On January 21, 1918, 100 women convened in the Assembly Hall of the Jewish Theological Seminary to establish the Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America, an organization in support of traditional Judaism. It was a remarkable assemblage of educated and talented women, many of whom were the wives of rabbis, scholars and communal leaders of the same ideological stripe. Among the participants were representatives of already established congregational women’s auxiliary groups and other recently formed Jewish women’s organizations including the (National) Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, the Council of Jewish Women, the YWHA, and Hadassah.
Delivering the meeting’s keynote address – in fact, providing its clarion call – was Mathilde Roth Schechter. Mathilde, diminutive in stature, towering in presence, was the widow of Solomon Schechter. The grand architect of Conservative Judaism in North America, he had served as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1902 to 1915 and was the founding president of United Synagogue of America. Throughout her married life, Mathilde faithfully fulfilled the socially prescribed role of supportive wife and nurturing mother, all the while revealing that she was also a woman of formidable intellect and talent. Among her lengthy list of accomplishments, Mathilde Schechter was an exceptional writer, editor, translator, and conversationalist with tremendous organizational capability and vision. Mathilde and Solomon were the ultimate power couple.
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It is no small coincidence that the idea of the women’s arm of the United Synagogue envisioned by Solomon was actualized by Mathilde, three years after his death. In his address to the first United Synagogue Convention in 1913, Schechter articulated a programmatic agenda, focusing particularly on the women whose education had been “woefully neglected,” and through them, educating their children. In delineating the public role for women in the union’s work he remarked: “They can become more than an auxiliary to us; indeed, helpful in many respects where, as conditions are in this country, their influence is more far-reaching than that of their husbands.” In her address half a decade later, Mathilde reframed her husband’s challenge, adding that the “task for American Jewish women was to perpetuate traditional Judaism in their homes, synagogues and communities.”
Where Have All the Women Gone?
Any attempt to reconstruct a history of the relationship between the United Synagogue and Women’s League is hampered by several considerations. The most significant factor is that women, their activities and voices were largely neglected while those of men were celebrated. Even recent histories of the United Synagogue have paid scant attention to the women of that pioneering generation. A 1977 issue of Judaism, featuring a symposium on Conservative Judaism on its 90th birthday, made similarly negligible reference to the role of Women’s League. Most ironic may be that the one female contributor was then Women’s League president Ruth Perry, who offered only a brief paragraph on the accomplishments of her organization. Again in 1988, Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook included only one female, Mathilde Schechter, among dozens of entries.
A long overdue analysis of the role played by women in early to mid-20th century Conservative movement history was made, finally, by Shuly Rubin Schwartz in her acclaimed work The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life. Schwartz, a JTS-based historian of American Jewish and feminist history, presents a more multidimensional picture of rabbinic wives than that of the gendered model of supportive spouse and fundraiser. According to Schwartz, rabbis’ wives – many of whom populated the highest ranks of Women’s League leadership – were aware of “the special role they could play not only in American life, but also in shaping American Judaism.” No longer relegated to the precincts of hearth and home, their influence could and should extend far beyond to their synagogues and communities.
An Army in Hats and Gloves
The founding members of Women’s League evolved into a formidable army of volunteers. For the most part they were well educated, Hebraically and Judaically knowledgeable, articulate, engaging, confident, and deeply committed to the ideals and practices of Conservative Judaism. If acknowledged at all, most are remembered as their husband’s wives, even within Women’s League’s own publications. Among the top tier of leadership, recognizable to just a few feminist historians, are Emily Solis-Cohen (Miss), Sarah Kussy (Miss), Deborah Melamed (Mr. Raphael), Goldie Cohen (Mrs. Samuel), Racie Adler (Mrs. Cyrus), Hanna Marx (Mrs. Alexander), Augusta Kohn (Mrs. Jacob), Carrie Davidson (Mrs. Israel), and the presidential successors to Mathilde Schechter, Fanny Hoffman (Mrs. Charles, 1919-1928) and Dora Spiegel (Mrs. Sam, 1928-1944).
But even in the organization’s infancy, its leaders understood their roles as educators and propagandists. (In the early 20th century, propaganda meant simply public information, getting the word out.) So by May of 1919, with 52 Women’s League affiliates and over 500 individual members, leaders saw the need to create and disseminate educational materials in concert with the programmatic agenda of the United Synagogue. These materials, by and large created by their own members (one noteworthy exception being a Passover pamphlet written by Mordechai Kaplan), addressed a host of subjects from holiday customs and observance to sisterhood programming ideas and organization. Very popular were Friday night children’s stories and blessing cards that eventually sold in the tens of thousands.
The crowning achievement of the first decade was the 1927 publication of Deborah Melamed’s The Three Pillars. Melamed, a classics major at HunterCollege, the education chair and a vice president of Women’s League, and a member of the editorial board of the United Synagogue Recorder, was commissioned by Women’s League (with a loan from United Synagogue to defray costs) to write a comprehensive guide for women, in English, encapsulating the philosophy and practices of Conservative Judaism. Melamed’s book, proofread and approved by JTS Professor Louis Ginzberg, became an overnight success and eventually The Three Pillars went through nine publications.
To All You Listeners Out There
On a parallel course, Women’s League developed an impressive communal portfolio. At the urging of Mathilde Schechter, again in partnership with United Synagogue, it helped finance and operate the Jewish Students House that provided board and kosher meals for JTS and Columbia students. In conjunction with the Jewish Welfare Board, the Students House was available to servicemen furloughed in New York City. The student accommodations were considered so necessary that Women’s League soon organized another near the University of Pennsylvania. Before maintaining these student houses became impossible during the Depression, plans were in the works for facilities in Ithaca, Ann Arbor and Denver.
Other areas of community activity involved support and some oversight of Sylvan Lake Camp for Girls in Fishkill, New York, operated “in strict accordance with Jewish practice.” In another venture, the newly created New York Branch of Women’s League (corresponding to that of the United Synagogue) was involved in financing and teaching Bible classes in the New York City settlement houses, and with a relatively costly program to provide summer outings for children. During the protracted executive committee discussion about the costs, the proponents argued that the goal was not merely philanthropic but also to counter the missionary activities and programs in churches to which hundreds of Jewish children flocked each summer.
In 1924, United Synagogue Executive Director Samuel Cohen approached Women’s League with an offer of a radio broadcast on WEAF in New York. The radio program, initially under the chairmanship of Racie Adler (wife of Cyrus Adler, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary) became a very successful, but organizationally challenging, undertaking. Women’s League was responsible for the on-air production as well as the development and management of the programming that included ritual instructions, Jewish and classical music, poetry, and even lectures about the increasingly popular field of child psychology.
Women’s League – generally in conjunction with United Synagogue but sometimes on its own – offered financial and political support to a variety of organizations and causes throughout the post-World War I decade. Appeals were many, and despite limited resources the executive committee chose to support a diverse set of causes from the Falashahs and Jewish War Orphans to programs nurturing Jewish identity in college girls. They had a representative in the American Jewish Committee and they were ardently pro-Zionist.
As a precursor to its successful Torah Fund campaign on behalf of JTS, in 1921 Women’s League joined with United Synagogue to raise money for the struggling young seminary, which was about to relocate. Several years later they joined forces again to fund the construction of a new synagogue center in Jerusalem. These campaigns were distinct from their joint campaigns to increase membership and raise funds for their own organizations.
Most remarkable, and again rarely acknowledged, was the role of Women’s League in movement propaganda campaigns to far-flung communities. The minutes of the executive committee commend the women who journeyed to Cincinnati, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco in the west, and to upstate New York, Connecticut and Toronto in the north. These emissaries discussed how to organize a sisterhood; how to keep kosher; creating a synagogue library; how to raise Jewish children in a non-Jewish world. The success of these messengers is reflected in the unprecedented upsurge of sisterhood affiliations throughout the 1920s.
The growth from 52 affiliates in 1918 to nearly 200 a decade later was a remarkable return on their investment. The Women’s League of the United Synagogue, one could argue, was among United Synagogue’s premier, if not its most potent, marketing vehicles. In a letter to Samuel Cohen (in May of 1926), Dr. Mayer Winkler of the South West California Branch of United Synagogue describes the hardfought inroads that Conservative Judaism was making on the west coast. He wrote: “The latter [Women’s League], especially, is becoming an influential factor in the community. A League Sabbath which is soon to be observed will be introduced in a broadcast… over the radio for all to hear.”
The Power Couples
The union of the United Synagogue and Women’s League transcended their shared mission. While the alliance was born of a vision shared by Conservative Judaism’s first couple, its durability extended beyond the Schechters’ respective tenures. And the simultaneous model of husband-wife leadership in both organizations continued. The presidency of Mathilde’s hand-picked successor, Fanny Hoffman (1919-1928), coincided with that of Charles Hoffman as secretary of the United Synagogue and editor of the United Synagogue Recorder. Charles, one of Solomon Schechter’s most devoted students, oversaw United Synagogue’s nationwide network of small communities in search of religious programming at the same time that Women’s League was involved in its own outreach to small communities.
Goldie and Samuel Cohen were another power couple. Samuel served for nearly two decades (1917-1941) as the first executive director of the United Synagogue and Goldie, a prominent member of the Women’s League executive committee, was one of its most widely traveled and effective propagandists. (All was not always a bed of roses between the two organizations – especially when it came to financial matters – but how these issues were adjudicated is a conversation for another time.)
We have barely scratched the surface of the accomplishments of Women’s League during its first extraordinary decade. The foundational generation of Conservative Jewish women encountered and embraced a new world where their voices ventured beyond their front doors, where they shared biblical interpretations along with (or instead of) recipes, and where their support for causes once the exclusive domain of men was sought. It was a blessed union – hand in glove – one that would endure for decades, until the offspring was able to venture out on her own.