January 19, 2020

Temple sisterhoods try to keep pace with changing times

Ah, the trustworthy temple sisterhood. Just uttering its name conjures up images of women in the kitchen prepping for an oneg: kugel in the oven, challah on the platter, women chatting among themselves. This is the sisterhood of our memories. 

But that was then, and this is now: “As of June 2016, we won’t do catering anymore,” said Julie Davine, president of Temple Aliyah’s sisterhood. Previously, the auxiliary members at the Woodland Hills Conservative synagogue were required to help out in the kitchen and serve food. Davine, 55, said that younger generations weren’t identifying with that kind of sisterhood, so current members decided to make some changes. Doing away with catering was just one of many reforms.

So was changing the name. Last year, the group made the bold decision to take the word “sisterhood” out and go by Women of Aliyah. 

The group now offers a wide array of programs, including meditation, while continuing to emphasize scholarships and its Torah fund. Davine’s aim, she said, is to create a cross-generational meeting place for women of all ages.

Temple Aliyah’s sisterhood is not alone in facing the challenge of decreased membership. Sarrae Crane, executive director of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism (WLCJ) in New York, said the national network of more than 400 Conservative sisterhoods is dwindling. “This isn’t my mother’s sisterhood,” she said by phone. “The roles have changed, and they’ll continue to change.”

Rabbi Marla Feldman of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the national network of Reform sisterhoods, said that to understand these changes we need only look at the history of sisterhoods. When WRJ was founded in 1913, women weren’t able to participate in temple life — there were no women on the bimah, no women on the board. Sisterhoods gave women a role in temple life. 

Sisterhoods also brought their own brand of social responsibility to temple life. Feldman said the WRJ founders were suffragists, so the group early on advocated for the cause. Over time, the focus shifted to issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay. 

But today, women can — and do — participate in temple life on all levels. And despite WRJ’s history of women’s rights advocacy, the organization faces the same challenge as WLCJ: attracting new members. While the number of sisterhoods in WRJ decreased from 412 in 2011 to 382 in 2015, the total number of individual members has also decreased by 9,000 members.

Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino boasts one of the larger local sisterhoods, with nearly 500 members ranging in age from 30 to 90. Elisa Taub said that when she became president of VBS’ sisterhood in October, “Our sisterhood was failing.”

Taub, 51 and a VBS congregant for 12 years, said she wanted to expand the sisterhood and create a community for all the women of her synagogue. “It’s revamped,” she said of the group she lightheartedly refers to as “Sisterhood 2.0.” 

To begin with, Taub said, the old meetings were notoriously long and boring, so she and her board replaced them with what they call “salad functions.” As you might imagine, salad is served, and along with the requisite socializing and planning, each meeting has a guest speaker. Taub said they’re also focusing on unique events; a program planned for the fall will feature Juicy Couture co-founders Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor. 

Although there is no official group tracking changes in Orthodox sisterhoods, Aida Forman, co-president of the Orthodox synagogue Shaarey Zedek in Valley Village, said her sisterhood is adjusting the role it plays in her shul. A mother of three, the 52-year-old preschool director said one reason fewer women are members is that most of them are working. (Each of the sisterhood presidents quoted in this article juggles a job, a family and her sisterhood.) “Women don’t have time these days,” Forman said matter-of-factly.

Forman said she remembers growing up in a temple with a vibrant sisterhood, one that hosted carnivals, frequent dinners and other events. In fact, her 84-year-old mother is the head of a sisterhood in Portland, Maine. “Sisterhoods used to be in charge of everything,” Forman said.

Many sisterhoods are shifting to activities focused on the individual, rather than on the temple or wider community. Shaarey Zedek’s sisterhood, for example, now hosts wine tastings, cake-decorating courses and field trips. 

And the sisterhood at Reform synagogue Temple Judea in Tarzana does a bingo-rita event (where margarita-fueled bingo promises a raucous good time) and even a spa night for the younger members. But even with such programming, Temple Judea’s sisterhood president, Tracey Poirier, 56, admitted the difficulty of appealing to younger generations. “No question about it,” she said.

Some might argue that with all these changes — both within and beyond the synagogue — sisterhoods have outlived their usefulness. Why, then, are these women working so hard to keep them alive?

“I still think there’s a need for it in the shuls,” Forman said. “It’s a beautiful thing, and, Baruch HaShem, we’re all there for each other — and isn’t that what a sisterhood is all about?”