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JFS: Rich history of women’s leadership


March was Women’s History Month – a great time to highlight JFS’ own rich history of women’s leadership, creativity, and service. JFS history is women’s history!

Did you know JFS was founded by women? Back then, Richmond was a tiny city of 30,000 residents with a small but lively Jewish community.

Beth Ahabah’s first Rabbi arrived in 1846 – by 1849 his female congregants had taken up his suggestion to form the Ladies’ Hebrew Association.

Fanny Heller Straus

Mrs. Fanny Heller Straus was our very first President and led the organization for 18 years. She and her husband were immigrants from southern Germany and built a comfortable life for themselves in prewar Richmond. Before the Civil War, the Ladies’ Hebrew Association boasted more than 90 members.

Mrs. Straus led the organization successfully through the war as they broadened their services to include the wider Richmond community for the first time.

Amelia Thalhimer

Amelia Thalhimer

Throughout JFS’ history, several Richmond families have served as leaders over multiple generations: Straus, Cohen, and Thalhimer.

Mrs. Amelia Thalhimer was the first of five JFS Presidents in her family alone! Born Amelia Blum, she had a difficult youth: orphaned as a teenager and charged with raising her three younger siblings. Marrying Isaac Thalhimer changed her life dramatically. In 1885, the new Mrs. Thalhimer became president of what was now known as the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association. By 1890, the organization was no longer focused on benefitting its members and evolved to become entirely charitable.

Zipporah Cohen

Zipporah Cohen

No woman stands out in JFS’ history quite like our longest-serving President, Mrs. Zipporah Cohen. She was a powerful figure in Richmond’s philanthropic community and shepherded JFS through the many crises of the early 20th century: epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid, flu; the Great Depression; the first World War.

Mrs. Cohen was a gifted leader and orator – she could be warm and inspirational one moment, then firm and demanding the next. After fourteen years, she tried in vain to recruit her replacement. “It was my earnest desire that one of you would become my successor, but my desire did not become a reality,” she quipped. But, like any steadfast leader, Mrs. Cohen refused to abandon her neighbors in need, and remained President for another 20 years. Her tenure came to a close in 1938 after an exceptional 34 years in office.

Anne Lane

Anne Lane

Anne Lane was a practicing social worker and JFS’ Executive Director for sixteen years, from 1967 to 1983 – the longest tenure in our history. It was under her leadership that JFS began offering many of the services we still provide today, including home care services for older adults.

Even while Executive Director, Mrs. Lane continued seeing clients as a therapist! Our counseling program grew in both impact and reputation under her direction. Mrs. Lane was also instrumental in founding the outreach program that became the Daily Planet, today an independent organization with their own 50-year history.

When Mrs. Lane began as Executive Director, JFS had 315 clients. By the time she retired, we were serving nearly 900 individuals.

For nearly 175 years, JFS has benefited from the dedicated leadership of many exceptional women like Fanny Heller Straus, Amelia Thalhimer, Zipporah Cohen, and Anne Lane: these four are only a small example.

Hundreds of women have served Richmond as JFS leaders and volunteers throughout our history to today, and many more will follow them!

Many thanks to Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives for sharing their collection, including the portraits in this article, and to Peter Opper, without whose book about JFS’ history we would not be so well-connected to our past.


 Jewish Family Services is supported, in part, by a generous annual contribution and programming grants from the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond.



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