Sister Act

In a world where women can be rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents, traditional sisterhoods are re-inventing themselves and tweaking tradition to stay relevant in women’s lives.

by Laurie Kamens

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Mother and daughter, Jan Weiner (left) and Becca Weiner (right) enjoy some intergenerational bonding at Temple Israel Sisterhood’s Paid-Up Opening Member/Torah Fund Luncheon.

We’re not your grandmother’s sisterhood,” Temple Aliyah’s women’s organization proclaimed boldly two years ago. The new slogan was part of the Woodland Hills, California, sisterhood’s rebranding campaign, initiated in response to a feeling among women in the congregation that sisterhood was no longer meeting their needs.

“People felt sisterhood was old ladies in the kitchen,” said President Julie Davine. “So we decided to make some changes because otherwise we weren’t going to exist anymore.”

The sense that sisterhood is a group of older women whose primary purpose it is to cater, cook and serve kiddush, whether accurate or not, seems pervasive in many Conservative synagogues. The specter of the “kiddush ladies” has grown to such proportions that at times it can hang over the organization like a dark shadow, keeping younger members away.

To escape this negative association, Davine and her fellow leaders decided the word “sisterhood” would have to go. The group renamed itself Women of Aliyah, and introduced a slew of new programming that included trendy exercise classes, topical discussions and fun social outings.

“We’re trying to change the way we do things to be more current,” said Davine. “My dream is for women to look at sisterhood as an organization that helps them socially, emotionally, educationally…and is relevant for them in today’s synagogue life.”

Though outdated, the notion of sisterhood members as the “kiddush ladies” has roots in both historical and societal circumstances.

Founded in 1918 by prominent, well-educated rabbis’ wives, education was the primary purpose of what would become Women’s League for Conservative Judaism (the umbrella organization for Conservative sisterhoods). Catering to the influx of non-English speaking, uneducated immigrants coming to the United States in the early 1900s, it was conceived as a vehicle to teach Jewish women about Jewish holidays, Torah, and other forms of cultural literacy.

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Temple Emanuel Sisterhood volunteers at the Greater Boston Food Bank.

“The principal tenet was to nurture and increase Jewish women’s commitment to Judaism through their knowledge and under-standing of it,” said Lisa Kogen, Education/Program Director of Women’s League.

Women’s League distributed English publications explaining basic Jewish principles, taught women how to read and daven in Hebrew (in Eastern Europe, siddurim for women were written in Yiddish), and created holistic educational program outlines for local chapters.

Yet, even armed with greater Jewish and Hebraic knowledge, women’s roles in synagogue life were restricted. Relegated to the edges and background of religious life, women were not allowed to lead services, receive an aliyah, wear tallit or tefillin, or hold any clerical positions.

However there was one area in which women were allowed to con-tribute to synagogue life – the kiddush. “That became an important component of what sisterhood did because women’s roles in the synagogue were an extension of their roles at home,” Kogen said.

Cooking and serving food after services, along with holding fundraisers for the shul and Hebrew school, became the primary functions of sisterhoods. But these narrow roles began to seem anachronistic as women gained more opportunities for synagogue leadership and ritual involvement.

“Today we’re so much for than the kiddush ladies,” said Sarrae Crane, executive director of Women’s League. “We see ourselves as integral parts of the synagogue…not relegated to any one role.”

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Temple Israel Sisterhood shows off their finished shalach manot at the Purim Basket Fundraiser set-up.

“We’ve moved from behind the aprons to learned women,” agreed Hilary Rosenbaum, co-president of Temple Israel sisterhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We are very connected and have a voice. We’ve come a long way.”

Since Women’s League’s founding, the role of women in both society and the synagogue has radically changed. Feminism has brought women political standing, increased gender equality and prominence in the professional world, while egalitarianism in the synagogue has afforded them opportunities in leadership and ritual life that the founders didn’t even dream of.

At the same time, these opportunities fundamentally reshaped the landscape of women’s daily lives. Now, with women balancing careers, child rearing, social obligations, and more, it has become increasingly hard for them to find time for sisterhood activities.

To engage women today, say sisterhood leaders, the groups must be willing to adapt and to provide something of value in a world full of options. One of the ways sisterhoods address this is through new kinds of programming.

As sisterhoods evolved, they became important social out-lets. They were clubs where women gathered for luncheons, mah jongg, fashion shows, and recipe swapping. Though these programs have not disappeared, and are still valued by many, sisterhoods today are looking to grow beyond this model. “Women want programs that are more engaging, intellectual and inspiring,” said Kogen.

Davine, for instance, and the Women of Aliyah are “trying to do things that are more diverse, dynamic, and a little bit edgier.” This has included activities like poker (a stereotypically male game), wine and cheese nights, and educational programs centered around current topics such as how women deal with challenges like the death of a spouse, motherhood, and new careers.

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A member of Women’s League of B’nai Torah Congregation shows off her outfit at a fashion show, while in the background women peruse donated purses for a fundraiser where all proceeds benefited the religious school.

“Not everything will appeal to everybody, but you engage on your own level,” said Denise Abadi, the other president of Temple Israel Sisterhood, which started a Zumba program, a Passover “Harosets Around the World” tasting, and discussions about how to deal with bullying, ADHD, and raising a special needs child.

Programs such as these infuse vibrancy into sisterhood, adding new sensibilities to the organization and engaging women in dialogue around contemporary issues. Referring to the move away from the old model, Sheryl Kalis, president of Temple Emanuel’s sisterhood in Newton, Massachusetts, said, “It’s part of our his-tory and who we are, but we’re more than that now. We’re moving with the times.” There’s still a place for fashion shows and mah jongg, but Temple Emanuel also has introduced weekend retreats, Jewish murder-mystery events, and a yoga minyan.

Engaging actively with today’s world seems to be the key to ensuring sisterhood’s continued survival. “People join communities for a sense of purpose and meaning, not for a sense of history or to be part of an institution,” said Rabbi Deborah Silver of Adat Ari El in Valley Village, California, and a keynote speaker at the 2012 Women’s League convention. Silver encourages women to tackle this issue by asking themselves, “What do women do in the synagogue? What does it mean to be a woman who is working as part of a community? What does it mean to be a member of this community? And, finally, what is this community for?”

Women’s League has begun addressing these questions through looking to one of its founding principles. Since its inception, a primary function of sisterhoods has been fundraising, both for philanthropic causes and the synagogue itself. Early on sister-hoods helped fund various charities, most often connected to Israel or Zionist causes. However in recent years the organization has begun to look closer to home, and beyond the Jewish community, to lend a helping hand. At each international convention since 2006, Women’s League has participated in a large scale social action project to directly benefit its host city. “It’s only been a few years, but we understand that we are part of the world we live in,” said Kogen. “That’s a major cultural shift within Women’s League that has come about within the last decade.”

Several sisterhoods also have made increased efforts to give back to their local communities. Every program at Women’s League of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida, has a community service element – even the group’s mah jongg games are accompanied by a charitable collection. The women participate in hands-on projects, serving holiday dinners at a residence for adults with special needs, lighting Hanukkah candles at a senior center, volunteering at a halfway house for homeless families, and crafting for people in need. “Being able to combine our work with the greater community has given us a different reputation,” said Shelly Gross, president, who’s seen this type of involvement bring attention and new members.

Sandi Schwartz, the community service vice president, said that “adding community service has been important to me because at first I felt that sisterhood was just there to raise money for the synagogue and I wanted to go beyond that.”

At the same time, raising money for synagogues is one of the most practical and vital roles that sisterhoods play. Through member dues, gift shops and social events, sisterhoods raise thousands of dollars each year.

Historically, sisterhood has long been an important contributing arm of the synagogue. “I often joke with my own sisterhood that sometimes they’re the synagogue’s ATM,” said Rabbi Silver.

“Synagogues came to rely on those budget lines from their sisterhood because women were very adept at raising money,” said Kogen, “yet all the while not giving women any kind of say about how that money would be spent.”

In sharp contrast, today’s sisterhoods help determine where their monies go, and several appropriate it to branches of the synagogue that are relevant to their membership, such as youth programs, scholarships, and the religious school.

However, raising money cannot be the sole answer to, “What is the sisterhood community for?” What women are looking for above all is, as Rabbi Silver put it, “purpose and meaning,” and that they find in the bonds and connections they forge with each other.

“I think women need a place to meet and people are always looking for connections,” said Davine. “Sisterhood is just one more way for synagogues to foster that.”

“We send our kids to Ramah and USY because we want them to connect, so why don’t we do the same things for ourselves?” asked Women’s League President Carol Simon. “Sisterhood is a place for women to come together to learn, study, socialize, and build a community in the synagogue,” she said. “It’s a safe place for women to grow and explore their Jewish lives, surrounded by women who only want them to succeed.”

Creating a space for women has proven benefits. Kogen points out that statistics show women who attend same sex schools often emerge later as leaders in their field. “There’s a lot of emotional benefit that comes from women being surrounded by women,” she said. “Sometimes women need to be together in order to thrive in ways they don’t anywhere else.”

Gross, of B’nai Torah, sees this embodied in her group’s Sisterhood Shabbat, an annual service where the women are responsible for leading prayers, reading Torah, delivering the d’var Torah, and so on. Promoting female involvement in larger synagogue life, “reminds me of when I would take my daughter to a female doctor so that she knew that everything was an opportunity,” she said. “That is what I do in helping to lead services. Our young women are seeing that everything is open to them.”

A community filled with opportunities and support is one of the greatest things sisterhood has to offer women, according to several leaders, and today’s sister-hoods serve as rich breeding grounds for encouraging female success and engagement in Jewish life. In a certain way, by fostering female talent the groups have come full circle. Sisterhood, “created socially acceptable, religious, and social environments where women could flourish,” said Kogen. Today it is simply finding new ways to fulfill that mission.

“I love the energy, compassion, and strength of the women of sisterhood,” said Kalis. “I love the range of ages and the variety of experience that we represent. I love that we care about each other and use our collective strength to engage sisterhood, the synagogue, and our greater community with each passing year.”

As for what the passing years will ultimately hold for sisterhood and Women’s League, Rabbi Silver urges women to look toward the bigger picture. “I don’t think that we can lay down hard and fast what sisterhood’s future is going to look like, because we can’t lay down hard and fast what our community’s future is going to look like,” she said. “Liberal Judaism in North America is in the process of significant change and upheaval, but the best thing we can do is be open to adapting and that means getting out of the kitchen.”

Laurie Kamens is a senior writer and social media manager for USCJ.