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.

New commentary looks at Torah from woman’s point of view


How many people know that when the Torah describes Abraham mourning the death of Sarah, it’s the only time in the entire text that a man mourns a woman? Or that Adam and Eve were equal partners in crime? Or that women most likely were instrumental in constructing the Temple?

Too few. That’s why the Reform movement will soon publish a commentary on the Torah that gives the woman’s perspective.

“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” a project of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the movement’s women’s division, is a collaboration of 80 biblical scholars, archaeologists, rabbis, cantors, theologians and poets from across the religious spectrum — all of them women who came together to present a new perspective on the Bible.

“The goal of this is to bring women’s voices to the forefront,” said Shelley Lindauer, WRJ’s executive director. “History has been written by men; men were the ones who wrote the history of the Torah, and women’s voices got pushed to the background. We want to hear more about what the matriarchs said, some more about the women characters in the Torah.”

The volume won’t be released until the WRJ Assembly and the Union of Reform Judiasm (URJ) Biennial conferences in San Diego in December 2007. However, the Reform movement will introduce a chapter from the book next month. During the week of Nov. 18, when Parshat Chayei Sarah is read, about 250 Reform congregations — approximately 5,000 people in all — will participate in a study program based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

WRJ and URJ Press, which is publishing the book, have released the chapter from the 1,500-page volume for congregations to use during Shabbat services or other study sessions, along with a list of suggested talking points, to give a taste of what the commentary will offer, said Rabbi Hara Person, URJ Press’ managing editor.

The commentary will be laid out differently than many others. Each chapter will offer an overview, followed by Hebrew text and a linear translation, along with a central commentary from one of the 80 contributors.

After the central commentary, another woman will give a short countercommentary, offering a different viewpoint on each chapter. Then another woman will give a post-biblical interpretation and another a contemporary reflection on the parshah or weekly portion. Each parshah also will be followed by a selection of creative writing, most often poetry, that reflects the themes that were just read.

More than traditional commentaries, the new volume will focus on women when they’re in the text of the Torah — and also when they’re glaringly absent, editor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi said.

For instance, Chayei Sarah deals with the death of Sarah and the courting of Rebecca. Abraham’s slave finds Rebecca at a well, where she offers him water, and he asks her family if he can take her back to Canaan to wed Abraham’s son.

The women’s commentary is careful to point out that Rebecca gives her consent. Rebecca is an active, not passive, character from her very introduction in the Torah, the commentary says.

Though he hasn’t seen excerpts of the book, the notion of a women’s commentary garnered praise from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Commentators have traditionally been male, so I think the women’s voice and perspective certainly can help to add and interpret and bring the message of the Torah in a way that may be different than a male’s voice,” Epstein said.

But he was a little wary of an exclusively female commentary, just as he said he would be wary of an exclusively male commentary in this day and age.

“We need commentaries that speak to all people and that have male and female voices blended together,” he said.

Differences between the women’s commentary and traditional commentaries start at the very beginning, with the story of creation.

The creation of woman is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible and is fraught with cultural bias, Eskenazi explains in her interpretation, which will be published in the “Women’s Commentary.”

While the description of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is commonly taken as a sign of Eve’s inferiority, it’s more a statement of their equality, she says. They’re described in Genesis 1:26-28 as being of the same flesh, both “created in God’s image and blessed with fertility and power.”

They later are described as partners. And when they sin by eating the apple, they do so together — yet it is Eve who often is perceived as the evildoer and the one who was the impetus for the expulsion from Eden.

An essay by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith in the volume discusses Parshat Trumah, which describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Although the gender of the artisans who built the Mishkan isn’t clear, it’s often assumed that they were male.

But based on archaeological evidence from the time that shows women heavily involved in weaving and spinning, Bloch-Smith suggests it was women who provided the yarn for the temple’s Tent of Meeting, according to Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the commentary’s associate editor.

Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she’s now teaching a class based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

The volume has been in the works for 13 years, since Sarah Sager, a cantor, challenged the movement to undertake the project in a speech to the WRJ assembly in 1993.

“We’re not trying to make this midrash. We’re not trying to make the text say something that it didn’t say,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to read it closely and to pay more attention to parts not found in other texts.”