Joan Handleman Sadoff, 81, of Huntingdon Valley, a clinical social worker and a documentary filmmaker, died Saturday, Aug. 10, at her home after a 10-year battle with cancer.
Born in Detroit, Mrs. Sadoff was the daughter of Joseph and Sally Handleman. She graduated from Mumford High School in Detroit and from the University of Minnesota in 1959.
While at the university, she met Robert L. Sadoff, who was preparing for a career as a forensic psychiatrist. The two married in 1959. He became an expert on the insanity defense and assessing the competency of murder defendants to stand trial.
Mrs. Sadoff earned master’s degrees in education and social work from Temple University in the 1970s, and served for 12 years ending in 1991 as a clinical social worker at the Northwestern Institute of Psychiatry in Fort Washington.
Mrs. Sadoff’s role as a social worker took her to hospitals, schools, family agencies, and Philadelphia neighborhoods. She saw firsthand the changes that were occurring in family dynamics and was an authority on the subject, lecturing to academic, professional and community audiences.
In 1992, after watching a PBS program about discrimination against African Americans, Mrs. Sadoff and her husband followed the Freedom Trail through the Deep South, seeking sites important to the civil rights movement.
They got lost looking for the Mount Zion church in Philadelphia, Miss., and when they asked for directions, a local woman was baffled by their quest. When the Sadoffs explained their interest in the church as a backdrop to civil rights history, the woman said: ”Do you have a recorder? Do I have some stories I could tell you,” the couple’s son, David, recalled.
The Sadoffs returned with a camera crew and made a film in Neshoba County, where three civil rights workers were abducted and murdered by whites in June 1964. Titled Philadelphia, Mississippi: Untold Stories, the movie explored the impact of the crime on the townspeople 25 years later.
The first documentary led to a second, based on interviews with a dozen Southern women who had stood up to the Jim Crow laws, putting themselves and their families at risk.
Titled Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders, the 2002 film profiled a dozen women, including Unita Blackwell, Constance Slaughter Harvey, and Fannie Lou Hamer. It was shown worldwide and screened in 2000 in New York at the Kennedy Community Center.
“Seven or eight of the women in the book were there,” said her son, who watched as they walked down the aisle to a standing ovation. “These were remarkable women, almost like profiles in courage.”
Mrs. Sadoff decided to take the stories from the film and combine them into a book. She assembled the women, and those who knew them, to write essays about their struggle. In 2011, Mrs. Sadoff served as a co-editor, along with the women themselves, of the book, Pieces From the Past: Voices of Heroic Women in Civil Rights. The Sadoffs then traveled the nation, showing the Sisters film and bringing attention to the stories, her son said.
In addition to her profession, Mrs. Sadoff was a civic volunteer. She served on the advisory board of the La Salle University Social Work Department, the Community Women’s Education Project in Philadelphia, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization in New York.
She received the 2005 Social Worker of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers–Pennsylvania Chapter, the 2004 Gallery of Success Award from the Temple University Alumni Association, and the 2007 Heart of Gold Award from La Salle University.
The Sadoffs were longtime residents of Huntingdon Valley, where they raised four children. Dr. Sadoff died in 2017.
Besides her son, she is survived by daughters Debra Sadoff, Julie Sadoff, and Sherry Hanck; 10 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14, at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home, 310 Second Street Pike, Southampton. Interment will be at 2:15 p.m. in Roosevelt Memorial Park, Trevose.