Crossing the Threshold

Since its inception in 1918, Women’s League has sought to expand the role of Jewish women beyond the home and synagogue.

by Sarrae G. Crane

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In a recent burst of cleaning, I found a well-thumbed copy of Across the Threshold: a Guide for the Jewish Homemaker, by Shonie B. Levi and Sylvia R. Kaplan, which occupied a prominent place in my mother’s kitchen. Published by Women’s League in 1959, it was reissued several times in the ’60s and finally in 1978 as A Guide for the Jewish Homemaker, and was often presented by sisterhoods to brides in their congregations. The book proclaimed: “The management of a home in the Jewish tradition is a dignified, important, and rewarding job.” On the surface, the book’s hypothesis was that the role of the Jewish woman was to keep the home Jewish, to celebrate the holidays and to cook the meals that were appropriate for the holidays.

I wondered why the book was so important to my mother as she had grown up in a committed Jewish home and knew how to run one. A quick read through it gave me my answer. Across the Threshold was actually a reference book to resources available in the Jewish community and the community-at-large, offering information on what could be found in other organizations. In fact, it encouraged involvement in groups such as the League of Women Voters and American Association for the United Nations, and in other Jewish organizations such as Hadassah. In a world without the Internet, it helped readers find what they needed to add value to their lives and those of their families.

Although many elements of the book are dated – all married women had the same first names, Mrs; all families were presumed to consist of a mother, father and a few children; and tasks are clearly divided by gender – the values of maintaining a Jewish home, participating in learning at all ages and community involvement (both Jewish and secular) continue to resonate with us.

Across the Threshold was and is a true reflection of Women’s League’s goals, prodding members to strengthen their commitment to Conservative Judaism through the sisterhood and synagogue, and in their homes, while urging them to be involved in the larger community.

Over the years, Women’s League has become the voice of Conservative Jewish women, taking its rightful place at many tables and forums. By 1950, we had resolutions in support of the United Nations and at the earliest opportunity obtained NGO (non-governmental organization) status. For over 60 years, our representatives have worked to encourage friends for Israel and combat anti-Semitism, and we have joined with other groups to ensure the rights of women and promote gender equality.

In 1972, Women’s League and four other women’s organizations joined the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which until then was comprised of 23 organizations of men plus Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women. The Jewish Telegraphic Association coverage of the event began with: “The ‘Women’s Lib’ movement came to the Conference…”

Women’s League has adopted a comprehensive set of resolutions on domestic matters, encouraged its members to be proactive advocates, and partnered with responsible organizations on issues of common concern. We support a broad array of positions that enhance our democratic pluralistic society: health care, gender equality, the environment, reproductive choice, gun control, immigration laws, civil liberties and human rights.

Reflecting our concern for these issues, in the early 1980s we joined the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, now known as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is the public policy forum for the American Jewish community. Our delegates play an active role, and its influence can be seen in Women’s League resolutions.

Within the Conservative movement, Women’s League has been a driving force for religious rights for women. Advocating  for women being counted in a minyan and serving as gabbayot and hazzanim was only part of the equation. Kolot biK’dushah, established in the 1990s, provided the tools for individuals to master synagogue skills; the fruits of that effort are visible in egalitarian congregations across North America.

In the mid-’80s, when the arms of the movement created the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism, Women’s League was one of its founding members and its leaders remain active.

An essential element of the mission of Women’s League is to reinforce bonds with Jews worldwide by nurturing a love of Israel among its members, promoting support of the Conservative/Masorti Movement in Israel, its synagogues and women’s groups, and religious pluralism. Masorti Women International is a vital outgrowth of this commitment. Masorti women throughout Israel participate in annual Women’s League Days of Study, co-sponsored by the the Masorti Movement and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

Women’s League has been committed to MERCAZ-USA and MERCAZ-Canada since their inception in the late 1970s. We are proud that three of our past presidents – Goldie Kweller, Evelyn Seelig and Janet Tobin – served as presidents of MERCAZ USA and that Marion Mayman currently serves as president of MERCAZ-Canada. And as a sign of our dedication, Women’s League joined the American Zionist Movement in 2011.

Women’s League has always modeled the concepts that Levi and Kaplan advocated in that well-used book from my family kitchen, by providing women with the tools to create vibrant Jewish homes while asserting our collective voice for the good of the greater community. The combined values of our themes for the last several years – Hiddur Mitzvah, enhancing modern observance, and Mispachah, focusing on the modern Jewish family in its many manifestations – along with our commitment to tikkun olam are what have attracted women since 1918 and continue to give meaning to its membership today.

Sarrae Crane is executive director of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.