It happened one weekend … at the Sisterhood


“Something happens,” I was told across the “first timers” table Nov. 2 at BJ’s Restaurant in Woodland Hills. “When these women get together. I can’t explain it, but
something happens.”

The get-together was the 46th annual Biennial Assembly of the Women of Reform Judaism’s (WRJ) Pacific District (that’s the West Coast, plus Hawaii, Alaska and Vancouver). The woman talking to me was Sylvia Rose of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. She had a name badge around her neck that displayed a ribbon sporting a plethora of colored stickers — YES Fund (Youth, Education, Service), WUPJ (World Union of Progressive Judaism), JBI (Jewish Braille Institute) — symbolizing some of the myriad programs sponsored by the sisterhoods of WRJ. By the end of that weekend at the Woodland Hills Hilton, Rose would be inducted as one of six vice presidents for 2006-2008.

I looked around the party room 40 of us had taken over for the evening at a preassembly function. I was without question the youngest in the room (if you exclude the wait staff). At 28, I was the youngest person at the conference; as co-vice president of membership for my sisterhood, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, I am the youngest woman on our board.

While my peers might have been spending their weekend partying, going to see “Borat” or enjoying a day at the beach, I was learning Torah, voting on policy changes and teaching women twice my age how to increase their sisterhood’s membership.

And I loved every minute of it!

I kept hearing over and over again that this “wasn’t your mother’s sisterhood” (of course, every time I heard that, I looked at the next table where my grandmother — the “e-mail chair” and former president of our sisterhood — was sitting).

I joined my sisterhood five years ago, after attending a sukkah party with my grandmother. Like most women who shared their experiences at the assembly, I started small — I volunteered my time on a committee. I was involved in a Jewish sorority in college and saw sisterhood as the next step up — minus the keggers, rush week and homecoming. So I went to some meetings, which led to more meetings, and today I co-chair that committee.

The women whom I now consider my good friends at first thought of me as “Char’s granddaughter from Chicago.” Now she’s known as “Shoshana’s grandma.”

The face of sisterhood is changing, yet a stigma remains. For all of the efforts of these articulate, intelligent, hard-working women, the word “sisterhood” still brings up images of old ladies wearing aprons as they set up the Shabbat Kiddush. It probably doesn’t help to point out to my contemporaries that all of the district officers inducted at the meeting were my mother’s age or older.

When I suggest joining sisterhood to my friends, who are in their 20s and 30s, they tell me they’ll join sisterhood “later” — and they come up with a slew of reasons why they don’t want to join now. But I’ve never been one to take no for an answer.

Complaint: I don’t have anything in common with these women.
Answer: How do you know unless you meet them? Our youngest member is 15; she and her mother are good friends of mine. Our oldest member is 95; she’s also a friend of mine.

Complaint: How will I meet guys my age hanging out at a sisterhood?
Answer: Um, hello. These women are mothers and grandmothers who have Jewish sons, grandsons and nephews.

Complaint: The programs are so boring. I don’t want to just sit around listening to speakers.
Answer: So join and change it. Our sisterhood has a group of young mothers of children in preschool and religious school who recently sponsored a bra fitting at Nordstrom before the store opened to shoppers — and brought in an OB/GYN to talk about breast cancer awareness.

Complaint: I don’t have time to be involved.
Answer: Really? Well can you make a phone call, fold an invitation or send out an e-mail? Bet you can.

Sisterhood is not for everyone: People who can’t stand other people won’t like it. But that’s about it.

These women offer an arm when you’ve twisted your ankle and a shoulder to cry on when you get bad news. They bring food when you can’t leave the house and tell jokes when you need a good laugh. They’ll argue with you when you want a good fight and support you 100 percent when you feel that no one else will. They raise money to send rabbis to school and to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps; they help the infrastructure of their synagogues and that of synagogues around the world.

WRJ is also the predominant sponsor of the new Women’s Torah Commentary that is being published next year (I saw a preview of the Chayei Sarah segment, and it looks awesome).

By Saturday, I wore an small Torah pin I had purchased at the “Faire and Share,” in support of the YES Fund. But I’m very proud that I join the ranks of those name-badge-wearing sisters who came before me.

Sylvia was right: These women get together and something happens. But I can’t really describe it either — I guess it is something you’ll have to see for yourself.

FYI: We’re taking over San Diego in December 2007.

Not a Minute’s Rest for Min the Dynamo


Here in Tinseltown it can be difficult to find people who help without expecting a moment in the limelight; a “15 minutes” of philanthropic adoration. Good deeds are supposed to be their own reward, and this new Lifecycles feature will profile those unsung senior tzadikim whose continued volunteer efforts impact numerous lives in immeasurable ways. Know someone who should be featured? Contact Associate Editor Adam Wills at adamw@jewishjournal.com.

Minerva “Min” Leonard doesn’t have time for breakfast. She’s too busy shopping for ingredients and preparing a salad bar luncheon for 80 people at Adat Ari El Sisterhood’s weekly Multi-Interest Day. Or making 10 lokshen kugels for her friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. Or baking “I can’t even begin to tell you how many” batches of cranberry and chocolate-chip mandelbread to bestow on friends, neighbors and an appreciative Jewish Journal reporter.

At 90, this diminutive North Hollywood resident, who was married to her husband, Phil, for 53 years and who raised three children, is showing scant evidence of slowing down. True, she no longer makes 1,000 latkes from scratch for the synagogue preschool’s Chanukah celebration. But she fries up 500 for the senior citizens group that meets at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and another 500 to distribute as gifts.

But mostly, as Adat Ari El’s unofficial chef, Leonard devotes chunks out of four weekdays to preparing the sisterhood salad bar, which she has single-handedly assembled for at least a quarter century, getting help only with chauffeuring, because she has never driven.

The lunch features pasta salad, tuna salad (Leonard’s special recipe with sweet relish and grated hard-boiled eggs), green salad, Tostitos and four kinds of cakes, with chocolate and lemon poppy seed in high demand.

Leonard charges $4 per person for the lunch to cover costs. But she shops so conscientiously — personally picking out her peppers, lettuces and tomatoes at a local farmers market and buying her other ingredients at Costco, the 99 Cents Only Store or on sale at Albertsons — that she donates $2,000 back to the sisterhood each year.

Leonard has loved to cook since she was a little girl, helping her mother in the kitchen of a one-bathroom house in Jersey City, N.J., that she shared with 14 extended family members.

“I could clean, pluck and quarter a chicken by the time I was 11,” she explained.

But Leonard’s knowledge extends beyond the kitchen. She received a bachelor of science degree in psychology and education from Long Island University, and only because of a three-year bout with tuberculosis, which struck at age 21, was she deterred from entering dental school.

“I’ve never been sick in bed since,” she said.

She’s also savvy about Judaism. She presented the monthly Jewish education report at sisterhood board meetings for many years, privately published by her friends in a booklet titled, “Min’s Food for Thought,” and studied to become a bat Torah as an adult.

Last February, the Adat Ari El Sisterhood honored Leonard at a luncheon on her 90th birthday. Even then, she insisted on preparing 50 pounds of pickled herring and 10 kugels for the event.

“She’s the most giving person you could ever find,” said Marsha Fink, a friend and sisterhood past president.

At home, where she lives alone, Leonard does all her own housework and laundry. “I hate ironing,” she admitted but feels fortunate that she doesn’t have to heat up flatirons and mix her own starch, as her mother did. She also colors and cuts her own hair.

When she’s not cooking or cleaning, preparing lunch for her monthly havurah meeting of “nine old ladies” or serving as “Jewish grandmother” to neighborhood children, Leonard listens to the radio or books on tape, currently enjoying “Tears of the Giraffe” by Alexander McCall Smith. But while she’s listening, she’s also twisting swatches of fabric into “yo-yo squares” to fashion into a quilt.

“Resting is not for me,” Leonard said. Not even in what she calls her “wonderful old age.”

Min’s Noodle Kugel (Dairy)

From “California Kosher” (Wimmer Cookbooks, 1991)

8 ounces wide noodles
4 ounces butter or margarine
6 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup golden raisins, optional
1/2 pound dried apricots, optional

Topping:

1 cup cornflake crumbs
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

Cook noodles in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and add butter. Set aside. Beat together eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, sugar and milk. Add raisins or apricots or both. Add mixture to noodles. Pour into buttered 8-by-12-inch baking dish. Mix together topping ingredients and sprinkle over kugel. Bake at 350 F. for one hour.

Makes 10-12 servings.