Doing Justly: WRJ’s Advocacy Agenda

By Carolyn Kunin

Social justice advocacy has formed an integral component in WRJ’s organizational life since its founding as The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) one hundred years ago in 1913. (NFTS, was renamed Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) in 1993.) WRJ involvement in social justice issues stems from who we are — Reform Jewish women committed to the values of Judaism. The Jewish vision of a just world is stated early in our tradition, with Abraham pleading with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah,

“Will You indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? . . . Must not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23, 25)

The values expressed in Abraham’s call for justice and throughout the texts of our tradition, WRJ’s constitution, and its resolutions are the foundation for WRJ advocacy. The constitution adopted by the delegates to the first NFTS biennial assembly in 1915 calls for service to “Jewish and humanitarian causes….” and “special relationships, concerns, and interests on behalf of … national and international issues.” The delegates to the 1915 assembly also adopted resolutions that protested against the requirement of literacy tests for immigrants in a bill before President Wilson and called for raising funds for the Jewish women of Palestine. Immigration reform and concerns regarding Israel remain important issues on WRJ’s advocacy agenda today.

WRJ and its affiliates have spoken out, within the movement and in the community, on domestic and foreign issues that affect the quality of life, freedom, and justice for all people, with a priority on women’s well-being, including peace, civil liberties, hunger and poverty, environment, health care, reproductive rights, and equal pay for women. In addition to their advocacy efforts, sisterhoods engage in hands-on social justice projects such as providing new school shoes for inner-city youngsters, services for patients with HIV/AIDS, gift bags and programming for women in shelters, packages for overseas military personnel, and efforts to alleviate hunger. To see the breadth of WRJ’s one hundred years of social justice action, see resolutions and policy statements, the sampling of recent advocacy alerts, and the Or Ami Light of my People Award for Excellence in Sisterhood Programming publications in the Advocacy section of the WRJ website.

A few highlights of WRJ’s (NFTS’ prior to 1993) one hundred years of long-standing advocacy:

  • Reproductive health and rights – in 1935 NFTS endorsed amending federal legislation to enable medical personnel to send birth control literature through the mail and in 1965 called for liberalization of abortion laws, continuing to speak out on this issue even today.
  • Ordination of women as rabbis –NFTS called for HUC-JIR and other liberal seminaries to ordain qualified women as rabbis during its 1963 fiftieth anniversary assembly. Employment equity continues to be an important part of WRJ’s advocacy agenda.
  • Soviet Jewry – NFTS urged affiliates in 1963 to call on the State Department to seek equal rights for and to oppose persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. From 1970 to 1991, NFTS actively worked on the Women’s Plea for Soviet Jewry, holding events, rallies, and marches.
  • Domestic abuse – in 1983 NFTS adopted a resolution urging that spouse, child, and family abuse be viewed by the police and courts as criminal acts and that sisterhoods work with other organizations to provide services for victims of abuse. NFTS first published When Love is Not Enough: Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism, Rabbi J.R. Spitzer’s landmark study on spousal abuse in the Jewish community, in 1985.Through the 1980’s and 90’s, NFTS/WRJ conducted campaigns in sisterhoods and congregations to raise awareness of the issue. WRJ’s advocacy on this issue continues with its support of the International Violence against Women Act.
  • Environment – since 1969, NFTS/WRJ has expressed ongoing concern about environmental issues. WRJ began working with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in 1991 to conduct a four-state three-year campaign to raise awareness and advocate for legislation on children’s health and the environment. WRJ has been a long term member of the Jewish Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL).

NFTS’ early support for the LGBT community was spoken of in a recent Huffington Post article:

Jewish support for the LGBT community was visible even in 1965, when the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now Women of Reform Judaism) passed a resolution condemning the criminalization of homosexuality when no one else would. (Stuart Milk, “Jewish and Gay: One Choice in This Election,” HuffPost Gay Voices, 10/31/12)

Stuart Milk’s mention of our 1965 stand, on an issue of key importance to the LGBT community, indicates that Women of Reform Judaism’s social justice advocacy statements have a long life, continue to have an impact, and do make a difference.

Carolyn Kunin is the former WRJ Director of the Department of Advocacy and Program. She serves on the Board of the Sisterhood of Temple Israel of Northern Westchester and on the congregation’s board. Carolyn was temple president in the mid-1980’s.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund.

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6 Responses to “Doing Justly: WRJ’s Advocacy Agenda”

  1. Carolyn Kunin’s is more of a wish list than fact if you live in an ethnically mixed community such as mine.

    I applaud the work to bring women into this century, but cringe at some of so-called humanitarian stands which still divide us as Jews from society as a whole.

  2. Thank you this excellent piece. Would like to use it for our presentation on the WRJ centennial at our women’s retreat, March 10, with Women of Temple Israel of Hollywood

  3. The article has its history mixed up. It’s talking about a bill before President Cleveland in 1915. In 1915 Woodrow Wilson was president. Grover Cleveland was president 1885–1889 and 1893–1897 (the only person to serve non-consecutive terms as president).

  4. I am so glad that your work includes the ordination of women rabbis. Now if we can only pray with wearing tallit and carrying Torah at the Wall. Also- mazel tov on your environmental work. This is the foundation of our our life and our breath.

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