Chances are you don’t associate your local synagogue sisterhood with “the edge of town,” but as money, politics, academics and religious power increasingly intrigue us, the women who simply love their shul, and want only love back, have moved to the periphery.
Oh, sisterhoods are on the edge, all right, if not on the border of oblivion, or so it seems.
There are more than 700 synagogues within the orbit of the Orthodox Union, and only about a third have a sisterhood anymore.
Once upon a distant time, every organization had its women’s group — Woody Guthrie even wrote a song called “Ladies Auxiliary.” The Jewish auxiliaries cooked chulent in the shul kitchen; decorated the sukkah; made sure meals were delivered to the home of a mourner, or to a mother with a new baby; raised money for Jewish causes, by nickels and dimes, through wars and depression; arranged meet-and-greet luncheons; welcomed the stranger, but now these ladies, suddenly older, have been turned into strangers by the years.
Would you mind, though, if we insert a shocking fact?
There are nearly four times as many Orthodox sisterhoods as there are women’s tefillah groups (around 280 to 70), which often share the same synagogue.
Maybe the sisterhoods haven’t left and gone away, after all.
Founded in 1923, the Manhattan-based Women’s Branch of the Orthodox Union will hold its national “Convention ’99” next month at the Tarrytown Hilton. Much as the local sisterhood works for the local shul, this national sisterhood (with synagogue and individual membership) works for the national Orthodox community.
They helped found the first school of Jewish higher education for women; supported and furnished, tastefully no doubt, the first Yeshiva College dormitory; and worked on scholarships, matchmaking and mikvehs.
Marilyn Selber, the petite president of Women’s Branch, greets us in her Riverdale apartment, where her Japanese dog, a Sheba Inu, prances between the glass breakfront — stocked with a fleet of silver kiddush cups — to the dining room table, where mints and beverages are thoughtfully provided. The walls are decorated with sensible Jewish art, such as an outdoor etrog sale on the streets of the Lower East Side.
Women’s Branch is celebrating its 77th birthday; 77 in Hebrew numerals spells oz, which evokes not only a verse from Proverbs — “Oz v’hadar Levusha, she is clothed in strength and splendor” — but the “Wizard of Oz,” too.“I like writing poems for weddings and bar mitzvahs,” says the enthusiastic Selber.
To the “Over the Rainbow” bridge (“When troubles melt like lemon drops…”):
“The strength we each have deep inside
When we unite its multiplied — and boundless.
We find our friends in shul and bond
Then classes, chesed, funds and fun seem to surround us…”
She explains how four women will be dressed up as Oz characters, “maybe just from the head up. The lion wears brown… The narrator will say: ‘The chief characters in the mythical Land of Oz were not able to utilize their own innate strengths and talents until they believed that they possessed these strengths.”Selber says, “It’s such a natural thing for women to band together in their shul, taking care of things for the community. If not, it’s almost like the working mother who’s not at home for the kids.”
A resident of Jacksonville, Fla., for more than 20 years, she moved to New York several years ago after her husband, Simon, died in a plane crash.
“I was going to resume my career as an attorney, but I loved working with the Jewish community. That’s the way I was raised.”
She became the unsalaried president in 1977.
“It used to be that the cream of American Orthodoxy were working for Women’s Branch. But women have gone back to work, and there’s been a dichotomy between the older and younger women.”
“In sisterhoods, 50s is young. Certainly 30s, 40s, 50s.”
Selber’s most poignant project is K’nos, stressing the importance of inviting guests to Shabbat tables across America so “the angels who visit your home will be in good company.”
Yes, there are dozens of outreach projects costing millions of dollars, but for the price of a meal you can change someone’s life just the same.
Selber says her motto is: “Women have the power to unite the Jewish people with just three little words: Come for Shabbos.”
It’s not just for new people, she says. “Let’s say there is a family that’s been in the shul for five years but has been ignored. I want people to look around when they get out of shul, look out at the person who might be standing there by him or herself. The shul should be the second home of a Jew. That was the way I grew up, feeling comfortable in shul. That’s the way shul should be.”
She’s brought this program to OU youth groups “because kids often snub each other. We want our children to be learned — will they also be kind?”
The convention will be also feature a session on the “sandwich generation,” with a presentation by a sisterhood from Savannah, Ga., which built an assisted living facility for older members of the community — “in the Southern tradition of grace, warmth and dignity” — adjacent to their synagogue.
Selber says that Erika Klapper and Sandy Ferziger will be starting up the Women’s Branch’s new Basheart matchmaking registry.
Note that their spelling of the Yiddish word bashert is with a “heart.”
Selber says, “Erika and Sandy are lovely…”That’s a great thing about sisterhood women, especially the older ones. They use the word “lovely,” easily and often, to speak about so many of their friends. Where else in the Jewish community do people speak so gently about each other?
Selber starts a story and stops. “You have to hear Sandy tell this, her face just lights up… I loved her so much when I met her. I just walked up to her, and she’s the only woman I ever said this to: ‘Do you know you have a beautiful face?’ I just admired her radiance,” says Selber with a smile.Mrs. Ferziger said of Mrs. Selber, “She’s lovely.”
Indeed, they both are, and Mrs. Klapper, too.
With all the bucking broncos of Jewish life, with all the wild bulls looking to throw you, these Women’s Branch ladies want to be nothing more, nothing less, than the sweethearts of the rodeo. Maybe you prefer iambic pentameter to a couplet of rhyme. Maybe sisterhoods don’t have as many members as they did in the days of black-and-white TV. But if your shul ever feels like it’s down on the end of Lonely Street you could do a whole lot worse than sisterhood women who can turn a shul into home, and a stranger into Elijah.