The current Sisterhood of Temple Sholom board at its installation in June 2015. (photo from the Sisterhood)
The Sisterhood of Temple Sholom obtained its charter from the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, now Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), in 1966. Since its inception, the Sisterhood has provided vital funding and services not only to its congregation and the broader Jewish community, but well beyond. It has had much to celebrate in its 50th year.
The group has held several events, some marking the anniversary specifically, others part of the normal course of business. It began last October with Her Story, A Celebration of Women and Culture. Among the many events since then was Sisterhood’s annual Autumn Fling fundraiser in November and its Sisterhood Service in December. There was the Women’s Passover Seder in April and the recent Golden Anniversary Tea on June 5. The closing event takes place June 21 and the entire community is invited to the catered dinner, installation of the board and special guest Sarah Charney, WRJ vice-president of programming and education; Temple Sholom Rabbi Dan Moskovitz will also attend.
And these only touch upon what Sisterhood has done this year. The 200-plus-member group also held a Shabbaton weekend, co-sponsored scholar-in-residence Anat Hoffman of the Israel Religious Action Centre, and extensively researched Sisterhood’s history. Seven articles on the latter can be found via templesholom.ca/programs/sisterhood.
Donna Ornstein, a past Sisterhood president and current co-vice-president of marketing and communications, with Annette Kozicki, highlighted one major undertaking.
“To celebrate our 50th anniversary, our Sisterhood has just created a new fund called Sisterhood Open Door Accessibility Project, which is to be used to improve accessibility to the Temple building for the benefit of the Temple and the congregation,” she told the Independent in an email interview. “We have set aside $10,000 from our 2015-2016 budget and the intention is to add more funds each financial year as determined by our board to continue this project.
“This initial $10,000 is directed towards upgrading the Temple’s handicap washroom, and other washrooms as funds permit. Future projects will be determined by the Sisterhood board in consultation with the Temple. In 2014, Sisterhood completed paying the Temple $20,000 towards the cost of the construction of the accessibility ramp to the bimah.”
The Sisterhood’s mission statement is: “We, the Sisterhood of Temple Sholom, are an organization rooted in Reform Judaism. Journeying together, we aspire to engage in the pursuit of gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness), tikkun olam (healing the world, and tzedakah (righteousness).” In every measure, and then some, the group has met this aspiration.
“We have been fortunate in having many of the Sisterhood leaders over the decades reach out to the women in the Temple, encourage their participation and mentor their leadership training, not only in-house, but by encouraging new women to attend the WRJ Pacific District conventions,” explained Ornstein about the keys to the group’s success. “There was only a period of three years in the 50 years where we could not find a member to step up as president and, in that case, there was a group who rotated.
“Strong friendships have been created among our Sisterhood members, which have lasted for decades,” she continued. “We offer many different types of activities, and the women participate in what interests them: for example, book club, WRJ Lilith discussion group, women’s knitting group, Rosh Chodesh study group, Sisterhood Choir, walking group, mah jongg, games days.
“We form committees for larger projects and portfolios, bringing new women onto the committees and encouraging them to move up onto the board, such as fundraising, membership and social action.
“Sisterhood,” she added, “has enjoyed and appreciated the support of the Temple clergy and the office staff for our many events and projects over the 50 years.”
There have been almost 30 presidents of the Sisterhood, with the late Jan Pollack having been the founder and Reesa Devlin the current president.
“In the early years of Temple Sholom, Sisterhood’s social action adhered to charity begins at home, as it raised funds for items a new shul needs, such as libraries, kitchens, furnishings and office equipment,” write Sisterhood members Marie Henry and Joyce Cherry in their joint 50th-anniversary article. “As it became more established, Sisterhood helped those in the community around them and the world at large. In the late 1980s, Sisterhood contributed to the Armenian Earthquake Appeal and sponsored a Jewish camp for a youth group member. They participated in various community projects, such as the Jewish Food Bank and the Committee for Soviet Jewry.
“In the 1990s, Sisterhood sponsored a Russian family to come to Canada. A very special program saw a workshop on Understanding the Impact of AIDS in the Jewish Community that … led to the beginning of the Temple Sholom HIV AIDS committee. Funding also went to Emily Murphy Transition House, a vital resource for women fleeing violence in relationships. This involvement led to co-sponsoring Peace in the Home – Shalom Bayit – along with Jewish Women International, to address problem of domestic violence in the Jewish community.”
Sisterhood has sponsored teams in the annual Run for the Cure for Breast Cancer, has held sweater drives to collect winter clothing for those in need and has collected prescription glasses for developing countries.
“Another very important presentation program in 2009 brought addressing human trafficking in B.C. to everyone’s attention with the persistence of its originator, Marnie Besser,” note Henry and Cherry. “This program led to the spearheading of a successful lobby to the Canadian Senate for the passing of Bill C-268 regarding the minimum sentencing for the trafficking of minors.”
In the next decade, Sisterhood created “Bedtime Kits for Kids, filling backpacks with donated pyjamas, toiletries, underwear and some comfort items for children who arrive at a shelter with nothing but what they are wearing.” Sisterhood sponsors Tikun Olam Gogos, it collects clothing and toiletries for WISH (Women’s Information Safe Haven), a nonprofit operated by women to help women in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade, and also donates women’s business clothing and accessories to Dress for Success.
As well, it contributes to the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the ongoing WRJ initiative YES (Youth, Education and Special Projects) Fund, which, as one of the unbylined 50th-anniversary articles notes, “represents the collective financial efforts of individual donors and WRJ-affiliated Sisterhoods to strengthen the Reform Movement and ensure the future of Reform Judaism. YES Fund grants provide Reform Jewish institutions and individuals worldwide with the tools necessary for religious, social and educational growth, and enhance Jewish life by supporting clergy, cultivating women’s leadership, advocating for social justice, providing programming and offering support.”
In her 50th anniversary article, Bonnie Gertsman focuses on the history of the Sisterhood and food. “Preparing food has traditionally been the responsibility of women, to both nourish and nurture those they care about. And so it was at the beginning of Sisterhood 50 years ago,” she writes. “Although the group was small [at the beginning], the enthusiasm was keen. Refreshments for Oneg Shabbats were looked after by Sisterhood members, as was food for all special events.
“Over the years, the women’s skills increased and, when Bunny Rubens (rebbetzin of Rabbi Harold Rubens) became involved, Sisterhood took up catering. Regarded as a way to provide a service to members and at the same time raise money for the Temple, catering bar/bat mitzvahs and other events became a key component of Sisterhood life.”
Sisterhood started Temple Sholom’s first Second Seder, as well as the break fast following Yom Kippur. Rubens started the latter on her own, notes Gertsman, “and it morphed into a Sisterhood project, with members supplying the food. Sara Ciacci took it on many years ago, and continues to oversee it.”
In 1987, Sisterhood published Favorites from our Kitchen. “As the years passed,” writes Gertsman, “Sisterhood’s involvement with cooking for Temple has changed as the Temple grew and paid staff and caterers were hired for the kitchen and catering. Now, Sisterhood has Soup in the Kitchen and Soup Schvesters. These ‘soup sisters’ prepare soup to have on hand in the freezer, ready to be delivered to people in need of a helping hand.”
On the spiritual side, Sarah Richman writes in her 50th-anniversary essay on religious and educational programming that, as a member of WRJ, Temple Sholom Sisterhood “is committed to egalitarian participation, leadership and education.”
She notes, “The annual Sisterhood Service was one of the first and most enduring examples of this commitment. The first Sisterhood Service was conducted in the 1970s and was a Friday evening, erev Shabbat service that recognized the contributions of women to the congregation. The Sisterhood Service evolved over the years, affirming the right of women to participate and lead worship services. Over time, the service began including the Torah service … and also having a sisterhood member deliver the drash (sermon), demonstrating that women not only have the right to full participation in religious services, but also the knowledge and ability to do so.”
Richman highlights the Sisterhood Choir, the Rosh Chodesh Renewal program that “encourages women to explore and study our ancient texts together” and the purchase by Sisterhood of 126 copies of The Torah, A Women’s Commentary for the congregation. She also discusses Sisterhood-hosted Shabbat education seminars, which began in 2007, “motivated by the Shabbat initiative of Rabbi [Eric] Yoffie,” then president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Sisterhood’s contribution to Temple Sholom’s scholars-in-residence program.
“The Blessings Wall Project,” she adds, “is an example of a program that blended each individual woman’s Shabbat candlelighting process (the spent matches), together with fabric, paper, photos and/or artwork that represent her personality or character. Each woman’s matches, paper/fabric and photos/artwork became an individual panel on the wall.”
WRJ is the organizational umbrella for hundreds of sisterhoods, and the North American (“national”) affiliates are divided into eight districts, with WRJ Pacific District representing 57 sisterhoods in the western United States and Canada. The Blessings Wall Project, Camp Kalsman Campership Fund/Fashion Show Project and A Community Conversation about Death and Dying are but a few of the Sisterhood programs and initiatives that have received recognition at both the district and national levels. Temple Sholom Sisterhood members have served on the district board, and member Alexis Rothschild has also served on the WRJ board.
Ornstein told the Independent that, in November, “we will send as many of our Sisterhood members as possible (hopefully about 10) to the Women of Reform Judaism Pacific District convention in Las Vegas where we will meet women from over 50 sisterhoods and participate in workshops on leadership training, spirituality, programming. We come home from these biennial conventions energized with lots of new ideas.”
And so begins the next 50 years.