Der Füror

One bad Hitler analogy turned the Maricopa County YWCA into a war zone

None of that stopped Robinson from volunteering for just about everything. She was chairing the Maricopa County YWCA's Tribute to Women gala when she ran for board president, an unpaid position. When she was elected, in October 2003, she immediately announced that she'd also chair the fund-raising committee. She didn't get around to holding a meeting for at least a year.

When Abbie Beller resigned, Robinson seized another opportunity. Beller had been Maricopa's representative to the regional YWCA. Even though two other board members volunteered to replace her, Robinson announced that she'd fill the vacancy herself.

Robinson frustrated Lewkowitz on the Israel issue in her first regional meeting, held in Fort Worth.

Tucson YWCA director Janet Marcotte tried to intervene.
courtesy of Janet Marcotte
Tucson YWCA director Janet Marcotte tried to intervene.
Susan Edwards boycotted the YWCA's biggest fund raiser of the year.
Mark Poutenis
Susan Edwards boycotted the YWCA's biggest fund raiser of the year.

Lewkowitz had teamed up with delegates from two other YWCAs to draft a resolution. It was intentionally uncontroversial: nothing about Doris Pagelkopf, Israel, or Hitler. It merely called for the World YWCA to draft procedures to ensure "balanced study" of global conflict.

A vote was scheduled for the final afternoon of the September regional meeting. But when the delegates broke for lunch, Maricopa's representatives -- Robinson and the board's vice president, a City of Phoenix employee named Carolyn Bristo -- left. They didn't return in the afternoon.

Since neither picked a proxy, the region didn't have a quorum. The resolution didn't pass.

When asked about the matter recently, Robinson claimed that she and Bristo had to leave early to catch a flight back to Phoenix.

But Lewkowitz saw Bristo later that afternoon: They rode the same shuttle to the airport. She became convinced that Robinson and Bristo had slipped away rather than deal with the issue. (Bristo says she has no memory of the meeting and just wants to move on.)

Later that month, the resolution was approved with an e-mail vote. Maricopa voted "yes."

But Lewkowitz was too frustrated to consider the matter resolved. By that point, she'd agitated for months, only to be rebuffed at every turn. Acquiescence to a statement calling for "balance" wasn't enough to resolve what she increasingly saw as anti-Israel bias.

"That's the YWCA's mission: eliminating racism and empowering women," she says. "And there are a lot of people who still think anti-Semitism is racism."

So she urged Robinson, again, to discuss the Witness Report, or to just put it on the agenda.


The final straw came when Robinson scheduled an unrelated meeting on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Jews go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah the way even lapsed Catholics make it to church on Easter.

But Robinson was annoyed when Lewkowitz said she had to leave early. She couldn't understand why Lewkowitz couldn't just join her "family dinner" a little late.

The High Holidays call for reflection. And so Lewkowitz reflected.

She announced her resignation at the September board meeting. She told the board it was because of the Israel issue.

"If they'd just said, 'Let's talk about this,' I might not have resigned," she says. "But ignoring it -- that's like saying it isn't important."

It felt personal.

The board accepted her resignation.

No one said, "Don't go." Or, "Let's talk about it." Or, "What about Israel?"

One of the newer board members, Gya Watson, remembers sitting there, wondering why no one was talking about the issue.

"I wish I had said, 'We need to be talking about this,'" Watson says. "But the attitude seemed to be, if you don't see it or hear about it, it doesn't exist. That's how it was handled."

Robinson said the board would honor Lewkowitz at its annual meeting and also at Tribute to Women, the agency's high-profile March gala.

Lewkowitz was honored at the annual meeting, just as Robinson had promised. She was given a gift card.

But no one got around to honoring Lewkowitz at the March gala. By then, things were so ugly, Robinson went to court to bar her from attending.

The women who blame Lewkowitz for everything that's happened to the YWCA offer vague statements like, "She just couldn't let go." They're convinced Lewkowitz drove the ongoing flap, even if they can't quite explain how she, as one person acting alone, managed to keep a controversy alive for months.

For hard evidence, pretty much all they've got is that Lewkowitz took her concerns public. Last November, she gave the Arizona Republic her reasons for leaving, which was followed by an account in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

The stories caused a firestorm.

"People in the Jewish community were dumbfounded, upset, hurt," recalls Herb Paine, who'd come on as interim director when Lewkowitz resigned and is himself Jewish. He runs his own business, consulting for nonprofits. "Plus we were hearing from people outside the Jewish community, who saw this as a failure of conscience."

Defensive, board members quickly settled on an excuse, one they still use today: Lewkowitz hadn't told them she was leaving because of Israel; she said it was for personal reasons. Never mind that minutes from the September board meeting say otherwise. The minutes, Connie Robinson insists, are not reliable.

Perhaps because Pagelkopf's report has become so controversial, everything about it is contentious -- even whether it was formally circulated. The YWCA USA spokeswoman claims the report was never officially released, that a draft version went out by accident. (That doesn't quite explain how it ended up on the Southwest Delta Regional Web site.)

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