The first Jewish Sisterhood of Personal Service was organized in New York’s Reform Temple Emanu-El by Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in the late 1880s. While women now had a place in the sanctuary thanks to the innovations of Reform Judaism and the abolishment of the women’s section, women did not have an active role in the spiritual leadership and congregational governance. Women’s groups offered leadership in religious schools, decorating the temple and maintaining the temple kitchen. For the most part, governance positions and access to membership were not open to women until 1920 when after the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, Reform congregations began to offer formal membership to women who were unmarried or were not widows and sisterhood presidents were given the leadership opportunity to serve on congregational governance boards.
The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) was formally organized as a national movement in 1913 at a special meeting in Cincinnati. Rabbi George Zepin of the Union for American Hebrew Congregations and Carrie Simon, a civic leader and Washington Hebrew Congregation’s rebbetzin, spearheaded the creation of the NFTS as a national organization, proclaiming that “that the increased power which has come to the modern American Jewess ought to be exercised in congregational life.” At the meeting in Cincinnati, Carrie Simon was elected founding president. Carrie Simon envisioned NFTS’ mission as carrying the banner of religious spirit and strengthening the congregation. Conservative and Orthodox women, originally invited to be a part of NFTS, would found their own organizations with a decade of NFTS’s beginnings.
Sisterhoods actively assumed responsibility for many school, temple, and communal activities. Its national committee on religious schools funded textbooks for child and adult education, were founding supporters of NFTY, our Reform youth movement. NFTS brought rabbinical students fleeing Germany to the US, raised scholarship funds for rabbinical students, and solely funded a dormitory at Hebrew Union College. NFTS was also a founder of the Jewish Braille institute, and many sisterhood women transcribed articles and books into Braille.
NFTS leaders called for the experiment of electing women to synagogue boards; called upon its members to lead summer services in the absence of vacationing rabbis, and instituted Sisterhood Sabbath, a day when, in some congregations, women could lead the service and preach to the entire congregation. Today we take many of these contributions for granted, even as many orthodox and conservative congregations are still wrestling with and questioning the place of women in leadership. NFTS recorded important experiences in women’s participation in the synagogue —the first time a woman trustee sat on the pulpit during services, the first time a woman read scripture on Yom Kippur, and would later point to these examples of successful female religious leadership as “a revelation of what the women may do if they ever enter the rabbinate.”
Today, the Women of Reform Judaism has grown from 49 sisterhoods with 9,000 members in 1913 to more than 65,000 members in 500 affiliates in the US, Canada and twelve other countries. The WRJ continues its work building upon the foundation its foremothers started 100 years ago.
Happy Birthday Women of Reform Judaism!
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is on the executive board of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a founding member of the Indiana Voices of Women leadership and spirituality group, and a writer of feminist midrash who enjoys singing and playing guitar.