American Synagogue Sisterhoods

Jewish women serving congregation, denomination, American and World Jewry

Print this page Print this page

Local sisterhoods and their national organizations have also worked to strengthen their respective movements. Aside from promoting a movement-specific agenda in their publications and educational programs, the national organizations also raised funds for the institutions connected to their movements. Women’s League and the NFTS have raised millions of dollars for the support of their respective rabbinical seminaries, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Hebrew Union College…

Service to American and World Jewry

Synagogue and temple sisterhoods have also endeavored to meet many of the other challenges confronting American and world Jewry over the years. As early as the 1920s, sisterhoods sent financial support to the Jews of Ethiopia. In the 1970s and 80s they supported efforts to aid Jews in the Soviet Union and assisted many of the Russian Jews who came to the United States…

Sisterhoods have also consistently endeavored to participate in and contribute to American society. During time of war, sisterhoods engaged in a range of activities to support the American war effort. In both world wars, local sisterhoods sewed bandages and assembled packages for the Red Cross, provided entertainment for soldiers on leave, turned their offices and synagogue vestry rooms into makeshift hospitals, sold War Bonds, and trained for national defense and or wartime jobs…

The Challenge of the Women’s Movement

The women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s brought a new challenge to synagogue and temple sisterhoods. Whether sisterhoods are or have historically been feminist is a question still subject to considerable debate. With the feminist challenges to Judaism that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, Women’s League and the NFTS promoted an expanded role for women in Jewish religious life, supporting women’s desire to assume larger roles in synagogue worship and, ultimately to become rabbis.

Women’s Branch, though it would hardly label itself feminist, has always promoted better religious education for girls and women. It has been working for decades to ameliorate the conditions of the agunah, the wife whose husband has disappeared or who refuses to divorce her. Women’s Branch sisterhoods have also struggled with the issues of all-women tefillah (prayer) groups and the form—if any—a girls’ bat mitzvah should take.

Whatever their ideological position—feminist or non-feminist, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox or even Reconstructionist—synagogue and temple sisterhoods have offered countless American Jewish women a public and active way of expressing their identities as Jews and as women.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.