Celebrating the Centennial of WRJ

by Cantor Sarah Sager

As I was gathering my thoughts about the Centennial celebration of the Women of Reform Judaism, the news that former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, had passed away flashed across the news screen. Among the initial reports of her death, she was quoted as saying: “If you want something said, go to a man. If you want something done, go to a woman.” While I do not subscribe to the gender dichotomy, the second part of her statement caught my attention. It has been my experience in synagogue life that, in fact, when congregations need something, they tend to turn, instinctively to the (former) Sisterhoods or women’s groups. Historically, there were many reasons for this, but it is remarkable to me how much these groups were and continue to able to accomplish and yet, how somewhat maligned and beleaguered they have become. Even while the women of our Sisterhoods poured tea, baked, served, and were responsible for so many “wifely” duties in our congregations, they were simultaneously at the forefront of women’s issues. The very existence of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods grew out of women’s advocacy for and involvement with the Women’s Suffrage movement.

The founders of NFTS learned through those advocacy efforts that women, organized together, can accomplish more than any single individual or group alone. Throughout the 100 years of their history, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which became the more appropriately named, Women of Reform Judaism in 1993, advocated for women’s rights and issues, for children and our youth, for social justice. They were involved in relief, support, aid and advocacy during World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the creation of the State of Israel, the release of Soviet Jews, and the great social and humanitarian issues of every decade since their founding, including human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights, environmental concerns as well as interfaith, aging & educational initiatives. The NFTS founded the National Federation of Temple Youth, and has provided scholarships, housing, educational and personal support for rabbinic, cantorial, and education students at our Reform Seminary, the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Under the leadership of their Executive Director, Jane Evans, NFTS was one of the early advocates on behalf of women rabbis, which opened the door for women cantors as well as for the expanded role of women as leaders in all areas of the synagogue and in all walks of life.

My own experience with the NFTS began in 1979, just after I was newly invested as a Cantor, when I was invited by the leadership of District 3 to speak at an area meeting of Long Island Sisterhoods. The title of my presentation, Sisterhood and Redemption: Not for Women Only, emerged out of our conversations concerning what they were asking me to address. I was immediately struck by the in-depth, focused, and exceedingly thoughtful approach that they had to this event. Although the Women’s Movement had been in existence at that point for more than ten years, there were still many unanswered questions, unchallenged assumptions about women and their lives, as well as a wide range of reality in terms of what some women could and were doing and those who were feeling left behind. As women – and young women – were increasingly seeking to pursue careers and work outside of the home, the volunteer world was beginning to feel neglected and diminished and without a sense of direction or purpose. The women of District 3 wanted to address these issues in a meaningful way – hence, their invitation to me, a young professional woman, and their investment in exploring with me the parameters of what I might consider and what I might present as specific suggestions for their sisterhoods to pursue. The final outcome of our deliberations and my exploration of this phenomenon was to suggest that Sisterhood become the empowering agent in women’s lives. I was profoundly impressed that these women not only understood the challenges that they were facing, but they wanted to confront them realistically, pro-actively, and concretely.  I was powerfully influenced by the encounter as my own thinking was deepened and enriched by their openly probing, analyzing, and searching questions – and their belief in me that I might help them in their journey.

It was that initial encounter with NFTS/The Women of Reform Judaism, that predisposed me to our most important collaboration that began in October 1991. This time they asked me to address the topic of “The Torah for Reform Jewish Women.” Not long before this invitation arrived, I had been studying Vayeira, in which we find the difficult and troubling episode of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. In thinking about the portion, for the very first time I wondered how Sarah might have felt about this unthinkable threat to her son and Abraham’s seeming willingness to carry it out. With those thoughts very much in my mind, knowing that this would be an opportunity to explore further the silent women of our tradition, and with confidence that the women of District 3 would be serious participants in the Scholar-in-Residence weekend they were proposing, I accepted with excitement and anticipation. During the Scholar-in-Residence weekend that followed a year later, in October of 1992, I first proposed the creation of a Women’s Commentary to the Torah. As the “doers” they have always been, the women took my suggestion to the national organization and I was able to propose the challenge of a Women’s Commentary at the Biennial Convention of the Women of Reform Judaism in November 1993. Their response was such that fourteen years later, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was published. In the preface to that volume, I shared the following: “I have been awed by the power of this organization and the ability of the women who lead it. I am profoundly grateful to every member of WRJ for undertaking this project with courage and resolve, with an understanding of its potential to transform our tradition, with willingness to embrace a dream and make it a reality. Working together, women have funded, designed, researched, written, edited, and critiqued this unprecedented volume. We have done all of this in historic fashion: a woman’s voice inspired a community of women to undertake this project in which women scholars, rabbis, cantors, teachers and poets bring their voices, their unique perspective to the ancient text of our overwhelmingly patriarchal tradition. This extraordinary volume, the result of the efforts of so many is a veritable symphony of women’s voices – beautiful, powerful, inspirational, transformative.”

The vision of this work was realized at such a high level of excellence that just shortly after its publication, the Commentary was chosen as a winner of the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards. It was judged the best written, most comprehensive, and engaging book in its category. The Editor, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, and the Assistant Editor, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, received the top prize for the 2008 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award.

For 100 years, the Women of Reform Judaism has been a very special organization. With their time, their talent, their resources, their passion and their profound devotion, they have been loving partners with God in making the words of Sinai live – in new and positive ways for women, for children and students, for men, for our congregations, the wider Jewish community, and far beyond. We pray that they will go from strength to strength for another hundred years of making this world a loving place of sacred endeavor and accomplishment.

  • If you want something done, go to a woman.
  • If you want to undertake a major project, go to a group of women.
  • And if you want that project to be excellent, ground-breaking, and visionary, go to the Women of Reform Judaism!

Originally posted on ACC’s blog.

Cantor Sarah Sager, the first invested Cantor at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple of Beachwood, OH, has served the community since 1980 and serves on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors.

Her presentation at WRJ’s 1993 Assembly,“Sarah’s Hidden Voice: Recovering and Discovering Women’s Spirituality,” charged WRJ women with “uncovering and recovering women’s voices from our tradition and enable women to interact freely with our sacred texts in the future” and led to WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2007).