Shapiro, Betty Kronman (1907–1989)

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Shapiro, Betty Kronman (1907–1989)

International president of B'nai B'rith Women. Name variations: Rebecca Shapiro. Born Rebecca Kronman in Washington, D.C., on September 26, 1907; died of cancer in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 1989; daughter of Nathan Kronman (a grocer) and Monya "Mollie" (Bogorod) Kronman (active in numerous Jewish community organizations); attended Business High School, Washington, D.C.; attended George Washington University and Cornell University; married Michael Shapiro, on July 5, 1936 (died November 23, 1976); no children.

Worked as school secretary (1924–29) and office manager, Washington, D.C., branch, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (1929–43); served as president, National Council of Jewish Juniors, Washington, D.C., Section (1936); founded and served as officer, Service Council of the Jewish Community Center, Washington, D.C., during World War II; had over 40 years of activism with B'nai B'rith Women, including founder and member, Abram Simon Chapter, Washington, D.C. (1952–89), president, Argo Chapter, Washington, D.C. (1952–53), regional president, Eastern Seaboard District 5 (1955–56), co-sponsored Kronman Youth Awards for outstanding civic service (1955–65), coordinated first Inter-faith Conference (1957), was international president (1968–71), convened a conference to address urban crisis and established anti-poverty committee (1968), was founder and first chair, Public Affairs Program, and International Affairs Committee chair (1971–74), convened first Women's Plea for Soviet Jewry in Washington (1971), founded and chaired Ad-Hoc Leadership Conference on Washington, D.C., Jewish Women's Organizations (1971–75), was founder and chair, Jewish Women's Network, Washington, D.C. (1977–80).

After Betty Shapiro's 1968 election as the international president of B'nai B'rith Women, a reporter asked how she became head of the 140,000-member Jewish women's organization. "I suppose I would be falsely modest if I said I did not have leadership qualities," she replied. "I'm more of a shirt-sleeve type, the kind of person who needs to pitch in on whatever needs doing, whether it's conferring with people at the highest level or sorting a box of rummage for my chapter's fund-raising program." Over more than 40 years of community service, her leadership qualities often put her in the spotlight. For example, at the UN Decade Conference for Women in Nairobi in 1985, the government threatened to throw the women out of their hotel. Shapiro held a press conference and mobilized a string of women lawyers. By the time the fully armed soldiers arrived, she had organized a sit-down in the hotel lobby. At 78, Betty Shapiro won the fight.

Betty Shapiro was born Rebecca Kronman in Washington, D.C., in 1907, one of four children of Nathan and Mollie Kronman , Russian immigrants who owned a Washington, D.C., grocery store. Mollie was active in numerous Jewish women's organizations and led efforts to establish the local Hebrew Home for the Aged and the Hebrew Sheltering Society. Betty was a leader like her mother from early childhood. She and her friends would "sit outside on the iron stoop everyday where we'd have a club," she said. "I don't remember what we did, but I was president." She was also a celebrated athlete. She coached and managed a girls' basketball team at the Jewish Community Center while she played on her own high school team. Offered a contract to play professionally, she declined. Instead, at 16, she began a secretarial career, working at Langley Junior High School in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1928, and in California at South Pasadena Junior High School in 1928.

Shapiro returned to Washington the following year and worked in the Washington office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HAIS) from 1929 to 1943. During the Holocaust, her work took on new urgency as she processed applications for assistance from thousands whose visas had been refused. Although not trained as a lawyer, she often presented cases to review boards at the departments of State and Justice, managing to save a number of people. In addition, she was an active volunteer during World War II, visiting wounded soldiers for the National Council of Jewish Juniors. As a co-founder of the Service Council of the Jewish Community Center, she helped organize recreational activities and other functions for the men and women flooding Washington every month to take wartime government jobs. In 1943, she joined B'nai B'rith Women and began volunteering in the organization's veterans' service program.

Throughout the 1950s, Shapiro held increasingly visible positions in B'nai B'rith Women. She was elected president of the Argo Chapter in Washington, D.C., in 1952, and of the entire Eastern Seaboard in 1955. In 1957, she convened the organization's first inter-faith conference. In 1958, she participated in a ten-day inspection tour of Radio Free Europe installations in Munich and Lisbon, the only representative from a Jewish organization on the tour.

Of all her activism for B'nai B'rith Women, she considered founding the organization's Public Affairs Program her greatest accomplishment. She created a liaison between B'nai B'rith Women and the government, and placed members in the forefront of policy making. Many credit Shapiro with transforming B'nai B'rith Women (now called Jewish Women International) from a social service organization to a political advocacy group. As the organization's international president from 1968 to 1971, she urged its involvement in political action. In 1968, she convened a conference of 40 women's organizations to develop strategies for addressing urban poverty and violence. She was also a vocal advocate for civil rights even after riots in Washington, D.C., destroyed her husband's business. A strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and an advocate of abortion rights, she encouraged B'nai B'rith Women to endorse a feminist platform, and went as the group's representative to feminist conferences in Nairobi, Copenhagen, and Houston.

Shapiro also fought to expose and eradicate anti-Semitism in the feminist movement. At the first National Woman's Conference in Houston, Texas in 1977, she organized an ad hoc Jewish Women's Caucus. Under her leadership, the caucus waged a successful fight to prevent a clause in the conference's final statement equating Zionism with racism. Less than a year before her death from cancer, Shapiro was inducted into the District of Columbia Commission on Women's Hall of Fame.


Chaiet, Joyce. Oral History with Betty Shapiro. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington Oral History Project, Volume Three. Partially funded by a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.

Colp, Judith. "Betty Shapiro: A Woman of Vision and a Trooper in the Trenches," in Washington Jewish Week. September 1, 1988.

Ohliger, Gloria. "How Things Look on Top of the Table," in The Washington Daily News. March 19, 1968.

Shapiro, Betty K. "We Saw So Much to Make Us Proud," in B'nai B'rith Women's World. February 1959.

suggested reading:

Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1995.


Betty K. Shapiro Collection, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, Washington, D.C.; Betty K. Shapiro Collection, B'nai B'rith Women National Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

related media:

Southwest Remembered (audiotape), Washington, DC: Lamont Productions, 1980.

Denise D. Meringolo , Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Washington, D.C.

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