US/World News

“Lion of Judah” founder Norma Kipnis-Wilson was a women’s philanthropy visionary

Norma Kipnis-Wilson, women’s philanthropy visionary and co-founder of the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) groundbreaking Lion of Judah program, died Wednesday in Aventura, Florida, following a battle with lung cancer. She was at 93. 

In 1970, when Jewish Women’s Philanthropy was still referred to as the ‘Women’s Division,’ wrote Carolyn Gitlin, chair of JFNA National Women’s Philanthropy and a resident of West Hartford, and JFNA Board chair Mark Wilf, in a letter to JFNA supporters, Kipnis-Wilson “envisioned a path for elevating women’s significant leadership in the field of Jewish philanthropy. She believed in the enormous contribution that Jewish women were capable of making and of a minimum million-dollar campaign. This was groundbreaking philanthropy, unheard of for women at that time.”

Pam Ehrenkranz, CEO of UJF/JCC Greenwich agreed, calling Kipnis-WIlson “an innovator… not a disrupter, but a builder.”

“She believed in the power of women’s giving long before it was fashionable, and she transformed individual community giving into something international. She gave international status to women’s giving in the Jewish world,” Ehrenkranz told the Ledger.

The Lion of Judah program Kipnis-Wilson co-founded with her close friend Toby Friedland z”l, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2022. To date, more than a billion dollars has been raised through the program to benefit Jews in need in local communities, in Israel, and in countries worldwide.

“It reminds you that it only takes one person to act on their vision,” noted Ehrenkranz. “Her teaming up with a friend to say, ‘Let’s do this,’ changed us for decades and more. The Lion of Judah will probably live as long as the Jewish Federations do.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928, Kipnis-Wilson’s family moved to Jacksonville, Florida when she was a child. She attended the University of Miami, later marrying Jerry Kipnis and settling in Jacksonville where they raised five children. They relocated to South Florida in 1960.

After her divorce from her first husband, she married Allan Wilson and became an active leader in the Jewish community of Miami. 

In 1972, Kipnis-Wilson and Friedland co-founded the Lion of Judah program at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, creating a new avenue for women to make significant financial and personal commitments to effectuate positive change.

Since then, the Lion of Judah community has grown to represent a cohort of nearly 18,000 women philanthropists worldwide.

In recognition of their contribution to the world of women’s philanthropy, the Kipnis-Wilson Friedland Lion of Judah Award was established in 2004. It is presented annually to Jewish women philanthropists in communities all across North America.

“Norma remained on the frontlines from the Lion of Judah’s inception until her death,” noted Gitlin. “She inspired two generations of Lions, many of whom are now leading and inspiring yet another generation of Jewish women. She will be sorely missed, but her legacy will continue forever. May her memory be a blessing.”

Norma Kipnis-Wilson is survived by four children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She was predeceased by her husband, Allan Wilson, and a son, David.

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