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Sisterhood Is Powerful

When it comes to allies, the “sisterhood is the rabbi’s best friend,” or so the American Hebrew declared in 1928. The newspaper wasn’t kidding. For nearly a hundred years, voluntary organizations such as the sisterhood and the ladies auxiliary had kept the American Jewish community afloat; by the 1920s, such groups were poised to grow even more steadily in number and influence. More than just an outlet for the talents and energies of middle-class American Jewish women “dowered with leisure,” as one of their number put it at the turn of the 20th century, volunteerism enabled the American Jewish community to pursue a vigorous agenda of good works.

Under the aegis of the Ladies Temple Aid Society, the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah, American Jewish women fed and clothed the poor; aided and comforted the sick; tended to the social life, the “housewifery,” of the synagogue, and promoted the cause of Zionism. Without the steadfast contribution of their energy and resources, the much-vaunted vitality of American Jewish life would have been considerably diminished, possibly even nonexistent.

Consider for a moment that often-lampooned but indispensable organization, the synagogue or temple sisterhood. In the years before the professionalization of social service, its members served, in effect, as social workers. Armed with budgets that ran into thousands of dollars, they distributed matzo and new clothes for Passover to those without, while also maintaining vocational schools and employment bureaus throughout the year. In addition to teaching the indigent “how to ply the needle and use the broom,” sisterhood women like those associated with the Ahawath Chesed Shaar Hashomayim Sisterhood of New York also sought energetically to instill in their charges an appreciation for middle-class norms of behavior, inculcating “thrift and industry” as well as cleanliness and neatness. And some, like the sisterhood of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the nation’s oldest congregation, even went so far as to look after Jewish prostitutes and pickpockets out on probation, trying to ensure that they didn’t revert to their old ways.

Hadassah ladies, in turn, transformed Zionism into a mass movement. Founded in 1912 — at a time when Zionists were often regarded as “crackpots,” according to Lotta Levensohn, one of Hadassah’s earliest supporters — the organization rendered Jewish nationalistic aspirations normative, even socially acceptable, especially among middle-class women. Through sewing circles, study groups and the pioneering use of lantern slides at its meetings, Hadassah also developed into one of American Jewry’s most successful philanthropic ventures. Within a few short years of its founding, this new enterprise numbered 34 chapters throughout the country whose members avidly devoted their time and resources to providing maternity care, pasteurized milk and nurses throughout the Holy Land. Later still, with the rise of Nazism, Hadassah turned its attention toward rescuing young German Jews from Hitler’s clutches, saving thousands of lives through its Youth Aliyah program. In each instance, Hadassah successfully drew on the American Jewish woman’s conscience, sociability and skills to “promote Jewish institutions and enterprises” in the Jewish homeland and to “foster Zionist ideals in America.” What’s more, long before “women’s lib had become a household word,” as one longtime member put it, Hadassah enabled Jewish women to shine.

Thanks to the high profile enjoyed by Hadassah and other women’s organizations, the importance of volunteerism was not lost on earlier generations of American Jewish women. In fact, volunteers worked diligently to cultivate a spirit of leadership and “can-do-ness” among younger women by introducing them, at a tender age, to the joys and challenges of communal work. In 1947, for instance, the Jewish Center Division of the National Jewish Welfare Board embarked on a program to train teenage girls as group leaders and active club members.

Toward that end, it produced a booklet titled “The Slick Chicks,” hoping its up-to-date lingo (“in the groove”) and modern ways would appeal to an increasingly sophisticated postwar generation of American Jewish women. The text featured a series of scenarios in which the leadership qualities and abilities of Lillian and Gertrude, Anne and Ruth, Eva and Selma (those titular “slick chicks”) were put to the test. In one instance, the girls discuss whether club meetings should focus on social affairs or political ones, on planning a party or discussing the United Nations. When Lillian proposes they hone their speech-making skills instead, her suggestion is greeted with derision. “Speeches are dull,” Anne declares. “Nobody wants to listen to speeches.” Their club leader, Miss Harris, intervenes, trying to smooth Lillian’s ruffled feathers while promoting the art of consensus. In another story line, the girls discuss how to go about raising money for a number of different projects, from sponsoring a dance to decorating their clubroom. After a “brief but noisy debate,” they decide on a compromise: Each girl would contribute 50 cents, to be matched by a contribution from the club treasury.

In both instances, seemingly trivial matters became key lessons in how to run an organization and work well with others, enabling “slick chicks” to develop into solid Jewish citizens and immeasurably enriching the American Jewish community in the process.

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