I am grateful and humbled by the opportunity to speak on this very special Shabbat. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Women of Reform Judaism, formerly known as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS). I have several goals tonight. While we certainly want to celebrate WRJ’s 100th birthday, I want to particularly focus on the history of our Sisterhood and the leadership of our Past-Presidents and Queen Esthers, whom we honor tonight.
Since I was not here at the founding of Temple Israel Sisterhood, I have relied on Rabbi Randy Falk’s rabbinic thesis written in 1946, as well as a history of the Sisterhood written by Fannie Friedman (8th Sisterhood President and 2nd Queen Esther). I don’t know if you’re all aware that we have these two books here at the Temple – a compendium of the Sisterhood presidents with a biography of each, and the same for our Queen Esthers. These two books were primarily written by the late Isabelle Rips, a Queen Esther, who was the Temple historian. Some of the later entries were written by the late Ann Weisman (Queen Esther) and by Carol Stahl (Past President and Queen Esther).
Temple Israel was chartered as a Reform congregation in December of 1914. In 1917, the Ladies Aid Society was organized. Jennie Levin was president; some of us remember well her daughter, Hazel, who was a tireless Sisterhood worker in her own right and one of our distinguished Queen Esthers. Jennie Levin wrote: “The fact that I was first president of the newly organized Muskogee Sisterhood preceded me to Tulsa. Upon arriving here, June, 1917, a young woman, I was made the first president of the Ladies Aid Society and held the post for three years. The handful of women, about forty, were all eager and responsive and anxious to get into action.
“We met in the little cottage at 14th and Cheyenne which eventually became the site of our first Temple, and I look back with justifiable pride on our accomplishments. To my knowledge, there was never a ‘no’ when asked to serve on a committee. It was like one big family, a happy, congenial group, all comparatively young and ambitious.
“Although space was limited, we held services, Sunday School classes, meetings, entertainments, in the one large room. We had a makeshift choir. I played the piano. It was all volunteer work and, regardless of the quality, it was rich in sincerity.”
The Sisterhood paid for that piano which Jennie Levin played, and the Sisterhood also paid for the first sefer Torah that the congregation owned.
Our First Torah
The first two Holydays of Temple Israel’s existence, the congregation was served by a young student rabbi, Abraham J. Feldman, whom Charles and I knew very well. He was our Rabbi Emeritus in West Hartford, Connecticut, and he told us the story of how he was asked to purchase a sefer Torah for the congregation, which he did. Then, how to bring the Torah from New York City to Tulsa for the High Holydays of 1916. Rabbi Feldman came from a traditional background, and the idea of putting a Torah scroll in the baggage compartment was unacceptable. He recalled for us how he sat and held that Torah scroll in his arms for the three-day train ride to Tulsa.
Friends, when I say humble beginnings, I mean humble. Jenny Levin writes, “There was a steep flight of stairs leading to the second floor where we had a gas plate, and here coffee was heated with other food that was brought in from various homes. We were pioneers, and we worked hard. We had no electric dishwashers, no electric refrigeration to ease our efforts, nor a janitor to do the chores, just the same handful of women day in and day out, planning and anxiously awaiting the day when we would have a new temple.
The First Temple
“That day finally came in 1919. Never will I forget the first public seder held in the social room basement of Temple Israel. We had 125 reservations. Table decorations of spring flowers were most attractive, the food simply wonderful, the entire service so inspiring that it left everyone spellbound and in a rich, spiritual mood.
“We progressed steadily, as only a well-organized group could. The Sisterhood purchased the silverware, dishes, linens, pipe organ, and paid the Sunday School teachers a small salary.
“Our entertainment was similar to that of today. We offered little plays, concerts, debates on religious subjects, gave prizes for essays on varied subjects, card parties, carnivals, picnics. As the years went by, the membership grew, and more and more responsibilities were assumed.”
Rabbi Falk’s history says “a congregation’s vitality is often measured in terms of the capabilities of its auxiliary group, the Sisterhood. Certainly in Tulsa’s Temple Israel, the zeal of the women has been responsible for much of the growth and development in Temple life.” At the beginning of Temple Israel, the Sisterhood was the sole financial support for religious education in the Temple.
There was opposition to the use of an organ in the Temple, even though it was definitely a Reform institution, but the project carried by a majority of three votes. The Sisterhood paid for the purchase of that organ. Half of the money was raised in a successful bazaar.
1921 Affiliation with NFTS
The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, the oldest and largest of the Union for Reform Judaism affiliates, today represents 65,000-plus women in nearly 500 congregations in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Israel. It was founded in 1913. Remember, in those days women could not even vote in national elections, much less become rabbis, cantors or congregational presidents. Temple Israel’s Sisterhood joined NFTS in 1921, which means that we have been part of the parent body for 92 years.
One of the first projects that our Sisterhood cooperated in with the national group was the campaign to raise funds for a dormitory at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It became known as the Sisterhood Dorm, and Charles lived in that dormitory during the summer of 1963.
We return to the local scene and the excitement of moving into our first permanent building. Sisterhood helped furnish the building, especially the kitchen and the classrooms, and paid for the books and supplies for the Religious School. Many Sisterhood women were teachers in that early Religious School, and Sisterhood also contributed $25 a month toward the salary of the janitor.
One of the early goals of Sisterhood was to help develop leadership and to give women a voice in the Temple. These were days, I remind you, that Temple boards were all male. In 1922, the Board adopted a policy that the Sisterhood President would have a permanent position on the Temple Board.
The Second Temple
The Temple Family was quickly outgrowing its first building and, therefore, it broke ground — in the depths of the Depression — to build a new facility at 16th and Rockford. It was dedicated in September of 1932. Mrs. Edwina Stern was Sisterhood President and she referred to herself as “the Depression President.”
Sisterhood also contributed generously to the second Temple. It furnished the kitchen, chairs and desks for the Religious School, banquet tables, card tables, and 300 folding chairs for the multipurpose sanctuary/auditorium.
Queen Esther Award
Sisterhood had become part of the Arkansas/ Oklahoma District of NFTS, and Edwina Stern became District President in 1935. Edwina was the first of our Sisterhood members to be elected to the NFTS Board and became Sisterhood’s very first Queen Esther in 1961. The Queen Esther award was created by Geri Rosenthal and is unique to our Sisterhood. It was only fitting that Geri received the award herself in 1994.
Over the course of our 92-year affiliation with NFTS, four additional women have served on the National Board: Minnie Milsten, Dorothy Whitebook, Nancy Sherman, and now we’re thrilled that Madelyn Rosenthal is on the International Board of WRJ. All five members have been Sisterhood Presidents and Queen Esthers.
During this second Temple period, Sisterhood contributed a baby grand piano, started the library, took on sponsorship of the Temple Youth Group and began to set aside $2,000 a year toward the building of a sanctuary.
From 1940 to 1942, Sylvia Wilk, whose father had participated in the Oklahoma Land Run, Larry’s mother, was known as Sisterhood’s War President. Servicemen were hosted by Sisterhood in homes for all Jewish holidays. A special relationship with the Jewish soldiers at Camp Gruber in Muskogee was established. Sisterhood contributed toward a room for wounded soldiers at Camp Gruber. Temple Sisterhood prepared forty overseas kits which the Red Cross distributed to soldiers overseas. Sylvia Wilk became Queen Esther in 1971.
Evidently, from the very beginning, Sisterhood provided an Oneg Shabbat following every Sabbath Eve service. Interestingly, in April, 1946, after World War II was over, Sisterhood dispensed with the Oneg Shabbat refreshments and asked its members and friends instead to contribute non-perishable foods which were packed and sent to the American Joint Distribution Society in New York and then shipped to the hungry in war-torn countries.
Temple Playa, Reviews, Musicals
The second Temple was also the site of the early Temple plays, reviews, and musicals, and Sisterhood was very much involved. The first was in 1944, a musical comedy directed by Lois Barall who, of course, became Sisterhood President and Queen Esther and is known fondly as Lois Kahn Barall Goldstein Zwick. Fashions and Fantasy was directed by Marge Rubin in 1947, sponsored by Sisterhood. Gay Nineties Review was directed by Marge in 1948, as well as Inside Tulsa, directed by Lois Barall. In 1956, Sisterhood presented a delightful spectacular entitled, “My Fair Lady Ball”. I believe that subsequent “Harmony Balls” were held at the Meadowbrook Country Club and raised considerable money. During the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s there were many exciting Temple shows.
Our Sisterhood contributed to the NFTS fund for the purchase of the House of Living Judaism in New York City, which became the headquarters for all arms of our Reform Movement. Jane Evans, the first Executive Director of NFTS and one of the most distinguished leaders of Reform Judaism, spoke at Temple Israel in 1948.
In the second Temple, Sisterhood began the custom of an interfaith tea which later became a luncheon. In 1950 the president of the Tulsa Council of Church Women and the president of Cathedral Women’s Club participated. With this luncheon, it became a Sisterhood tradition in February, as part of the National Brotherhood Month, to have an interfaith luncheon. Last month marked 63 years Sisterhood has been hosting an interfaith luncheon.
Minnie Milsten became Sisterhood President in May of 1952, and there was a problem of securing a new parsonage to accommodate the family of Rabbi Rosenthal, who was about to become our spiritual leader. A special meeting of the Temple Sisterhood was called on July 22, and Sisterhood voted to assume one-half the yearly mortgage payments on the parsonage. The library, by 1953, had almost 2,000 volumes.
The Third Temple
By this time, it was clear that the congregation had outgrown its 16th and Rockford site, and some visionary leaders of the Temple purchased a five-acre property at 22nd and Yorktown. Sisterhood pledged to underwrite the furnishings of pews for the sanctuary, tables and chairs for the auditorium, besides the entire equipment of the kitchen. Sisterhood women created the first Ark Curtain for the new Temple, and many Sisterhood women also needle-pointed our current Ark Curtain. In January, 1955, the Sisterhood triumphantly presented a check to Pug Myers, Temple President, for $23,500, $20,000 toward furniture and kitchen equipment, and $3,500 for the Religious School maintenance.
In March of 1955, we moved into this new building. As the move from Temple II to Temple III was about to take place, Fannie Friedman wrote, “We rededicate ourselves with great joy to our new spiritual home, to worship there, and sending our children and grandchildren to the beautiful edifice which, through our labors, we all have created, that there they may seek spiritual sustenance that will strengthen and enrich their lives.” Sisterhood helped plan and was intimately involved with the three-day dedicatory celebration of the new Temple.
Within the first year in this building, under the presidency of Carmelita Avery, Allan’s aunt, the Sisterhood entertained the Texas/Oklahoma District of NFTS at its Biennial Meeting in Tulsa. We hosted again in 1977, and in 1992, under the presidency of Christie Kennedy (Queen Esther), Sisterhood hosted District 22’s Interim Board meeting.
So how did we and how do we raise money to support our Temple? One of the first and most unusual fund-raising projects was a “Hope Chest”. Ladies filled this hope chest with fine linens and lingerie and moved it from the windows of one downtown department store to another; raffle tickets were sold for that hope chest and its contents.
Rummage sales, bazaars, food sales, bake sales, and art auctions followed, and then our last two very successful auction fund-raisers, each raising $20,000 for Sisterhood’s support of the Religious School.
During Jeanne Jacobs’ presidency, 1982-84, Sisterhood gave $40,000 to the Temple Israel Building and Endowment Fund for the expansion project to provide a brand new Judaica Shop, which we utilize to this day.
The Judaica Shop was never just a fund-raising project of Sisterhood. It is a place to buy special Judaica — Jewish jewelry, Shabbat and Yahrzeit candles, books, holiday items, CDs, DVDs – for our congregants, for the entire Jewish community, and general community.
Projects of Pride
Some of the projects of Women of Reform Judaism which our Sisterhood has participated in and can take justifiable pride in: In the 1930s, in cooperation with the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NFTS helped finance the rescue of several promising, young Jewish students living in Germany. They would study at the Hebrew Union College and became some of our most renowned Reform rabbis: Gunther Plaut, Herman Schaalman, Woli Kaelter, Alfred Wolf, and Leo Lichtenberg.
NFTS helped establish the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and for twenty years was NFTY’s sole financial source. Today, Women of Reform Judaism supports the Union’s work with high school and college age youth through our Youth, Education, & Special Projects (YES) Fund as well as the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Youth Camps in the Former USSR.
WRJ provides annual scholarships for eight Reform rabbinic and cantorial students. We support a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center in Washington. We help fund the Israel Religious Action Center’s efforts to eliminate gender discrimination there.
WRJ publications include The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, the first commentary written entirely by women and which we use in our Sisterhood’s monthly Torah study; WRJ Covenant series of prayers; Torat Nasheem, the commissioned Women’s Torah, as well as Torah study guides.
The constraints of time compel me to summarize the various activities of Sisterhood for 58 years in this building. Let’s begin with hospitality. Sisterhood continues to provide a delicious Oneg Shabbat following almost every Shabbat service. We prepare the annual Break-the-Fast at the end of Yom Kippur, the Simchat Torah and Chanukah dinners. We’ve helped for years with the Purim Carnival, Tu Bishvat Seder, the Congregational Passover Seder, and the dinner at the Annual Congregational Meeting.
For many years, Sisterhood maintained a cradle roll, a picture and short description of every baby born in the congregation. Sisterhood still continues to support the publication of the Temple Bulletin each year.
One of our most important long-standing projects is the Sewing Group. Every Monday morning, year in and out, Sisterhood volunteers prepare pillows with matching cases and carrying bags for mastectomy patients – a truly inspiring mitzvah.
In 1984, Sisterhood members created the beautiful tablecloth for the ritual table in the auditorium depicting holidays and Jewish themes. As a former Program Vice President, I am particularly proud of our Sisterhood’s innovative and stimulating offerings which have informed and educated our members. We’ve presented annual book reviews, forums on Jewish women’s health issues, community social issues and avenues for Sisterhood involvement, educational programs featuring school superintendents as well as the new Public Library director. We’ve had K’vell and Sell luncheons, Taste and Tell luncheons, challah demonstrations, and Tina Wasserman, and have published two cookbooks. In recent years, the “Chai Tea” has become a major opening of Sisterhood’s programming year. Teddy Lachterman, a Queen Esther, was its creator, and often three and four generations of Temple women were involved.
We’ve created Women’s Seder and this year a Rosh Chodesh celebration. With Cantor’s help, we’ve offered beautiful music programs. Our Sisterhood retreats have emphasized and engendered leadership skills. And regardless of venue or subject, our programs have built strong relationships between and among the wide variety of women who comprise our membership.
I also want to acknowledge, with Sisterhood’s sincere gratitude, our Rabbi’s consistent help and support with our programming.
For Sisterhood Shabbat, we have brought 11 female Reform rabbis and three cantors to this bima. Lay leaders have included Lydia Kukoff, Eleanor Schwartz, as well as Dr. Jocelyn Elder, former U.S. Surgeon General, and former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor. WRJ Presidents Judith Silverman, Judith Rosenkranz, as well as current WRJ Exec, Rabbi Marla Feldman, have addressed us on Sisterhood Shabbat. In 1986, NFTS President Delores Wilkenfeld was guest speaker at Sisterhood’s closing luncheon.
Preparing Women for Leadership
Sisterhood service has prepared many women for congregational leadership. Jeanne Jacobs, Past-President and Queen Esther, was the first woman to be elected President of Temple Israel in 1988. Paula Milsten, another Sisterhood Past-President and Queen Esther, became Temple President in 1994, and Ginny Katz, also Past-President and Queen Esther, served as President of Temple Israel from 2004-2006. Paula is now our co-honorary Temple President.
The Amudim Award is Temple Israel’s highest honor. To date, 60 individuals have received this coveted recognition. Eighteen of these 60 have been Sisterhood past-presidents or Queen Esthers, and six have been both.
To conclude, what my research as well as my own experience has taught me, is that Sisterhood has helped build buildings – the House of Living Judaism in New York, the Hebrew Union College Dormitory in Cincinnati, and each of the three buildings which have housedTemple Israel – but we’re not building-builders. Our mission is to build better Jews. Our work as Sisterhood members has strengthened this congregation in so many different ways. We in this generation have been blessed to stand on the shoulders of some truly remarkable women.
The Next Generation
WRJ and Temple Sisterhood have changed with the times. “This is not your mother’s Sisterhood; this is the new generation of Sisterhood.” Now that women play new roles in congregational life — women are rabbis, cantors, educators, Temple presidents — WRJ has created new models of shared leadership and responsibility.
One of our greatest challenges is to engage the next generation of young women who identify as Reform Jews. Women can benefit from the bonding, sharing, caring, mentoring, learning and growing which is characteristic of Temple Sisterhood.
Those who came before us planned for a future which has brought us to this Centennial Celebration. Let us commit to ensuring that our second century is as inspiring and transformative as the first. Please join us on this journey. Amen