Education as an Act of Faith: Women’s League at 100
By Dr Lisa Kogen
Exactly a century ago, on January 21, 1918 a remarkable assemblage of educated and talented Jewish women convened in the Assembly Hall of the Jewish Theological Seminary to establish a women’s arm of the recently formed United Synagogue of America (later renamed the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism). By any objective criteria, it was a formidable constellation of women, many of whom were the wives and daughters of rabbis, scholars and communal leaders of the same ideological stripe.
Delivering the keynote address that January morning was Mathilde Roth Schechter, widow of Solomon Schechter, the grand architect of Conservative Judaism in North America. Diminutive in stature, towering in presence, Mathilde Schechter was a magnetic field of intellect, drive and vision.
While the idea of a women’s arm of the United Synagogue of America was initially proposed by Solomon Schecter in his inaugural address to the first United Synagogue Convention (1913), it was actualized by Mathilde a half decade later. Both envisioned an organisation that would focus on Jewish women whose education, they felt, had been “woefully neglected”, and through them, enrich their children. In apportioning a public role for women in the Union’s work Solomon remarked: “They can become more than an auxiliary to us; indeed, helpful in many respects where, as conditions are in this country, their influence is more far-reaching than that of their husbands”.
In her inaugural address at the foundational meeting of Women’s League, Mathilde reframed her late husband’s challenge: through the process of Jewish education, women could accomplish this, their most urgent task: “to perpetuate traditional Judaism in their homes, synagogues and communities”. Mathilde’s formulation remains today – one hundred years later – nearly verbatim, the mission of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.
In its infancy, the organisation’s leaders understood and embraced their crucial role as educators and propagandists (the latter term in the early twentieth century meant simply “public information – getting the word out”.) By May of 1919, with 52 Women’s League affiliates and over 500 individual members, its leaders addressed the critical need to create and disseminate educational materials to their members. They began, early on, to produce a wide variety of pamphlets on holiday customs and observances and a host of sisterhood programming ideas and directives. Most remarkable –and rarely acknowledged in mainstream historical accounts – was that this foundational generation of Women’s League formed an imposing army of peripatetic teachers and instructional missionaries. The women in this cadre of early leaders and teachers were educated, Hebraically and Judaically knowledgeable, culturally conversant, socially confident and committed to the ideals of Conservative Judaism. Moreover, they provided critical contributions to what was still (in the early decades of the twentieth century) the male-centric dominion of Jewish education.
In their purposeful propaganda campaign to teach basic tenets of Judaism to women in far-flung communities, Women’s League representatives traversed the continent.
The educational agenda, which consistently reflected the mission articulated by Mathilde Schechter, were attained ultimately by the ambitious production of Women’s League materials and resources provided for its members. In addition to the assorted pamphlets, Kiddush cards, Friday Night Stories of the first decades, and the study and resource guides of later generations, Women’s League published a number of books whose utility and influence endured for decades. The “script” was another indispensable educational vehicle throughout much of the mid twentieth century. A sizable percentage of sisterhood meetings revolved around the presentation of these carefully crafted dramatic or oratorial works – homegrown little playlets, if you will – written and performed by members. With a distinctly didactic goal, scripts reflected a wide variety of subjects and issues – from Bible, midrash, prayer and Jewish values, to Israel, contemporary Jewish events, personal and family matters, health and popular Jewish culture.
With the rise of Jewish feminism in the early 1970s, Women’s League began to extend its educational focus from home to synagogue ritual. Programs and resources aided members in their advocacy of egalitarianism in their synagogues. By the early 90s, the establishment of the Women’s League Society of Kolot Bikdushah highlighted its members’ newly acquired liturgical skills that enabled them to read Torah and lead services. Within just one generation, Women’s League Shabbat (the annual commemoration of its establishment) was transformed from a synagogue observance lead exclusively by men to one lead exclusively by women.
We might speculate that if Mathilde Schechter were to appear in the back row of a Women’s League Shabbat service, she might wonder: what Judaism is this? But hopefully she would understand that the recent educational opportunities afforded women are helping to preserve a Judaism that is dynamic and relevant.
In March, as Masorti women in the United Kingdom gather to study at the Women’s Forum 2018 – this year focused on the subject of women and power – they enrich and are enriched by the chorus of their sisters’ voices “across the pond”.
We have come to appreciate that education, in any guise, reaps countless benefits, both practical and spiritual. And it confirms, as well, the statement in Chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot: “Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa of Kefar Chanania used to say: ‘If ten sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Shekhinah rests among them…’ ”
Dr Lisa Kogen served as the National Director of Education and Program at the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism (WLCJ) from 2003 – 2017.
The Masorti Women’s Forum will take place on Sunday 11 March, 2-6pm at Belsize Square Synagogue. Click here to find out more and to book.