by Rosanne Selfon
Over 100 years ago, 156 American women representing 5,000 women in 51 sisterhoods gathered to found the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS), renamed Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) in 1993. These women united to fortify their Jewish identities, perform mitzvot, and collectively support the Reform movement. One of their first endeavors was to establish a scholarship fund to benefit Hebrew Union College (HUC) students. Not only did the women successfully raise scholarship money, they built the Sisterhood dorm on HUC-Cincinnati’s campus. Their largesse expanded during the Great Depression when they financially rescued the college. To this day, WRJ is HUC’s largest cumulative scholarship donor.
In 1955, NFTS determined that broader support for youth was essential. The women established the YES Fund to underwrite youth activities, educational projects, and special initiatives. The acronym YES became the fund’s familiar name (Y for youth, E for education, S for special projects). Women’s generosity to the YES Fund continues today.
During the last decade of the 20th century, WRJ produced a video to showcase its accomplishments, in which Rabbi Alan Smith, former director of the UAHC (now URJ) Youth Department, comments,
Ask any of the kids what the YES Fund is, and they can immediately tell you—YES means Youth, Education, and Special Projects. The YES Fund makes things happen. Every kid in NFTY knows what the YES Fund is.
Was Rabbi Smith correct? Well, perhaps he exaggerated just a bit.
Why would teenagers know anything about the YES Fund, sisterhood, NFTS or WRJ? NFTYites know their history. They proudly note that NFTY was created due to persistent women. For many years, Jean Wise May, daughter of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, badgered Union leaders, lay and professional, to maintain youth on the Union’s agenda. Her distinguished pedigree often gained her entry into the hallowed halls of the male-dominated Union leadership. May, a member of the first women’s college basketball team, was a proven powerhouse who advocated for women’s suffrage and even women’s ordination. Taking on the Union’s leadership to create a national Reform youth movement became her passion—she simply wore them down!
In 1926, Jean Wise May convinced NFTS leaders to establish a committee to foster an organization of temple-based youth groups; it became a permanent committee a year later and funding followed. The women also understood the necessity of creating leadership-training opportunities. In each instance, funding always followed ideas.
In 1930, NFTS earmarked $5,000 to support the salary of a full-time youth division at the Union. In 1937, the NFTS Board of Directors endorsed the creation of a national youth movement. Never underestimate the power of a single person, let alone thousands of Jewish mothers.
How does the YES Fund enable today’s youth? Most recently, WRJ pledged $75,000 to fund NFTY6 Fellows, an innovative program designed to target sixth graders. After Hurricane Sandy, WRJ provided $10,000 to underwrite attendance at NFTY events for teens affected by the hurricane. Last summer, WRJ granted $5,000 for girls’ scholarships to attend the URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy in its inaugural year. Youth programs and projects like these are underwritten by the YES Fund donations every year.
How does this affect individual teens and their families? Consider Stacey Kapushy and her daughters Maddie, a senior, and Sammie, a freshman who live in Lancaster, PA, which has a small Jewish population, a strong Reform congregation, a rabbi who passionately advocates for youth, and an engaged sisterhood. Maddie, president of her local temple youth group, has attended Camp Harlam, multiple NFTY events, and EIE High School in Israel. Sammie, new to NFTY this year, has attended Camp Harlam, Six Points Sports Academy, and Six Points Sci-Tech Academy. Both girls have received significant financial support enabling their participation.
“The WRJ Sci-Tech Scholarship allowed me to focus on science, to be with girls who had that same focus, and to find a connection point in our Jewishness,” said Sammie. “This is the place I want to return to, my escape.”
Maddie notes, “Sisterhood provided accessibility to all of my experiences. I wouldn’t have been able to participate without its financial support. Stipends have made a huge difference for my family.”
And what does Mom Stacey, a full-time working, single mom who is currently sisterhood president, say?
Because of the Yes Fund and the generosity of our sisterhood, I am rearing two daughters whose Jewish identity has been intentionally developed. They will grow up to be contributing members of society, strong, confident and morally grounded. They have experienced a tutorial in giving back. I know they will pay it forward when they can. Thank you WRJ and sisterhood for the critical life lessons you have taught my daughters.
Indeed, the YES Fund impacts NFTYites individually as well as collectively. The YES Fund reflects our priorities: women understand that the future of the Jewish people resides in creating a passion for Judaism in young people. In the next hundred years, WRJ pledges to continue what its founding matriarchs initiated, a partnership with our youth to build a dynamic Jewish future.
Rosanne Selfon served as WRJ President from 2005-2009. Most recently, she was WRJ Centennial Chair and is a lifetime member of the WRJ Board of Directors. She has served on the URJ Board of Trustees since 1994 and today is Chair of the Camp Harlam Council and Vice-Chair of the NAC, North American Camping and Israel Programs.
Correction: In the September 9th edition of 10 Minutes of Torah, “Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self”, there was an oversight in noting Mitzvah Corps Portland’s partnership with Tivnu: Building Justice. Tivnu offers a gap year program in Portland for young adults interested in a Jewish, hands-on approach to social justice.