Women Recipients of the AJHS Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award

October 25, 2023
by Tanya Elder

Since 1986, the AJHS has awarded its Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award to distinguished persons or groups “whose contributions reflect the highest values of the American Jewish community, starting with our first award to historian and founding president of Brandeis University, Abram L. Sachar to our 2022 award winner, former U.S. Congress Representative Nita Lowry.” On October 12, 2023, the AJHS honored documentary filmmakers and producers Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, for their work in documentary film production with our MC, actress and author Julianna Margulies, an interview of the awardees by journalist Julia Ioffe, and musical pieces by musicians Johnny Gandelsman and Gyan Riley.

The AJHS holds large institutional collections on women from Hadassah to the National Jewish Council of Women ranging from Orthodox and Conservative though primarily focused on Reform women involved in national organizations and local women’s synagogue groups. Our collections regarding the Jewish counterculture reflect emerging beliefs on women’s place in the rabbinate, feminism, and culture. Here, we’ll briefly discuss the women that the AJHS have honored for the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award: Sylvia Hassenfeld (1994), Beverly Sills (1998), Avital Sharansky (2013), Nicki Newman Tanner (2018), Russ and Daughters (2019), and Nita Lowey (2022).

Sylvia Hassenfeld, z”l (1920-2014)

Sylvia Grace Kay Hassenfeld was the AJHS’s first woman awardee of the Emma Lazarus Award. Hassenfeld was born in Philadelphia and graduated from Cedar Crest College in 1943. Hassenfeld married Merrill L. Hassenfeld, whose father founded the Hasbro Toy Company. Hassenfeld served on the Board of Trustees of Hasbro though her primary focus was on Jewish philanthropic and communal organizations. Among her achievements was serving on boards including the United Jewish Appeal (Chair of their National Women’s Division), the Jewish Agency for Israel (chairing its Rural Settlement Committee), the Jerusalem Foundation, the Council of Jewish Federations, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, UJA-Federation of Greater New York, and Brandeis University. Among her crowning achievements was being not only the president, but the first female president of the Joint Distribution Committee (The Joint).

Sylvia Hassenfeld featured in the AJHS Heritage 1994 issue.

In her Emma Lazarus Award acceptance speech, she quoted Children’s Defense Fund leader Marion Wright Endelman: “Service to others is the rent we pay for living on this planet.” She went on to note that in honoring her, the AJHS also honored the work of The Joint, “the chosen instrument of the American Jewish community for the rescue, relief, and rehabilitation of Jews in distress in foreign lands.” She continued: “I am pleased to be the first woman to receive this award, but I must admit that it is a bit daunting to receive an award from an historical society…” and continued with a litany of memories as leader and director of The Joint including helping Russian Jews, Simchat Torahs in Moscow, Bucharest after their revolution, the children of Addis Ababa, and an evacuation of refugees from Sarajevo when The Joint rescued Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians after the Markale market bombing of 1994, including Zejneba Hardago, a Muslim woman named a “Righteous Gentile” by Vad Vashem in recognition of her rescue of Jews during World War II.

The award ceremony was held at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami. At this time, the AJHS was located at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Beverly Sills z”l (1929-2007) 

Opera singer Beverly Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman on May 25, 1929, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY. Her mother was a musician from Odesa, Ukraine, and her father was from Bucharest. “Bubbles” as she was known in the neighborhood, learned several languages as a child. She memorized the music that her mother Shirley played, and by the age of 10, Sills was a seasoned singer, making her professional debut with a Gilbert and Sullivan traveling troupe. Sills had a large Jewish family with many uncles, aunts, and cousins. She had little formal Jewish training as a child, and when her father died of lung cancer in 1949, her mother drifted from Judaism, becoming a Christian Scientist. In 1956, Sills married an Episcopalian and she moved to Cleveland, where he lived. Later they moved to New York City and had a deaf daughter and disabled son. In 1975, Sills debuted at the Metropolitan Opera Company but decided by the time she turned 50 in 1980, to retire from the stage and expanded her career options to directing and running the New York City Opera Company (NYCO). She was a groundbreaking opera director and singer and while her ties to Judaism were frayed, according to her entry at the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, “her connection to Israel and Judaism was historical and temperamental, not philosophical or spiritual.”  

The year Sills was honored was also the year that the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia was first published by the Jewish Women’s Archive with the AJHS as a partner in that project. The two-volume set focused on the histories of hundreds of Jewish women in the arts, philanthropy, education, law, medicine, activism, and science. The encyclopedia is now online and expands often.  

Sills did not want a video of her honor made of the event because she didn’t “want the evening to be a film and a series of speeches praising her… this embarrasses her. It was suggested that the theme of the evening—Jewish American women in history—be emphasized and she would accept the award as a representative of all the remarkable women in the encyclopedia. She liked this idea very much.” The night of the gala included women such as Kitty Carlisle Hart, Betty Comden (who performed with her husband, Adolph Green that night), Lillian Vernon, Muriel Siebert, Senator Barbara Boxer, Shoshana Cardin, Phyllis Chesler, Bette Midler, Roslayn Yalow, Marion Wiesel, Helen Frankenthaler, and Women’s Baseball League player, Thelma “Tiby” Eisen, who wrote a beautiful card of thanks to the AJHS for having her as an honored guest.  

Letter from Tiby Eisen thanking AJHS for their experience at the AJHS gala honoring Beverly Sills.

The event was held on Sunday, April 26, 1998, at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. The AJHS was still located at Brandeis University and moved to its current location at the Center for Jewish History in 2000. 

Avital Sharansky (1950 – )

Avital Sharansky from the AJHS Heritage Magazine

Following the 1977 arrest of her husband Natan and his sentence to hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, Avital Sharansky (b. Natalia Stieglitz) devoted herself tirelessly to the cause of freeing him and all Refuseniks from the Soviet Union. For a total of thirteen years, she left no stone unturned: meeting world leaders, including successive U.S. Presidents as well as Jewish groups worldwide. As Secretary of State George Shultz later recalled, “Avital’s pleas dramatized the human side of the tension in U.S.-Soviet relations.” When Natan was finally released on 11th February 1986, he joined his wife in Israel and has since become a major force in national and international politics. Eschewing public honors, Avital today lectures in Jewish Studies for Russian-speaking immigrants, as well as talking about her past to young students. She and Natan live in Jerusalem and have two daughters and recently celebrated the birth of their third grandchild. 

The gala that year emphasized the AJHS’s vast Soviet (and Ethiopian) Jewry collections and was held at the Center for Jewish History on May 28, 2013. Elie Wiesel presented the Emma Lazarus Award to Mrs. Sharansky.

Nicki Newman Tanner

Nicki Newman Tanner is an oral historian and has engaged hundreds of leading American Jewish figures and captured their oral histories as the founding director of the UJA–Federation of Jewish Philanthropies Oral History Project. Those oral histories now reside with AJHS as part of the UJA-Federation Collection, and this Project captures the philanthropic spirit and values of American Jews in the 20th century. Tanner grew up in Chicago and graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in English in 1957. After marrying Harold Tanner, they moved to Los Angeles where their three children – David, James, and Karen – were all born. 

In 1967, the family moved to New York, where Nicki and Harold have resided ever since. In 1980 Nicki received a certificate in Oral History from Columbia University, and in 1981 she became founding director of the UJA–Federation of Jewish Philanthropies Oral History Project, which she ran for more than 20 years. She has also conducted interviews for oral histories both for Columbia’s Oral History Archive and freelance projects, preserving the stories of Lives of a Cell author Lewis Thomas and Commissioner of Parks Gordon Davis, as well as the histories of the Salvation Army, Pace University, Manhattanville College, and The Hastings Center. Tanner Newman is a founding board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive and served as board chair from 2004 until 2007.  

The event featured a tribute to women storytellers of the AJHS archives and was held at the Center for Jewish History on November 13, 2018. 

Russ and Daughters (1914-Present)

Our most yummy Emma Lazarus Award ceremony occurred in 2019 when the AJHS honored the legendary New York City appetizing store, the iconic Russ and Daughters who still resides at its original location at 179 E. Houston Street and has expanded to a sit-down restaurant, Brooklyn Navy Yard storefront and a brisk mail order business.  

Russ’ Cut-Rate Appetizing was opened by Joel Russ in 1914 on Orchard Street and moved to its present location in 1923. Joel was a tough businessman who had three daughters, Hattie, Ida, and Anne, the “Daughters” of the business. According to Mark Russ Federman, former 3rd generation owner of Russ and Daughters, by 1935, Joel Russ had “renamed his store Russ and Daughters. Joel wasn’t a feminist, but he recognized two things: first, that it was indeed his daughters who had helped him grow his business and keep his store; second, that the name Russ and Daughters would be a good marketing tool. Of the twenty or so other appetizing shops in the neighborhood, some were ‘so-and-so and sons.’ Only Joel Russ had a sign that read ‘and Daughters.’ When his daughters married, their husbands worked in the store, too, and eventually became legal partners in the business. But the sign would never be changed.” 

Not long ago, Mark passed down the family business to the 4th generation: daughter Niki Russ Federman and nephew Josh Russ Tupper. Mark and his wife and business partner, Maria N. Federman, Niki and Josh were honored at the Center for Jewish History on December 3, 2019.

AJHS 2019 gala invitation

Nita Lowey (1937 – )

Representative Nita Lowey was a representative of the State of New York for over 30 years, representing the 20th District (1989-1993), the 18th District (1993-2013), and the 17th District (2013-2021) of New York, covering Westchester and Rockland Counties, and at times, small sections of Queens and the Bronx. She also served as the Democratic ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee starting in 2013. She was later the first woman to Chair the Appropriations Committee since its inception in 1865 and held that position from 2019 through her retirement. Lowey’s life of public service is well documented in our Rep. Lowey Papers, which she donated to the AJHS, with particular attention on the interaction of her office with her constituents, as well as her federal initiatives, particularly Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs in the wake of 9/11. The gala on June 9, 2022 occurred at the beautiful 620 Loft and Garden at Rockefeller Center. 


Acceptance Speech Given by Sylvia Hassenfeld, Tuesday, March 8, 1994. I-1 American Jewish Historical Society Records, Box 388, Folder 8. 
Feldberg, Michael. “Sylvia Hassenfeld.” Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia.
Rachel Chodorov to Ken Bialkin, Feb. 18, 1998. I-1 AJHS Records, Box 389, Folder 8.
Russ and Daughters Business and Family Records, 1929-2014, I-605  Gala Save the Date Flyer, uncatalogued, 2019. 
Sochem, June. “Beverly Sills.” Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia.
Tiby Eisen and Peggy Mack to Rachel Chodorov Correspondence, May 4, 1998, I-1 AJHS Records, Box 389, Folder 7.