Jewish Women's Groups for a New Age: A Proposal

Time was, a Jewish woman’s legacy could be counted on to include, outside of family, two things: her recipe for sponge cake and membership in a synagogue sisterhood, or one of numerous women’s organizations dedicated to raising money and hope for Jewish children, the State of Israel, indigent elderly or anyone else life had been unkind to.

These groups satisfied Jewish women’s needs to keep everyone healthy, well fed and well read. Because nothing less than future generations of doctors and nurses, lawyers and teachers was at stake.

But these groups also played to another side: a need for friendship and, in what used to be “a man’s world,” an influential outlet for decision-making.

The Big Sister of them all is Hadassah. My husband’s mother, stolen by cancer before we ever had a chance to meet, was associated with its Golda Meir chapter in Toronto, a fitting name for a collective of strong, resourceful women, many at that time Holocaust survivors. As my husband is fond of reminding me, ”She was voted president of her chapter. Twice.”

And while my mother-in-law was, by all accounts, a popular and capable leader, her young son would polish his Polish-born mother’s reports and speeches, trying “to make them sound more North American.” He did a good job; she made it to the local executive.

But much has changed in the intervening decades, notably that women, whether working inside or outside the home, are too pressed for time to volunteer, or to commit to the same involvement as previous generations.

Indeed, Rukhl Schaechter raised this issue in a story in The Forward about declining membership of younger women at U.S. synagogue Sisterhoods.

More recently, in a sign that longevity is no guarantee of survival, The Canadian Jewish News reported that the National Council of Jewish Women’s Montreal section will shutter after almost a century. Its legacy includes a wonderful children’s library and a kosher shelter for abused women, though the latter is unaffected by the closing.

While regrettable, the demise of the Montreal group raises the issue of participation (or lack thereof) of women like me in this wheel of Jewish communal life. But instead of asking why we don’t join, perhaps it’s time to consider a new dynamic of volunteer organization to get us on board.

Let’s start with something small, local and inclusive, where every participant is valued and has something to contribute. Keep it politically agnostic. Leave ambitious, big-bucks projects to the Big Girls like Hadassah who do it best. Pick one manageable, bite-size goal for the year (Hebrew school scholarships, kosher food baskets, transportation of the elderly to medical appointments); sponsor with a fundraiser (Scrabble tournament, Jewish sports/movie trivia night) with broad appeal to all ages, religious observance and pocketbooks.

We make the time for what matters to us, and a new style of independent women’s group would be no exception. While time spent in the company of my peers is appreciated, that’s not license to entertain me with cake decorating and fashion shows. When members of my hoped-for Jewish women’s group meet, the evening’s programming might include a book or film review or current event discussion of Jewish interest.

If you want my involvement, that’s how to get it.

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Jewish Women's Groups for a New Age: A Proposal

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