National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods
In 1913, the women of reform judaism, who were organized in independent, local synagogue sisterhoods founded in the 1890s and 1900s, united to create a national organization of women dedicated to religion. Reform Jewish women joined the American women of the era who established a host of voluntary associations to further various social and communal agendas. The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), officially renamed in 1993 the Women of Reform Judaism–The Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, grew from nine thousand members in forty-nine sisterhoods at its founding to one hundred thousand members in six hundred local affiliates in the United States, Canada, and twelve other countries by 1995.
Recognizing “that the increased power which has come to the modern American Jewess ought to be exercised in congregational life,” Reform sisterhood members gathered in 1913 in Cincinnati, at the request of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Reform Judaism’s synagogal body. After hearing addresses by leading rabbis celebrating Reform’s emancipation of Jewish women from the fetters of the oriental synagogue, the NFTS elected carrie simon, rebbetzin of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, founding president. Historian Jacob Marcus has suggested NFTS emerged because the national council of jewish women, founded in 1893, had abandoned its original aim of strengthening Jewish religious life in favor of focusing on social service work. Certainly, Simon saw NFTS created not to duplicate existing Jewish women’s organizations but to carry the banner of religious spirit necessary to strengthen the congregation. Although she originally invited sisterhood women in “so-called conservative congregations” and even Orthodox Jewish women to join her, within a decade these women would create their own national and denominational organizations.
From its inception, NFTS revealed that it would use the forum of a broad, public organization to further what had become, in America, women’s spheres of responsibility within Judaism and the synagogue. Its standing committees demonstrated that domestic responsibilities beyond the home in the congregation, religious school, and community were the paramount tasks of NFTS. First and foremost, NFTS strove to further the religious spirit of Reform Jewish life. Its leaders stated time and again that their chief purpose was religious, fostering Reform’s particular expression of modern Judaism. Through circulars sent by the National Committee on Religion and through its biennial conventions, NFTS attempted to orchestrate the directions of its work at a nationwide level.
The NFTS encouraged weekly worship, for example, by convincing local sisterhood women to provide baby-sitting to free young mothers for an hour or by canvassing door-to-door to persuade friends to join them in temple. NFTS encouraged sisterhood women to create in their temples a spirit of welcoming community, reminded members to bridge the distance between pulpit and congregation by sitting in the first row of the sanctuary, and suggested that they sponsor an hour of refreshments and sociability after Friday evening services.
NFTS expected that local sisterhoods would continue the tradition of their foremothers, the women of the nineteenth-century Hebrew ladies’ benevolent societies, and buy ritual objects and flowers to beautify their synagogues. Sisterhood women continued to take special responsibility for Jewish holiday celebrations in the synagogue by building and decorating the temporary booths required for Sukkoth, giving religious school children Hanukkah candles and candies, arranging masquerades and carnivals for Purim, and leading the way in simplifying the all-too-elaborate celebrations that had come to characterize their sons’ and daughters’ confirmations on Shavuot.
Yet the national organization staunchly resisted relocating all aspects of a home-based Judaism to the temple. While NFTS celebrated sisterhood women organizing communal Passover seders, its leaders wanted the first meal of the holiday reserved for their families and the Friday evening sanctification service also saved for their homes.
As Mothers in Israel concerned with the future of Jewish life in America, education of children and youth work held preeminent places on NFTS’s agenda. Its National Committee on Religious Schools paid particular attention to the quality of local congregational schools, staffing and teacher training, the curriculum, and the involvement of school parents. It established a publication fund that began to produce not only textbooks for the classroom but works of adult education as well. NFTS enhanced the education of its members with Bible study classes, courses on the Jewish child, and, after the establishment of the State of Israel, through teaching the Hebrew that the Reform movement had once abandoned, making women Jewishly literate.
Supporting children in religious school through their confirmations at age sixteen did not complete NFTS’s mission for youth work, for keeping the next generation tied to Reform Judaism was pivotal to its program. In the late 1920s, NFTS turned its attention to the Young Folk’s Temple Leagues, organizations for the eighteen-to-twenty-eight-year-old youth of Reform Jewish communities. The NFTS sought ways to connect these young men and women to Reform Judaism by inviting them to assist in religious schools and suggesting that they have a voice on temple boards. After World War II, NFTS played a founding role in the creation of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, an organization aimed at youth in high school.
Not surprisingly, concern for the future meant that sisterhood women were also determined to forge “a real bond of tradition and sentiment between the boys at the College and the women of the Sisterhood... from the earliest days it was always the duty and privilege of the mothers in Israel to provide in their own households for the rabbinic students in the community.” With rabbinic students now at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, NFTS women adopted modern modes for shouldering this responsibility. First they raised scholarships, boasting, by 1919, twenty-four complete scholarships funded for future rabbis. Then NFTS conducted a campaign to build a dormitory at Hebrew Union College. When it opened in 1925, the dorm housed 100 students and stood as a tribute to NFTS’s determination to continue, as Mothers in Israel, to provide for their communities of the future.
Promoting religion in the community, especially to those isolated without a local family base, was a logical extension of this work. NFTS circulated lists of Jewish college students—the 1927 list had 1,330 names—and urged sisterhoods in university communities to invite these young people to services and to their homes. The organization encouraged individual sisterhoods to send Passover foods to Jewish prisoners and took a special interest in providing Jewish materials for the blind. NFTS was a founder of the Jewish Braille Institute of America. Sisterhood women transcribed articles into Braille, supported the monthly Jewish Braille Review, and helped develop a Hebrew Braille alphabet.
For many years, NFTS walked a fine line between its commitment to Reform Judaism and its interests in general philanthropic work and contemporary political issues. NFTS presidents, such as Hattie M. Wiesenfeld, urged members not to overextend sisterhood by venturing into social service and political avenues best left to other organizations. Acutely conscious of the extent of the funds they could raise—through the sale of Jewish art calendars, Uniongram occasion cards for birthdays and memorials, and publications—early NFTS presidents were eager to promote the spirit of Reform Judaism by organizing free religious schools for those not affiliated with the synagogue. More often than not, they encouraged sisterhood activities to promote Reform Judaism and discouraged those that redirected energies and monies elsewhere, however worthy the cause.
Nonetheless, in times of national emergency, such as during World War I and World War II, NFTS wholeheartedly joined others in the cause. The organization encouraged members to bring the comfort of religious community to military men stationed far from home. With the Red Cross, the NFTS organized the women of Reform Judaism to aid their nation and those who suffered from the war.
Moreover, NFTS leaders always considered certain issues, notably peace work and separation of church and state in the public schools, at the center of sisterhood’s religious mission. Citing the prophet Isaiah, who envisioned a time when swords would become plowshares, NFTS joined other associations in the 1920s, promoting the prevention of war and encouraging the U.S. Government in its pursuit of disarmament. Local NFTS constituents opposed the Bible bills of the 1920s and the release time bills of the 1940s, which gave schoolchildren in some locales time off for religious instruction. NFTS resolutions reveal other political issues Reform Jewish women did agree upon, including funds for the relief of Jewish women in Palestine (1915) and support for the rescue of Ethiopian (Falasha) Jewry (1923).
Furthermore, despite preferring to refrain from politics, NFTS was concerned from its inception with one major political issue—the changing role of women, especially within Reform Judaism. NFTS proceedings are filled with presidents’ speeches and the reports of chairmen, as they were then known, celebrating that for woman in Reform Judaism “the day of her inferiority is a memory of the Dark Ages.” But NFTS regularly sought to push the limitations of that emancipation farther. In 1925, NFTS president stella freiberg wondered at the wise man who penned the biblical portrait of the woman of valor: “Could that sage in Israel have foreseen the future? ... Could he have seen her rise in the realm of her religion, watch her descend from the gallery unto the lower floor and then ascend even into the pulpit?” Within its first decade, NFTS leaders would herald the experiment of electing women to synagogue boards; call for its members, in the absence of vacationing rabbis, to lead summer services; and proclaim Sisterhood Sabbath, a day when, in some congregations, women could lead the service and preach to the entire congregation. NFTS reports contain a record of what its members presumed to be landmarks—the first time a woman trustee sat on the pulpit during services, the first time a woman read scripture on Yom Kippur—celebrating Reform Judaism’s emancipation of women in the synagogue. Later, NFTS leaders would turn to these examples of successful female religious leadership as “a revelation of what the women may do if they ever enter the rabbinate.”
Despite the exigencies of the Depression, which saw NFTS stabilize at around 350 local affiliates, as some impoverished sisterhoods resigned and few new ones joined, NFTS activities expanded in new directions. The chief reason for these new approaches was the hiring, in 1933, of Jane Evans, “the first lady of Reform Judaism” and NFTS’s first full-time executive director. The moving force in charting new directions for NFTS, especially those that extended beyond congregational life and the humanitarian vision Reform Judaism espoused, Evans first turned her attention to enriching and strengthening local sisterhood life. While running an office that handled hundreds of letters every day, she launched new projects: the publication of the newsletter Topics and Trends, a radio program of Jewish liturgical music, leadership training institutes, and a speakers’ bureau, which guaranteed a volunteer speaker—often Evans herself—to every local affiliate.
Then Evans began to push NFTS beyond its original mandate of service to the congregation, religious school, and community. A particularly keen observer of contemporary affairs and a religious pacifist who offered to resign from NFTS when the United States entered World War II, she demanded that Reform Jewish women voice their opinions on both the issues confronting Reform Judaism and the political challenges of the day. She helped orchestrate NFTS’s fund-raising for a home for Reform Judaism’s national organizations, the House of Living Judaism, and lobbied to see it built in New York, not in Reform’s traditional center, Cincinnati. In 1961, just as President John F. Kennedy was convening the Commission on the Status of Women, Evans brought the question of women’s rabbinic ordination before NFTS. Under her guidance, resolutions supporting access to birth control information, civil rights, fair employment practices, child labor legislation, the revision of immigration legislation, the elimination of capital punishment, and the de-escalation of the Vietnam War were all endorsed at NFTS biennial conventions. Evans was particularly interested in promoting peace and caring for worldwide Jewry, including the Jewish community in Palestine and, after 1948, in the new State of Israel. This strong concern for international political affairs pushed NFTS to broaden its mission. The organization that had never adopted a resolution in favor of woman suffrage endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in 1973; urged sisterhoods during the 1980s, the international decade for women, to form coalitions with other women’s organizations for the advancement of all women; and celebrated its support for a woman’s right to abortion in the 1992 “March for Women’s Lives” in the nation’s capital. Under her long administration, Evans and her successors, Eleanor Schwartz (1976–1992), Ellen Y. Rosenberg (1992–2003), and Shelley Lindauer (2004–) took the Women of Reform Judaism far beyond the domestic sphere of its founders into the larger Jewish world and the arena of women and politics.
Through NFTS, sisterhood women exercised a collective voice. Although they shared with their husbands and brothers the spaces of their synagogues, the institutional structures of Reform Judaism, and its religious and humanitarian values, NFTS nationally and its individual affiliates locally allowed Jewish women a venue for the creation of a female Reform Jewish culture. Through its programs and shifting interests—weekly worship, synagogue celebrations, education, youth, and, later, expanding women’s sphere and roles and extending women’s religious and civil rights—NFTS enabled its members to help change the expectations of American Jewish women’s proper behavior within the portals of their Reform synagogues and ultimately to enlarge their roles there and in the world.
Davis, Karen, “The Ascent of Sisterhood: The First Eight Decades.” Reform Judaism (Fall 1992): 37+; Evans, Jane. Oral history interview with Abraham J. Peck, November 4, 1985. AJA, Cincinnati, Ohio; Hirt-Manheimer, Aron. “Sisterhood for the ’90s: A Conversation with Ellen Y. Rosenberg.” Reform Judaism (Fall 1992): 40–42; Nadell, Pamela S., and Rita J. Simon, “Ladies of the Sisterhood: Women in the American Reform Synagogue, 1900–1930.” In Active Voices: Women in Jewish Culture, edited by Maurie Sacks (1995); National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. Index of Resolutions, Adopted by the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, 1913–1985 (1988), and Proceedings of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (1913–), and Topics and Trends (n.d.); Rosett, Frieda S. Papers, 1924–1987. Mss Collection number 353, folder 1/3, Speeches, 1924–1943. AJA.