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Reflections on the Kiddush Ladies

by Sarrae G. Crane

There it was among the weekly Shabbat announcements: Kiddush is provided by the sisterhood. If it happened to be sponsored by a bar mitzvah family, it was assumed that the sisterhood ladies had set it up. The kiddush ladies were the members of the sisterhood. And for most people that was the basic equation. Sisterhoods had meetings and then their members set up kiddush and the ongei Shabbat. They also might have helped decorate the sukkah, adding their touches to those of the children of the religious school.

But a look around any synagogue should have revealed much more. Who ran the Judaica shop? The sisterhood ladies. Who was in charge of ordering the kippot for the b'nai and b'not mitzvah? The sisterhood ladies. Who made shalach manot baskets for Purim? Who sponsored the flowers for Shavuot? Who promoted the gift honey for Rosh Hashanah? Who sent Chanukah care packages to the congregation's college students? Who were the key participants in the PTA and the Youth Commission? Again, the sisterhood ladies. Which arm of the congregation could always be counted on for a significant contribution? Of course, sisterhood.

The sisterhood ladies were far more than a coffee klatch enabling Shabbat attendees to enjoy a little wine and sponge cake. They were – and continue to be – at the core of any synagogue's life. Without the dedication of kiddush ladies our congregations would be a shadow of themselves. They did what women do so well, creating a warm, welcoming community by making people feel at home. They studied and learned more about Judaism, created Jewish homes, incorporated Jewish values personally and into their families' lives. The bonds that were created in the sisterhood strengthened Judaism for many generations.

If we turn the clock back nearly a century, to the early years of Women's League, the organization of Conservative sisterhoods, we discover that Women's League and sisterhoods had a much larger agenda than worrying about what to put out for kiddush. One of Women's League's earliest projects was the creation of an offcampus space for Jewish students in the vicinity of Columbia University, Barnard College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. That concern continued to be expressed through its Torah Fund campaign, which saw the need and underwrote the creation of the Mathilde Schechter dormitory at the seminary. It was renewed last year when Women's League adopted the Koach kallah, a Shabbat retreat for college students across North America, as a project. (We are delighted that through our efforts and support, Koach almost doubled the number of attendees from last year!) We are committed to the perpetuation of Conservative/Masorti Judaism and are proud that our board has voted to continue our support of the Koach kallah.

But Women's League has not only looked outward. We have looked inward as well. For decades Women's League has produced publications to enrich the lives of Jewish women, running from The Jewish Home Beautiful in 1941, to our most recent Women's League Hiddur Mitzvah Project. We have fashioned material and developed training programs that enable our women to deepen their knowledge of Judaism and intensify their liturgical skills.

In recent years more of us have entered the work force, many in time-consuming professional positions. Those of us working nine to five plus often have neither the time nor the energy left to fulfill the traditional roles of the sisterhood ladies. Yet we still expect kiddush to be there on Shabbat morning. And we still are women who actively identify as Jews, seek to enrich our Jewish education and observance, and want to be part of a network of women who share the values of Conservative Judaism. The mission of Women's League is as relevant today as it was when we were created by Mathilde Schechter in 1918. To expand that network, we have embarked on a systemic and strategic look at our future.

And for future reflection . . . . On the recent Conference of Presidents Mission to Israel, we journeyed to Amman for a day. In addition to meeting with King Abdullah, we were hosted for lunch by Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Danny Naveh, who had cooked for us and was in the kitchen preparing fabulous desserts. It is clear that the kitchen is no longer only the province of women. Perhaps in the future it can be the kiddush men and women who provide this essential element of synagogue life as we re-imagine the ways both men and women contribute to our congregations.

We are proud to be the next generation of kiddush ladies and so much more. We know that it is the day-to-day things that we do that secure the structures that enrich our lives as Jews.

Sarrae Crane is executive director of Women's League for Conservative Judaism.

 
 
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