Giving Back: National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis

From pioneering the first free milk program in St. Louis public schools to providing microloans to victims of domestic abuse, the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis has a long history of innovating community outreach. Established in 1895, the nonprofit is dedicated to creating meaningful action to help improve the lives of women, children and families. T&S spoke with CEO Ellen Alper to learn more about how the organization puts its mission into action.

What makes the NCJWSTL’ s approach unique?
Our mission is to improve the lives of women, children and families in our community. We do that through direct service as well as advocacy and education. That means while we directly help families in need, we also look to understand why that need exists and work toward policies to address those underlying issues. That connection between advocacy and direct service is something we do on a local, state and national level, which really makes us unique.

How has your programming evolved over the years?
We’ve been around for a long time. Historically, we’ve identified needs in the community and then figured out programs and projects that can address them. We have had a tangible impact on the nonprofit landscape of St. Louis. There are several organizations that exist today that were founded as community service programs at NCJWSTL. These include Crown Center for Senior Living, the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) St. Louis, Legal Advocates for Abused Women (LAAW) and the Victim Service Council.

What goes into starting a new project?
When we start a project, the first step is to go out into the community and talk to people to find out what is missing. For example, we have a microlending program called Hearts Healing Bank. It started with looking for a way to help victims of domestic abuse. One thing we learned is that a big reason that people stay in abusive relationships is money, and financial assistance was one type of direct service that was missing. We looked at microlending programs around the country and developed our model to work with different community partners. We offer loans that are paid back over six to 12 months with low interest rates. We also are a credit reporting agency, so when people pay back their loan, they can raise their credit score by around 150 points, according to research. We don’t want our programs to just offer handouts—it’s always a hand up.

How do your programs support kids in the St. Louis area?
Our Back to School! Store provides clothing, school supplies and personal care items to local students. We help more than 2,000 kids each year through the program. We also operate around 30 Kids Community Closets in schools. These provide uniforms, underwear, outerwear and other items that children need to be able to go to school. We feel that to break the cycle of poverty, kids and teens need to have the necessities to be in class every day so they can get a good education.

Why is it important for St. Louis to have this outlet for women to get involved?
We may be the National Council of Jewish Women, but to get involved, you don’t have to be Jewish or a woman. We have upwards of 1,000 volunteers every year who want to give back to the St. Louis community. For me as a mother and grandmother, I want to ensure that my daughter and granddaughter can have successful lives while also teaching them the importance of giving back. One of our values is tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world.” We have an obligation to serve and make a difference in
our community.

How can people support NCJWSTL?
Our biggest events are in the fall. We can always use support for the Back to School! Store and need individuals to sponsor children. At the end of September, our Resale Shop hosts its Couturier Sale, which gives people the opportunity to get great deals on luxury merchandise while helping us fund our programs. This year is actually the event’s 60th anniversary. We also can always use volunteers to work in The Resale Shop. If you want to get involved in advocacy, you can become a member, and we also run a series of leadership workshops that are open to the public. The goal of NCJWSTL is really to be a place where people can come together to move forward.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis

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