During a Shabbat weekend at the end of January, something very special happened – the start of our Centennial, a celebration of 100 years of Reform Jewish women’s accomplishments. Nearly 250 North American women traveled from cities and suburbs; small congregations and super-sized ones; North, West, South, and East to Cincinnati, OH, birthplace of WRJ in 1913. The delegates, hailing from 120 women’s groups, were there to attend the WRJ Fried Leadership Conference that launched this Centennial year of celebration.
This conference, which originally began as a Conference for Sisterhood Presidents of Large Congregations, now draws rising local leaders from all WRJ sisterhoods/women’s groups. This conference differed from its predecessors because of its Centennial component.
The Centennial Executive Committee comprised of more than 20 women watched three years of dreams and plans become reality, unfolding in a significant event that will long be remembered. We stood with pride and joy as our women sang and danced, networked, and prayed! We were ready. We were excited. We are 21st century Miriams, ready to dance at the shores of the Reed Sea.
Shabbat began with joyful worship, created and led by WRJ District Presidents. The service included eloquent readings and prayers. Wexner Foundation President and member of the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson keynoted the evening, challenging our women to build upon our legacy. Moving forward often involves loss in any organization’s evolution, Rabbi Abrahamson commented. But we, Reform Jewish women, are competent, determined, and committed to the future. Change will be our ally.
The evening’s highlight was recording the chorus of the commissioned Centennial anthem composed by Beth Schafer. Beth and musical partner/accompanist John Marsden directed a choir of 250 delegates. Those with ‘real’ musical talent were strategically interspersed with those of us who usually just sing in our showers. We had all practiced the anthem that we had downloaded prior to arriving in Cincinnati. We laughed; we had tears. To our amazement, we actually stopped on the same note… after a few tries, of course!
Women’s voices blending together created the penultimate ‘aha’ moment. We were all ecstatic! Beth shared that the gift of our voices made her time with us more than she had ever imagined. Our resumes can now list “recording artist” as our singing will become part of the Centennial CD, featuring many Jewish artists, debuting in December in San Diego.
URJ Chief Operating Officer Barbara Saidel shared words of Torah during morning Shabbat services. Barbara met with many women, noting that this was her initial visit with WRJ. Upon registration, each delegate had received a Centennial shaker egg to use at services (available for purchase here). She noted our enthusiasm, our Shabbat music and joy, and enjoyed being with us. We were thrilled she spent the weekend with WRJ and shared the pathway the URJ has begun, urging WRJ and the Union to be partners in our 2nd century.
Five buses headed to Plum Street Synagogue with its magnificently restored moorish sanctuary. The women marveled at its beauty and its historical setting where Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise had preached. After the buses reloaded, we headed to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and the American Jewish Archives (AJA). What an afternoon!
Women toured the campus. They studied with professors. They met with students. They saw the YES Fund in action. They learned how WRJ support makes a difference on every HUC-JIR campus. And, they all visited the Sisterhood Dorm built dedicated in 1925 with more than $350,000 collected from our local sisterhoods. It remains the center of the campus with a welcoming lounge for gathering, administrative offices, professors’ offices and, believe it or not, dorm rooms. In fact, we had the fun of chatting with a NFTY leadership group on campus for the weekend, which was housed in the dorm’s top floor rooms. At the end of Havdalah, WRJ President Lynn Magid Lazar presented Cincinnati Dean Dr. Jonathan Cohen with a new mezuzah for the Sisterhood Dorm.
Dr. Gary Zola, Director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, and his staff rolled out the red carpet for us. The major partner in our Centennial celebration, the AJA focused its lobby exhibit on WRJ. Nine posters created by the AJA in partnership with WRJ were on display, conveying highlights of our history in words and pictures (available for purchase here). Dr. Zola spoke to the group two times, first informing them about the AJA and its significant collection of 350 years of American Jewish history and later about WRJ’s history. We all gleaned amazing insights into our founding president Carrie O. Simon who called for outreach to non-Jews and women as service leaders in our early years. Remember to share your group’s historical documents/artifacts with the AJA.
Still more workshops and seminars were held, conversations between the 59 centennial ambassadors as well as members of the Chai Society (alumni of the WRJ Board of Directors) occurred, a town hall featuring Q&A between WRJ officers and delegates who discussed big picture issues, and a crazy, fun-filled centennial fundraising evening that engaged the women.
Barbara Weinstein, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, DC, spoke during the YES Fund brunch. Barbara explained how important WRJ’s support of and partnership with the RAC is, including the sponsorship of one Legislative Aide. She also told us how our voices were needed; our nearly 65,000 member represent a direct connection to Congress and the RAC counts on our women to make calls and write Senators and Representatives as well as state and local activity.
Covenant of the Generations, our newest book of prayers and meditations, debuted. Authors who were present signed books for more than an hour. The book is magnificent (available for purchase here). Special thanks to Sherri Feuer and Betty Weiner, chairs, of this huge project. Its writings will pull at heartstrings and offer insights into all facets of life.
We concluded this amazing weekend spellbound, knowing that we had all become a part of American Jewish history. As we stood on the steps of Plum Street and traipsed around HUC-JIR, in and out of the Sisterhood Dorm, we marveled at the commitment and immense efforts of our foremothers. Their vision and determination have endured for 100 years. And, we will know that the next 100 years will bring similar meaning and joy to lives yet unborn… just as our foremothers planned for us. Happy 100th WRJ!