First NFTS art calendar, 5674 (1913).
In the early 1900s, Barbara Solomon Goodman (1868–1948), the dynamo behind the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods’ (NFTS) Committee on Religion, helped pioneer many of the cultural, religious, and institutional practices taken for granted in Reform Judaism today.
The daughter of a wealthy German-born merchant, Goodman saw how at her congregation, Temple Adath Israel in Louisville, Kentucky, women predominated among the attendees. She believed that women, far more than men, were “deeply interested in things religious.” And so she defined the work of her committee in a single goal: “Devising plans in which the sisterhoods can engage for the general purpose of deepening the Jewish religious consciousness.”
Viewing the “religious consciousness” of the home as of particular importance, Goodman and her committee initiated a “Judaizing the home” campaign. As the first step, before Rosh Hashanah 5674 (1913), the committee issued the NFTS Art Calendar, an “artistic reminder of things Jewish” that illustrated the Jewish holidays. Goodman hoped “to place [it] in the home of every Sisterhood member.” The first three calendars won slow approval, but in the fourth year (1916), when the calendar was redesigned with higher quality art and greatly improved aesthetics, sales began to soar. To this day, the calendar serves as an NFTS (now WRJ) trademark.
Next Goodman and her committee saw Hanukkah as an untapped opportunity “to introduce religious observances in the home.” At a time when Christmas was becoming increasingly commercialized, Goodman explained to the NFTS Executive board, a properly instructed Jewish child “will delight in lighting the Hanukkah candles and will not need the Christmas tree to stimulate his understanding.” In 1921 she sent a letter to every temple sisterhood recalling the meaning of Hanukkah and urging members to distribute “a menorah and candles” to each child in the religious school. During this period, Hanukkah was not widely observed in Reform Jewish homes; some rabbis complained that “the Christmas tree [had] taken the place of the Hanukkah lights.” In response, Goodman called upon NFTS women “to kindle the Hanukkah candles in your home, to give presents to the children at that time, and to make them feel the significance of our own holiday.” Three years after that, her committee created “Hanukkah greeting cards,” as a fundraiser and Jewish alternative to Christmas cards. In a report to the National Executive in 1927, she boasted of success: Sisterhoods “responded splendidly” to the Hanukkah cards, selling 11,182 of them, and Hanukkah candles were being lit in more and more homes. Indeed, according to a survey of Reform Judaism in large cities conducted in the late 1920s, “Hanukkah candles are lit regularly...in 40% of our homes,” and that number continued to grow. Goodman exclaimed: “It is with nothing short of delight that the chairman reports the lighting of Hanukkah lights in the homes of many members—women who never dreamed of kindling Hanukkah lights, until the Sisterhoods became active.”
Recognizing the importance of women coming to temple to worship, Goodman also stressed attendance “at least once a week” and proposed that those sisterhoods who took attendance at services “telephone all absentees and urge upon them a more regular attendance.” She urged the “ladies of the Sisterhood” to create “a warm spirit of cordiality,” making their temples more inviting through “the exchange of ‘Gut Shabbes’ greetings and pleasant conversation.” She also promoted a “social hour after Friday evening services.” To her, the synagogue was not just a “house of prayer,” but also a place to meet friends and strengthen the bonds of community. Long before the oneg became a regular feature of synagogue life, she understood that the synagogue should encourage conviviality.
Another bold initiative was Goodman’s urging, in 1916, that sisterhoods “co-operate with the rabbis in introducing congregational singing at the public services.” Decades earlier, many American synagogues had virtually abandoned communal singing, believing that enlightened Jews sought more solemn, decorous, and awe-inspiring services on the model of liberal Protestant worship. Favored traditional tunes had given way to choral music performed by a trained choir for congregants who listened in silence. Goodman believed that participatory worship and song would lure Jews back to the synagogue. By 1917, she reported happily that “many sisterhoods” were helping “to familiarize their members with Jewish hymns and traditional melodies.” This trend continued as the 20th century progressed. Over time, and especially under the influence of camp-trained song leaders, Reform Jewish music became more participatory and more Jewish.
Goodman and her committee also worked to advance the role of women in temple governance. They advocated more representation of women on temple boards as “an innovation in women’s religious duties,” and cheered as their numbers increased year after year. In 1925, telling the story of how a woman board member was asked to take the place of a male trustee who had been honored with a seat on the pulpit for the reading of Torah but did not show up, Goodman observed: “Those who did not know the circumstances took the incident as a matter of course.” That same year, she disclosed the “radical” news that four women participated in the Torah service on Yom Kippur at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati: “a most inspiring innovation on this most holy of days.”
Her most daring effort to promote women’s involvement in synagogue worship—the Sisterhood Service—proved to have a far more radical impact than she could have foreseen. In 1916 Goodman reported that “one Sisterhood secured the consent of the rabbi and congregation to set aside one Sabbath in the year as ‘Sisterhood Sabbath,’ and requested a special sermon for that day.” In 1922 she announced that the NFTS Executive Board had passed a resolution recommending “to all congregations the advisability of establishing a national Sisterhood Sabbath.” A year later, she stated that “in some temples the women occupy the pulpit during part of [that] service,” and two years later she reported that “in many communities women conducted the entire service and delivered inspiring messages.” By 1926, in many of the 89 Reform congregations conducting Sisterhood Sabbaths, “the entire service [was] conducted by the Sisterhood members themselves, even to the giving of a sermon.” The appropriate role of women in Reform congregational life was then a contentious issue, playing out as women assumed new roles in the aftermath of winning the right to vote. This service took on heightened significance, testifying to women’s competence in conducting services and delivering sermons. Acknowledging its quietly subversive function, Goodman wrote: “The Sisterhood Service…is often a revelation of what the women may do if they ever enter the rabbinate.” (HUC-JIR ordained the first Reform woman rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand, 42 years later.)
Goodman also sought to bring democracy into the synagogue and blunt the more conspicuous differences between rich and poor. Lashing out at ostentatious Confirmation parties that, in some circles, had come to resemble high-society debutante balls, she declared: “Let us insist on simplicity in everything pertaining to the day.” Similarly she advocated free, unassigned pews. Until the 20th century, most American synagogues as well as churches had sold, rented, or assigned pews to members, the wealthiest members tending to secure the best seats. For “far too long,” she said, “we have encouraged the rich man’s front row and the poor man’s corner.” She urged sisterhoods to spread the message of synagogue democracy throughout the country “till the designation ‘Free Pew’ is taken for granted.” And, within a generation, thanks in part to these efforts, that battle was won. Free pews became normative in American synagogues, except on the High Holy Days.
Goodman’s 20-year effort (1913–1933) to transform Reform Judaism made a lasting impact upon Reform Jewish homes and synagogues, from Friday-night candle lighting to the revitalization of Hanukkah in the home, from congregational singing to the democratization of synagogue worship, and perhaps most significantly, to the promotion of women’s leadership in Reform congregations. In 2013, the 100th anniversary of Women of Reform Judaism/NFTS, this indomitable pioneer deserves to be heralded as a hero of the Reform Movement.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. This article has been adapted from a chapter in Sisterhood: A Centennial History of Women of Reform Judaism, published by WRJ in honor of its 100th anniversary.