a conversation with Dolores Kosberg Wilkenfeld, Lynn Magid Lazar, and Dara Amram
Women of Reform Judaism—the oldest and largest of the Union for Reform Judaism affiliates, representing 65,000+ women in nearly 500 Reform women’s groups worldwide—is celebrating its Centennial in 2013.
When the organization was founded in 1913 as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), women could not even vote in national elections, much less become rabbis, cantors, or congregational presidents. During the early years, NFTS President Carrie O. Simon worked to encourage the Union and its congregations to allow women on their boards, and in 1925, NFTS President Stella Freiberg became the first woman to serve on the Union’s board. On the international stage, NFTS Executive Director Jane Evans served as a consultant to the U.S. delegation during the San Francisco Conference at which the United Nations charter was drafted. Using their collective power, Sisterhood women changed the landscape of congregational life, as well as North American and world politics.
In this RJ symposium, three WRJ leaders of different generations—Dolores Kosberg Wilkenfeld, Lynn Magid Lazar, and Dara Amram—recount little-known stories about how WRJ has transformed Jewish life, how Sisterhoods evolved with changing times, why Jewish women and the Movement rely upon a Jewish women's organization, and the future they seek to create. To learn more, visit wrj.org.
Why did you join Sisterhood, and what was it like when you first got involved?
Dolores Kosberg Wilkenfeld, NFTS President 1985-89: Having come from a long line of “temple Jews,” I joined Sisterhood to find my own spiritual home where I could make a personal contribution. In 1957, Congregation Emanu El in Houston had an active, creative Sisterhood. Hearing that I had worked in radio and television advertising, the incoming Sisterhood president asked me to co-write a skit for our opening meeting, and another member asked me to help her write the Sisterhood newsletter. Being asked to help, I immediately felt needed.
I was proud to be part of all our Sisterhood did. We served as “lay” youth advisors and supported our youth group however we could—including standing in as emergency female counselors at our youth group’s camp in the Texas Hill Country. Because we promoted youth activities, engaging young people became a “front burner” issue for the congregation.
We also participated in local interfaith activities and helped activate a broad-based community coalition on housing that resulted in the establishment of Houston’s first housing code.
Nationally, NFTS leaders had long promoted engaging young people. In 1927, NFTS Youth Chair Jean Wise May called for developing a federation of the Young Folks Temple Leagues, which already existed in many congregations. It took almost 15 years of NFTS persistence and interim activity before the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) formally established the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY, now North American Federation of Temple Youth), which led to the Union’s highly successful camping program. For almost 20 years, NFTS was NFTY’s sole financial source; today, WRJ supports the Union’s work with high school and college-age youth through our Youth-Education-Special Projects (YES) Fund.
On the international level, in 1971, I served as a NFTS convener for the first Women’s Plea for Human Rights for Soviet Jewry, urging that Jews in the USSR be allowed either to emigrate or practice Judaism openly in their home countries. Nowadays we have NGO representation at the United Nations and engage in advocacy efforts on behalf of Jewish and humanitarian causes worldwide.
For many women, including me, Sisterhood leadership served as an “entry” point to greater participation/leadership within our congregations. Sisterhood presidents (who sat on the temple board by virtue of their position) were often subsequently elected to the temple board in their own right. Some later assumed the temple presidency, as I did.
Lynn Magid Lazar, WRJ President: When I joined in 1975, almost every congregation had a Sisterhood, and almost every woman belonged to it. Our Sisterhood at Temple Beth Israel, York, Pennsylvania had 100+ members in a congregation of fewer than 200 families. In most communities Sisterhood women were the synagogue’s heart and hands. When our religious school needed new desks, more teachers, help planning a Tu B’Shvat seder, etc., our principal turned to Sisterhood. Sisterhood also “owned” the kitchen, which was nearly in constant use: breakfast pancakes for the “shul in” senior youth group sleepover; monthly gourmet luncheon meetings; brisket, kugel, and desserts for the Sisterhood Shabbat service dinner.
Dara Amram, WRJ Board of Directors: Based on my grandmother and mother’s experiences, I had high expectations of Sisterhood when I joined in 2004, but it lacked the vibrancy I’d anticipated. There hadn’t been a single Sisterhood event in three years!
I decided that if I wanted my needs met, I’d have to step up. First, though, I needed to know if our rabbi would be behind the effort. When I asked her, “Do we need a Sisterhood?” she answered with a resounding yes, saying that as a young child her mother always took her to Sisterhood meetings and that a strong women’s group could do a lot for our temple. She encouraged me to help build up the Sisterhood. I walked out of that meeting the new Sisterhood president.
In the beginning I was in my own Sisterhood bubble. Later, when I became a part of the WRJ president’s listserv, I learned that the majority of Sisterhoods across North America shared the same membership struggles and worked to overcome them through simple, fun social programming planned during peak temple hours.
It seems the interests and purview of Sisterhood women changed with the times. How have Sisterhoods stayed current?
Dolores: By the 1980s, more women were working and furthering their education, making long-term participation in Sisterhood projects less likely. We urged Sisterhoods to adjust to the new realities by being flexible in structuring, scheduling, and programming. In a presidential speech, I referred to the then popular commercial, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” stating, “This is not your mother’s Sisterhood. This is the new generation of Sisterhood.” Sisterhoods began to adjust meeting times and events, to transform long-term responsibilities into “one-shot jobs” or short-term projects, and to create new models of shared leadership and responsibility. Our vitality is testimony to the ability of each new generation to change with the times.
Lynn: Now that women play new roles in congregational life—we are rabbis, cantors, educators, temple presidents, and anything else we wish to be—we are able to multiply this power by the thousands, collectively accomplishing just about anything imaginable! The quintessential example is The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (urjbooksandmusic.com),which reshaped the arc of Jewish history by collecting and creating women’s scholarship into the first complete commentary on Torah written by women.
At the 1993 NFTS/WRJ assembly Cantor Sarah Sager challenged hundreds of women to imagine a Torah commentary written by women. WRJ then convened a “pilot” weekend of Sisterhood executive board members and women scholars to plan it, hundreds of other women joined to implement the plan, and thousands of women—the Women of Reform Judaism—turned the plan into reality.
One of the highlights of my life involves this commentary. At the 2011 Biennial assembly in Washington, DC, I was one of a small group of Movement leaders invited to meet President Barack Obama. I introduced myself as the president of Women of Reform Judaism and presented him with the volume. President Obama looked at it carefully. Then, holding up the book, he asked the assembled male Movement leaders, “Is this book the ‘true’ story?!” I replied that it was the story that hasn’t been told in the last 2,000 years. “Michelle would really like this book,” he replied, to which I added, “As will your daughters.”
Dolores: The WRJ Torah commentary has not only given “voice” to women in the context of the Torah; it has raised the profile of women as rabbis, cantors, scholars, teachers, and students. It’s a symbol of the evolution of Sisterhood/NFTS/WRJ commitment to Jewish education, from its earliest years, which focused on rabbis and religious schools, to the intellectual and spiritual development of its own women, which is also evidenced in WRJ Torah study guides, WRJ books (the Covenant series), a WRJ-commissioned women’s Torah (Torat Nashim), and pre-Shabbat e-mail messages.
Today, Jewish women have any number of opportunities for Jewish engagement and leadership. Why do so many choose involvement with WRJ?
Dolores: For many of the same reasons they always did—the opportunities to support meaningful causes while also benefitting from the bonding, sharing, caring, mentoring, learning, and growing that is characteristic of women’s groups within the special context of her spiritual home. And, because our congregations deal in some of the most sensitive areas of people’s lives—faith, family, illness, life and loss, etc.—so do Sisterhoods. We are there to share the laughter and tears, support and cheer, congratulate and comfort. For 50+ years, I have been part of this “sacred circle,” and I still cherish every moment it affords me.
Lynn: Each woman has the opportunity to grow in her own way. Some women want companionship and connection. Others seek an entrée into more active temple life. Some want to be involved in their children’s Jewish education. Many wish to deepen their levels of Jewish literacy. Still others are driven to help heal our broken world, and have joined with WRJ to advocate for such important issues as civil rights, women’s health, GLTBQ equality, and women in the rabbinate—the latter nearly two years before anyone else in the Movement made a public statement.
I became a more literate Jew because of Sisterhood. When I grew up, my brothers studied for bar mitzvah but I was not required to study for bat mitzvah. At Sisterhood events as an adult, I participated in Torah study groups, unique worship services, and study sessions with fascinating teachers. Among an encouraging community of friends, a new world of Judaism opened up for me.
Early in my WRJ board service, I was offered the honor of chanting Torah during the Biennial Assembly. I said “no,” because I was unable to read from the Torah, and decided then and there to become an adult bat mitzvah—for if I were ever offered such an opportunity again, I wanted to be able to say “yes.” In 1998, I became a bat mitzvah with a class of women from my Sisterhood. And, when I was asked again, I was ready—chanting Torah at the URJ Biennial/WRJ assembly in Orlando in 1999.
Sisterhood opens doors through which many of us would not have otherwise entered. Our foremothers marched for the right to vote. We helped found the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Our foremothers taught their daughters Judaism. We study, teach, and have published a wealth of women’s scholarship to enhance our studies, including Covenant of the Heart and Covenant of the Soul, two books of prayers, poems, and meditations.
What are other WRJ contributions to Reform Judaism?
Lynn: NFTS was solely responsible for building a dormitory on HUC’s Cincinnati campus in the early 1920s. At the time the college was a commuter school in desperate need of providing on-campus housing for the young men studying to be American rabbis. Recognizing the importance of supporting those who would lead our nascent American Reform movement into the future, Sisterhood proclaimed, “We’re not building a building, we’re building Judaism!” The space is still called the Sisterhood Dorm, although it now houses offices and has become a gathering place on campus.
In the 1930s, HUC and the UAHC asked NFTS to finance the rescue of several young, promising Jewish students living in Germany who would study at HUC and become part of the Reform Movement. Of course, NFTS said “Yes!” That is how W. Gunther Plaut, Herman Schaalman, Woli Kaelter, Alfred Wolf, and Leo Lichtenberg became renowned, visionary rabbis of our Movement.
And in the late 1940s, when the UAHC planned its move from Cincinnati to New York City, NFTS Executive Director Jane Evans scouted out the property, and NFTS became its primary funder.
Dara: WRJ continues to support a wide range of Reform projects through its YES Fund, among them WUPJ’s NETZER youth camps in the Former Soviet Union, annual scholarships for eight Reform rabbinic and cantorial students, a Mother-Daughter Beit Midrash, a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Israel Religious Action Center’s efforts to eliminate gender discrimination in Israel.
What are the greatest challenges facing Sisterhood in its second century, and how is WRJ positioning itself to address them?
Lynn: One of our greatest challenges is to engage the next generation of young women who identify as Reform Jews but do not see themselves joining traditional dues/membership organizations. We are asking ourselves: Where are Jewish mothers of young children investing their time and energy? What kinds of activities will involve families? What synergies exist between WRJ and other organizations that interact with women and their families? Can we implement new membership models?
We also wish to reach out to the readers of Reform Judaism magazine. If you are a woman who is not part of our collective voice, we invite you into the WRJ family. Join us in advocating for important causes and supporting one another in living Jewishly connected lives. Visit wrj.org or call 866.WRJ.5924 and let’s begin a conversation about welcoming you into the sacred circle of Sisterhood.
Our 2013 Centennial celebration is a huge opportunity to re-envision WRJ and raise funds to “seed” new initiatives. Just as the women who came before us planned for a future that would bring us to this Centennial celebration, we are now planning to ensure that our second century is as powerful and transformative as the first.
1912 — Union of American Hebrew Congregations calls for “ladies” organizations to appoint a delegate for a meeting in January 1913. 1913 — National Federation of Temple Sisterhood is formed in Cincinnati. 156 delegates from 52 groups attend. 1913 — Work creating two traditions begins: Art calendar and Uniongram. 1915 — First assembly held in Chicago. 1915 — First NFTS resolution urges president to veto restrictive immigration bill. 1923 — First President Carrie O. Simon gets Union to encourage congregations to allow women on their boards. 1925 — NFTS builds the Sisterhood Dormitory on the Hebrew Union College Campus in Cincinnati. 1925 — As NFTS president, Stella Freiberg becomes first woman to serve on Union board. 1926 — World Union for Progressive Judaism begins, with support from NFTS. 1927 — NFTS establishes Committee on Jewish Literature for the Sightless. 1929 — NFTS creates director of Young Folk’s Activities, the seeds of NFTY. 1930 — Cradle Roll program for babies through toddlers established. 1931 — Jewish Braille Institute founded with NFTS support. 1933 — Jane Evans joins NFTS. 1935 — NFTS brings five German scholars to U.S. including W. Gunther Plaut, future author of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary.” 1936 — Saturday morning Shabbat radio shows broadcast by NFTS. 1938 — First pin introduced, a past president’s pin. 1938 — Silver Jubilee celebration in Chicago broadcast around the world. 1938 — NFTS Gertrude W. Watters becomes first woman elected to HUC board. 1939 — NFTY established. First 20 years NFTS is sole supporter. 1940 — First Uniongram day. 1941 — Book of Living Judaism fundraiser begins. It would later become House of Living Judaism capital campaign. 1945 — Jane Evans takes a leave of absence to create United Nations. 1948 — NFTS holds first council meeting for State Federations (predecessors of districts.) 1950 — NFTS votes to create youth camps. 1951 — NFTS project House of Living Judaism opens, moving Union headquarters from Cincinnati to New York. 1952 — First youth camp opens: URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. 1955 — Y.E.S. Fund created. 1961 — First NFTS president Carrie O.Simon dies. 1961 — 800 NFTS delegates visit White House. 1963 — Golden Jubilee celebrated in Cleveland. 1963 — Founder of WUPJ Lilly Montagu dies. 1968 — Jane Evans Wood of 3,500 trees planted in the Bar Kochba Forest in the Judean Hills. 1970 — NFTS builds synagogue for Ben Shemen Children’s Village in Lod. 1972 — Sally Preisand becomes first female rabbi, after decades-long campaign by NFTS. 1973 — NFTS builds library and Jane Evans Garden of Peace and Understanding at the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa. 1973 — NFTS past president Norma U. Levitt becomes first female elected to Union board of officers. 1973 — Or Ami Awards created for 60th anniversary. 1973 — NFTS helps found Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. 1976 — Eleanor Schwartz becomes executive director. 1976 —Kibbuts Yahel near Eilat established. NFTS builds a seminarium there. 1983 — NFTS Reading Room at HUC-JIR in New York opens. 1983 — NFTS opens preschool at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. 1986 — World Union Education Center, partially funded by NFTS, opens in Jerusalem. 1987 — NFTS participates in “Women’s Plea for Soviet Jewry” events. 1987 — At assembly, 75th anniversary celebrated. 1988 — NFTS leaders among women at Women’s Prayer Service at Western Wall. 1988 — NFTS-supported Beit Daniel preschool network in Israel opens. 1992 — Ellen Rosenberg becomes executive director. 1992 — NFTS part of Women’s March for Women’s Lives. 1993 — NFTS becomes Women of Reform Judaism. 1993 — Cantor Sarah Sanger challenges WRJ to write a women’s Torah commentary. 1993 — Covenant series of women written prayers begins. 1999 — WRJ moves to 633 Third Ave. 2000 — WRJ part of Million Mom March. 2001 — Torat Nashim, the WRJ Torah, is completed. 2004 — Jane Evans dies. 2004 — Shelley Lindauer becomes executive director. 2007 — “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” published. 2012 — Rabbi Marla Feldman becomes executive director. 2013 — WRJ celebrates its centennial with a yearlong fête.