American Synagogue Sisterhoods

Jewish women serving congregation, denomination, American and World Jewry

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Service to the Synagogue

Sisterhoods were dedicated primarily to serving their congregations. By making the synagogues or temple a more welcoming, comfortable, friendly, and even home-like place, they hoped to encouraged synagogue attendance and membership. In conjunction with congregational brotherhoods, which were founded in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, they promoted “sociability” among members, making special efforts to welcome visitors and new members, providing flowers and other decorations for synagogue services and holidays, offering refreshments for social hours after services, and sponsoring events like congregational Seders, Hanukkah parties, and Purim carnivals.

Sisterhood members also often undertook the responsibility of maintaining or at least enlivening religious education for the children of the synagogue. Whether they served as teachers, administrators or fundraisers, or simply provided special gifts at holidays and graduations, sisterhood women—as the “mothers” of their congregations—endeavored to improve the education of the congregation’s children and to intensify their connection to Judaism.

Sisterhoods as organizations also helped to strengthen the synagogue by serving as vehicles for attracting non-affiliated or inactive women to synagogue activities... Sisterhoods provided women who might not be interested in attending religious services with other ways of expressing their Jewish identities—though with the underlying hope was that these women would eventually seek out the synagogue’s religious activities as well.

In the financial realm, sisterhoods proved indispensable to American synagogues and temples. Though women had been contributing financially to their synagogues since colonial times, the sisterhoods of the interwar and postwar periods served as particularly useful venues for raising funds needed to support new congregational buildings, special congregational projects, and even to cover shortfalls in annual budgets. Fundraising became an especially important element of sisterhood work during the Depression years and has continued to this day as an essential element of most sisterhoods’ activities.

Service to Judaism and Their Respective Movements

Beyond supporting their individual synagogues, sisterhoods have always endeavored to strengthen Judaism as a whole. In the interwar period, sisterhoods struggled to counteract the apathy and “hedonism” of the time by presenting Judaism as a beautiful, meaningful, and moral way of life that could exist in complete harmony with modern American values. To this end, they attempted to create interesting and relevant educational programs and reading materials for adults—especially sisterhood members—and for children.

In these efforts, the sisterhoods were lead by their three national coordinating agencies: the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), founded in 1913 (now Women of Reform Judaism); the National Women’s League of the United Synagogue, founded in 1918 (now Women’s League for Conservative Judaism); and the Women’s Branch of the Orthodox Union of Jewish Congregations of America, founded in 1923… All three organizations have emphasized the special role of the mother in preserving and transmitting Judaism: mothers can foster warm, Jewish atmospheres in their homes, can encourage their families—husbands and children alike—to attend synagogue services and become involved in synagogue activities, and can teach their children about Jewish life and encourage them to attend religious school.

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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.