By Kevin Proffitt
From January 21-23, 1913, one hundred fifty-six women representing fifty-two UAHC member synagogues and sisterhoods convened at the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, in conjunction with the UAHC’s 23rd Council, the founding and first general convention of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods took place. Carrie Simon, wife of Rabbi Abram Simon of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, was elected the first president of NFTS.
In the late 19th century, women’s groups, known as sisterhoods, began developing in American synagogues. These sisterhoods were a manifestation of an emerging public identity for American Jewish women of that time. They permeated all denominations, social classes, and segments of the American Jewish community. As one historian has noted, “women’s synagogue work came to touch every expression of American Judaism,” from affluent congregations to small shuls filled with newly arrived immigrants.
The rationale for the NFTS was articulated by the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, J. Walter Freiberg, who stated that “the increased power which has come to the modern American Jewess ought to be exercised in congregational life and that the religious and moral development of Israel will be furthered by this co-operation.” NFTS’s purpose was to strengthen temple sisterhoods already in existence, as well as transfer women’s roles in the Reform movement from the home to a larger, and more public, sphere.
Rabbi David Philipson, a member of the first graduating class of the Hebrew Union College and rabbi at Congregation Bene Israel in Cincinnati, delivered the keynote address. Entitling his remarks, “Woman and the Congregation.” Philipson told the assembled delegates, “you will forge a mighty weapon in the service of Judaism.”
The initial constitution of NFTS laid out for four aims for the new organization:
- To bring the various Sisterhoods of the country into closer co-operation and association with one another.
- To quicken the religious consciousness of Israel, by strengthening the spiritual and educational activity.
- To make propaganda for the cause of Israel
- To co-operate with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations
By 1930, NFTS grew to 55,000 members. In this first generation of its history, NFTS “strove to further the religious spirit of Reform Jewish life. Its leaders stated time and again that their chief purpose was religious, fostering Reform’s particular expression of modern Judaism.” NFTS’s presence in the Reform movement expanded through the publication of cookbooks and its popular yearly art calendars, and by endowing scholarships at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
In the mid-1930s NFTS’s second generation began to take shape as the organization increasingly became involved in activities and causes beyond the UAHC and the Reform movement. Under the leadership of Jane Evans, who served as Executive Director from 1933 to 1976, NFTS began evolving into a modern, professional – and professionally run – association (no longer an auxiliary) that was involved in issues such as social advocacy, education, child welfare, civil rights, world peace, Zionism, and Soviet Jewry. Evans helped NFTS found the Jewish Braille Institute, sought collaboration with other groups, such as the World Union for Progressive Judaism, engaged the organization in the United Nations as an NGO, and participated in outreach activities through newsletters, radio broadcasts, and the creation of a speaker’s bureau.
In 1993 NFTS entered a third phase in its history, as symbolized that year by the changing of the organization’s name to Women of Reform Judaism, The Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. Jane Evans’ successors as Executive Director – Eleanor Schwartz (1976–1992), Ellen Y. Rosenberg (1992–2003), Shelley Lindauer (2004-2011) and Rabbi Marla Feldman (2012-) – took the organization even farther, as Pamela Nadell wrote, “beyond the domestic sphere of its founders into the larger Jewish world and the arena of women and politics.”
In its modern era, WRJ has continued efforts for women’s equality, inside and outside the synagogue. It has supported reproductive rights for women, called for gender neutral language in liturgy, and lobbied for increased presence of women in worship, synagogue administration, and leadership in the Reform movement. WRJ’s leadership role in Reform religious life was expressed most fully in its publication of the ground-breaking Women’s Torah Commentary in 2008. WRJ has extended its advocacy and educational work to Israel as well, nurturing 25 women’s groups in Israeli Reform congregations.
Throughout each generation, the women of NFTS/WRJ have supported youth programs, camping, religious schools, congregations, rabbinical and cantorial scholarships, and Reform institutions through its YES Fund (Youth, Education and Special Projects). The YES Fund is a collective fundraising effort of local sisterhoods designed “to strengthen the institutions of our Reform Movement and ensure the future of Reform Judaism.”
Today, the WRJ has over 65,000 members representing 500 local chapters across the world. The stated mission of WRJ is the following:
Women of Reform Judaism, an affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism, is 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.
Kevin Proffitt is Senior Archivist for Research and Collections at the American Jewish Archives.
Sources: Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism, by Karla A. Goldman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 206-207; Proceedings of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, First General Convention, Cincinnati, January 21-23, 1913, pp. 15-28; Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook, edited by Kerry M. Olitzky, Lance J. Sussman, and Malcolm H. Stern (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993); the Women of Reform Judaism website; and Pamela Nadell, “National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods”
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund.