American Synagogue Sisterhoods

Jewish women serving congregation, denomination, American and World Jewry

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Sisterhoods expanded Jewish women's historical involvement in community welfare activities into synagogue and denominational organization and finance.  They flourished at a time, arguably anomalous in Jewish history, when American Jewish women were for the most part not directly involved in the labor force.  Although for many women, sisterhoods increasingly symbolized the supporting role of the suburban Jewish wife, they still offer their members a public and active way of expressing their identities as Jews and as women. The following article is reprinted from the American Jewish Historical Society’s American Jewish Desk Reference: The Ultimate One Volume Reference to the Jewish Experience in America, published by Random House.

The Spirit of Sisterhood

For over a century American Jewish women have banded together to form sisterhoods. Over the years, these sisterhoods have labored in several different fields, serving as a vehicle for the expansion of the American synagogue into new areas of activity. American Jewish leaders, inspired by the notion that women were uniquely suited to saving Judaism, the synagogue, or a particular movement from internal or external crises, have looked to Jewish women for salvation.

In response, sisterhoods have served as philanthropic organizations, pursuing a community-oriented vision of uplift of the poor; they have provided innumerable services to their own congregations, raised much-needed funds, maintained religious schools, fostered congregational unity, and sponsored educational programs for adult women and men. They have engaged in national endeavors, offered succor to soldiers during time of war, taken sides in national political debates, and promoted better relations among Americans of all faiths and ethnicities. Not least, sisterhoods offered Jewish women a place to gather as women and as Jews, to socialize with each other, and to strengthen the bonds that connect them. Even the word “sisterhood” indicates a certain type of relationship that members have always striven for among themselves: a closeness, a sisterliness, a familiar, familial feeling.

The Organization of Synagogue and Temple Sisterhoods

Though American Jewish leaders decried the presence of apathy among American Jews as early as the 1870s, in the period between the two world wars this crisis intensified. With the ebb and eventual cessation of Jewish immigration in the 1920s, American Jews could no longer rely on waves of religious immigrants to sustain Jewish life and keep it vibrant. The new task was to “Judaize” the Americans: to prevent Jews’ complete assimilation into American culture and to preserve a Jewish identity that could exist in harmony with American ideals…

Synagogue leaders turned to women for help. The new sisterhoods that rabbis founded in the 1910s and beyond, in all parts of the county and across the ideological spectrum of American Judaism, were primarily devoted to three goals: service to the synagogue, to Judaism, and to their respective movements. The roster of activities the sisterhoods established in this period have continued to this day, though the perception of crisis has waxed and waned.

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Felicia D. Herman has a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Brandeis University. She is head of Natan. She was formerly a Program Officer at the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation in New York.