Sisterhood is Powerful
Sisterhood is Powerful
“Sisterhood is the rabbi’s best friend.”1
The American Hebrew, January 6, 1928
What is sisterhood? According to the definitions found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “1. A community or society of sisters; especially: a society of women in a religious order. 2.The solidarity of women based on shared conditions, experiences, or concerns.”2
National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) founded in 1893 was the “first national organization in history to unite Jewish women to promote the Jewish religion.”3 While there are records of Jewish women gathering together for the benefit of their synagogue as far back as the Civil War4, the very first Reform movement sisterhood was founded in 1889 at Temple Emanu-El in New York. The Reform movement's first national temple sisterhood association was founded in 1913 as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), later to be renamed Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ)5 and predated the Conservative movement's sisterhood, the Women's Religious of the United Synagogue by five years. Over its 103 years the WRJ, has significantly impacted the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) / Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)6 through actively fundraising for the students and the facility of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the first rabbinical school of the Reform movement; financing the building of the House of Living Judaism, which relocated Reform Judaism to New York; and was a founding partner for National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), an organization that has nurtured young Jewish youth into leadership positions at all levels within the Reform movement.
WRJ defines its organization as “the collective voice and presence of women in congregational life. Stronger together, we support the ideals and enhance the quality of Jewish living to ensure the future of progressive Judaism in North America, Israel, and around the world.”7 This definition is the statement upon which many sisterhoods base their own mission statements. WRJ sisterhoods are social groups that build relationships together with other Reform Jewish women while answering to the needs of their synagogues, surrounding communities, the Reform movement and the social and political aspects impacting the world. Sisterhood, through WRJ creates a supportive environment in which its members meet and work together to foster and further the highest ideals of Judaism. As the purpose of NFTS evolved into WRJ so did its influence grow from the promotion of Judaism to the social justice of humanity.
Despite the significant contributions of the WRJ to the Reform Movement, its history is largely unknown. Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of WRJ stated:
“There are too many people in our Movement who do not know the story of WRJ. The major reason, it seems to me, is that WRJ is not engaged in a continual campaign of self-promotion – which tends to be the norm in the Jewish world. They are simply too busy encouraging the grassroots efforts of their members, and in doing the everyday, nitty-gritty work that sustains our synagogues and strengthens the Jewish people.”8
Feminist and gender theory understand that because sisterhood women have always served their synagogue communities in the “traditional” female roles: teaching in the religious school, baking for the onegs and synagogue dinners, making sure the sanctuary was decorated for the holidays. This has led to its lack of recognition sisterhood women have undertaken.
“Long before that first organized meeting of the NFTS (National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods), women had become a vital part of synagogue life in many Reform congregations in America and Canada. Women’s auxiliaries were educating future generations in Sabbath schools, helping to buy ritual objects for their synagogues, organizing community holiday celebrations and creating caring communities.”9
Since their inception, sisterhood women have proven to be successful in instituting a social difference worldwide. Long before the term was even originated, I believe that these amazing women were role models for early feminism, establishing power and change through their voices, deeds and actions.
Just 103 years ago, 152 women dedicated to the teachings of Reform Judaism gathered to establish an organization dedicated to religion. “One hundred years later, WRJ has evolved into a large and complex organization boasting eight district offices, nearly five hundred sisterhood affiliates and a membership of approximately 65,000 women.”10 As Temple Beth Hillel of Valley Village, CA states on their website:
“Sisterhood is made up of all the women of Temple Beth Hillel. We’re old, young and somewhere in between. We may be employed full-time, or part-time, in the home or out. We may be retired. We may have little kids, or big kids, empty nests or no nests. We all have full lives, yet find the extra time to be active in temple life as the work – and the relationships - are so very rewarding.”11
Sisterhood is inclusive of women with various interests, expanding the definition of feminism as not limited to activism.
The scope of WRJ has broadened to helping the youth of the world, enhancing Jewish education, assisting charitable organizations outside of Judaism and marching for women’s rights. They have openly supported issues that the UAHC/URJ took many more years to stand behind, for instance; the ordination of women, which WRJ supported in 1961,12 seven years before the Union of American Hebrew Congregations endorsed women’s admission to the rabbinate.13 At the URJ biennial in 2015, URJ stated it “Affirms its commitment to the full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions”.14 WRJ passed a similar resolution, twenty-four years earlier in 1991.15
The congregational sisterhood works to strengthen and support their synagogues in any way that it can, both in front and behind the scenes. Their names may not be as familiar as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Activist Betty Friedan, but their work has made an indelible mark on Reform Judaism today.
1 Joselit, Jenna Weissman. "The Special Sphere of the Middle-Class American Jewish Woman: The Synagogue Sisterhood, 1890-1940." In The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed, edited by Jack Wertheimer, 206. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
2 "Sisterhood." Merriam-Webster. 2014. Accessed February 03, 2015.
3 Rogow, F. "Sharing Stories Inspiring Change." National Council of Jewish Women| Jewish Women's Archive. Accessed November 6, 2016.
4 The Pluralism Project. 2006. Accessed September 09, 2016.
5 NFTS changed its name to WRJ in 1993, all references before 1993 will be referred to as NFTS, and after as WRJ.
6 UAHC changed its name to WRJ in 2003, all references before 2003 will be referred to as UAHC, and after as URJ
7 The Pluralism Project. 2006. Accessed September 09, 2016.
8 Building a Movement: A Survey of 100 Years of Sisterhood Support,” Women of Reform Judaism, November 5, 2013, accessed June 9, 2015,
9 Women of Reform Judaism: A Centennial Celebration. New York, NY, 2013.
Our Roots Run Deep.
10 Zola, Gary P. "Sisterhood and the American Synagogue: An Introduction." Edited by Gary P. Zola, Jonathan B. Sarna, and Dana Herman. In Sisterhood: A Centennial History of Women of Reform Judaism, edited by Carole B. Balin, 3. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press, 2013.
11 "Women of TBH." Temple Beth Hillel, Reform Synagogue in Valley Village, California. Accessed February 09, 2016.
12 Women of Reform Judaism: A Centennial Celebration. New York, NY, 2013.
WRJ Lends a Voice to Social Issues and Civil Rights.
13 Nadell, Pamela Susan. Women who would be rabbis: a history of women's ordination, 1889-1985. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998. 169.
14 " "Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People." URJ. Accessed June 11, 2015.
15 "WRJ R&S 2003 Transgender and Bisexual Rights." Accessed November 11, 2016.