director, to oversee the research.

When the research was to be presented for the first time in public at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federation, Zolot feared that no one would be interested.

“There were 22 concurrent sessions at our time slot and I was about to have a nervous breakdown, thinking no one would come. We had a decent sized room and to my surprise, we had to start bringing in extra chairs. There were over 250 people there and it was really a thrill, just amazing,” Zolot said.

At the time, Shirley Kalb was Hadassah’s director of strategic planning, and Zolot described her as “a brilliant woman who knew everyone in the Jewish community.”  Zolot remembers sitting in Kalb’s New York office with Reinharz and discussing the results after this initial reception. They all believed that too little was known about Jewish women and so much more was needed. Reinharz suggested that they form a research institute to learn more and the result was the founding of the International Research Institute on Jewish Women, (which later changed its name to HBI) at Brandeis University in January 1997. Established with a generous grant from Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc., the IRIJW represented a bold venture for both Brandeis University and Hadassah. It was a natural fit for Zolot, who had been involved from the beginning to continue with HBI, bridging gaps between the Hadassah and HBI.

“Academia had not been part of my life after college and I found it extremely stimulating, Shula had a magical touch, Sylvia brought her unique interests and capabilities and the meetings were always an intellectually stimulating experience. We felt that we were accomplishing something worthwhile.” Zolot said.

Some of the early programs included learning more about Jewish women from Arab lands. The research was presented at the Hadassah National Convention, then replicated in communities through Hadassah chapters. Other programs on Queen Esther and on Jewish fertility issues were researched at HBI and shared through Hadassah.

HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe said of Zolot, “We are so grateful for the enormous impact she has had on HBI.  She was part of the initial group at Hadassah that initiated Voices for Change and generated the vision and resources for HBI.  In my new role, I often meet women from Hadassah groups around New England who tell me about the excitement of working with Jane on this. She has also been a supporter of many of our innovative programs including the program to bring Scholars in Residence from the former Soviet Union, that has now created a steady pipeline of applicants. Her enormous wisdom will be missed.”

Leslie Gaffin, the current liaison with Hadassah on the HBI Board, said, “Jane has been a pillar of support and knowledge for HBI.  I want to thank her for all the help she gave me as I assumed a board position. Her wise counsel and depth of understanding always led to creative solutions. She was certainly a great role model for me and I am sure for many others. I wish her good health and satisfaction in all her future endeavors.”

Zolot said she felt so proud of the feature story that appeared in Hadassah Magazine, HBI, A Pioneer in Gender Studies, on the 20th anniversary of HBI that she began to consider her retirement. “Now that we have passed our 20th year I feel that it’s time for me to retire from the HBI Board. I was present at creation when Shula, Shirley Kalb z’l and I met in Shirley’s office. I was skeptical but between Shula’s enthusiasm and Shirley’s determination I was swept up in the momentum that proceeded nonstop. It’s been an enriching experience to have been part of the years of innovation and growth and I wish for continued success in the future.”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.


  1. Leslie Gaffin says:

    Lovely tribute to Janie and a reminder of the thrilling journey to establish HBI.

  2. Shula Reinharz says:

    Jane Zolot is one of a kind – sophisticated, dedicated, very hard-working, and elegant. The HBI was so lucky to have her as an early enthusiast and committed friend. Best, Shula

    • Janet Zolot says:


      Thanks so much for your kind words. You made the journey exciting and fruitful with your energy, vision and creativity.
      I enjoyed every minute of it.

  3. Susan Rudnick says:

    Wonderful article!
    Janie is a remarkable, knowledgeable , sophisticated colleague to all of us who have had the privilege of serving with her on the National Board of Hadassah.

    She inspires all of those who have worked with her.

    • Janet Zolot says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I do appreciate your response. It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. I hope all is well with you and yours.

  4. Jan Moidel Schwartz says:

    This was a lovely article about a mission I have appreciated since its inception. Thanks for sharing this unique story of the early days. May all involved go from strength to strength.

  5. Frances Hahn says:

    My aunt and my grandmother before her have been the matriarchs of Jewish life and Jewish tradition in our extended family. I always was and continue to be stimulated by her knowledge, passion for, and commitment to Jewish values, and continue to bear witness to the myriad ways she imbues them in our family. My grandfather was a great supporter of women way before his time, and raised us to believe there was nothing we women couldn’t achieve with hard work. Congratulations on this tribute and all of you’ve accomplished Aunt Jane.

  6. Judy Nissenbaum says:

    My mother, Jane, was and continues to be a shining light and an example for all women to follow. Her dedication to family and Jewish causes has enriched the lives of everyone she has touched. The world is a better place because of her integrity, grace, intelligence and kindness. She will always be my hero.

  7. Jan M. Picker says:

    +The Jewish world and the world at large are greatly enhanced by Janie Zolot Her kindness, elegance, intelligence, and creativity all bring an exciting dimension to all of her projects.
    I was honored to work with Janie on the Hadassah National Board and the exciting
    Young Leadenrs department. Many of the young women who were involved and also involved in
    Brandeis learned valuable leadership tools which Janie helped them shape for tomorrow’s work.
    Blessings and joy to a wonderful friend.

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