The wall showcasing past leadership in the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s conference center is a sea of mostly black and white photos of men. Yet among the photos there is one that stands out – a woman whose plaque reads “Mrs. Siegmund Herzog 1927-1930.” While a dignified photograph, it does not begin to capture the force of nature that was Bertha “Birdie” Herzog.
Birdie was born and raised in Indiana and moved to Cleveland after marrying her husband in 1900. He was the vice president and treasurer of H. Black & Co., which manufactured women’s suits and cloaks. They lived in Cleveland Heights.
Birdie was a devoted leader in both the Jewish and general communities in her adopted city of Cleveland. In the Jewish community she is noted for being the first woman in the position now known as board chair of the Federation. In addition, she was the president of what later became the National Council of Jewish Women. In this role not only did she successfully increase the membership to 3,000, but also she helped pioneer programs such as Martha House, which created a safe home for single girls and women who, without the support of husbands or family, came to Cleveland seeking work. During her leadership at NCJW she also organized the Jewish Big Sisters Association, to support girls with emotional and behavioral challenges.
The well-being of women and girls was at the forefront of Birdie’s involvement in the general community as well. She was on the board of trustees of the organization that eventually became Planned Parenthood. She advocated for professional training for women at what eventually became Case Western Reserve University and lobbied for increasing the number of nontraditional students for night classes at Cleveland College.
Birdie also was knowledgeable about world affairs, traveled to Europe, chaired the League of Women Voters of Cleveland’s international relations committee, and served as vice president of the Council for the Prevention of War. She made many trips to Washington, D.C., for conferences, and wrote countless letters to editors and op-eds in the Jewish newspapers.
Upon her “retirement” as chair of the Federation’s board in 1930, her successor, Sol Reinthal, presented her with resolutions that read in part, “To each duty and to every office she has brought a deep sense of responsibility and rare devotion to tasks assigned; a social vision profound in its understanding, high in its reach. Her ready sympathy has fostered a spirit of cooperation, her intelligence and grasp of problems have made for progress.” And in 1941, Birdie received the Charles Eisenman Award for outstanding community service, the Federation’s highest civic honor. It is remarkable to consider all that Birdie accomplished during the era that referred to women by their husband’s name.
She included the Federation in her will and upon her death a bequest came to the Federation “to be received, held, invested, and administered as ‘The Siegmund and Bertha Herzog Fund’, the income thereof, to be paid annually into the Jewish Welfare Fund.” Not only was she a trailblazer in her leadership, but also in her generosity. Birdie created the Federation’s first Campaign endowment fund – a forever Fund – just three years after Federation’s board created the Federation’s own endowment fund. Birdie’s generous spirit and her strong presence in our community’s history is reflected and remembered through her endowment fund grant each year. The endowment has already granted multiples of its principal. This is the impact of a forward thinking, values driven woman who loved this community and wanted to ensure that it would be “Here for good.”
Jennifer B. Schwarz is assistant managing director endowment development and supporting foundations at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in Beachwood.