Role of Sisterhood in My Congregation/My Personal Journey

By Rosanne M. Selfon

Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA, has been my Jewish home almost since the day I was born. When my husband David and I returned to Lancaster in 1974, there was no doubt we would join a synagogue (YES! There are Jews in Lancaster which is the 4th oldest Jewish congregation in constant use in the United States). Growing up, David had had a less than stellar relationship with his Orthodox congregation so joining my Reform temple was a non-issue. We jumped into temple life immediately.

Sisterhood welcomed me warmly. My first position was chair of public relations; one year later, I became a vice-president. In 1976, I became sisterhood president with a four year old, a three month old, a career-building husband and a dog. Those were the days when 150 women attended luncheons, only daytime programming existed, and every woman in our congregation supported sisterhood. Social activities, holiday celebrations and almost all fundraising were within sisterhood’s domain. I loved instituting new projects. Help was plentiful; you simply had to ask. Our sisterhood, which predated NFTS, was a successful organization that met the needs of many women.

In many ways, sisterhood offered informal “Leadership 101”. Working in our women’s community was safe; mistakes weren’t a death sentence. Understanding organizational life, testing new waters, learning skills to deal with all types of people, and learning adult, not pediatric, Judaism all originated with sisterhood experiences. Sisterhood modeled how to mentor, how to bring women into the circle, how to celebrate achievements, and how to sunset weary events. We learned from our elders who sometimes indulged us by accepting contemporary innovations. Sisterhood’s intergenerational dimension continues to be an organizational highlight.

My sisterhood exists to support temple, our community and each member. I take special pride in one of our committees that reaches out to any temple family experiencing a death. The Bereavement Committee provides the meal of consolation following a funeral. This particular service is truly a mitzvah. The committee is so organized that a congregant simply provides the number of mourners expected, and sisterhood shops and cooks the meal, sets it up, serves it, and cleans afterward. Anyone who has done this work or received this service clearly understands how sisterhood helps to make our congregation a caring community, a family.

In the 1980’s, NFTS District #5 scheduled a biennial meeting in Lancaster, and I was asked to be the local liaison. I didn’t even know what a district was. Orchestrating our active sisterhood and taking care of my young family had been my priorities. But I learned, very quickly, how connecting with Reform Jews beyond Lancaster could enrich sisterhood, temple, and me. From the very first gathering, I was ‘smitten’ with the Reform Movement! Engaging with the district leaders further refined my skills and offered wonderful leadership opportunities.

NFTS caught my interest. So many wonderful options presented themselves. NFTS/WRJ presidents nurtured me, encouraging me to learn, step outside my comfort zone, and entertain new experiences. Having many mentors has been a blessing; each has taught me to seize the moment and stretch.

When my three-year sisterhood presidency ended, I became the temple’s 2nd VP, and in 1990, I began my three years as president. Our congregation evolved, using more Hebrew and contemporary music. Rabbi Jack Paskoff, who is now in his 19th year with us, initiated many social justice projects and significant adult study programs while overseeing a thriving Religious/Hebrew School. Under his nurturing, more than thirty youngsters annually attend Camp Harlam, Kutz Camp, and NFTY in Israel or Birthright; many helped by sisterhood. None of us in leadership, professional or lay, are complacent; we strive to introduce innovations every year. Dayeinu – this alone makes our congregation quite amazing!

My involvement in Sisterhood began a lifetime journey of service that has included serving my synagogue, WRJ, the URJ, Camp Harlam Council and so forth.  Reform Judaism has greatly influenced my family. Our older daughter Lysa is a temple officer at Rodef Shalom in Philadelphia. Amanda, our younger daughter, recently marked her tenth anniversary serving as NFTY-PAR Adviser. Both families belong to synagogues and celebrate all the holidays with joy. My hope for our three grandchildren is that they find as much meaning through volunteerism with Reform Judaism as I have been privileged to know. L’chayim WRJ – to 100 more years!

Rosanne M. Selfon, WRJ Immediate Past President, currently is serving as the WRJ Centennial Chair. She previously chaired The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, published by WRJ in partnership with the URJ Press in 2008. She has been a member of the WRJ Board of Directors since 1987.

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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9 Responses to “Role of Sisterhood in My Congregation/My Personal Journey”

  1. Roseanne, What a great story! You are an inspiring example of how getting involved, sometimes a little beyond your comfort zone, can pay dividends in life experience. Thank you!

  2. Larry Kaufman

    Rosanne, I loved your article, especially because you put front and center two points that are all too frequently over-looked in discussing leadership development.

    First and foremost, you called attention to the opportunities both WRJ and URJ have given you for personal growth, as you put it, to stretch. We all do what we do “for the cause,” but we are entitled to that extra “perk,” which outlasts the fun of being in the spotlight.

    Second, you call attention to an environment where mistakes are not a death sentence. Our synagogues must be laboratories where we can design the new Jewish reality, and our women must be enablers rather than inhibitors of progress.

    Congratulations on all you have done to move our movement (if that’s not some kind of redundancy) forward.

    • Rosanne M. Selfon
      Rosanne Selfoon January 30, 2013 at 9:51 pm

      Dear Larry, Thanks so much for your kind words. I am blessed to have a marvelous congregation and belong to a sensational movement, both which offered me phenomenal opportunities. Hope you are doing well. Rosanne

  3. Great to read an article from the best Temple and Sisterhood advocate. Hope you and your family are all well. Greetings from the Jersey shore – Meryl

    • Rosanne M. Selfon
      Rosanne Selfoon January 30, 2013 at 9:52 pm

      Hi Meryl, thanks for agreeing about our marvelous congregation. The kids are terrific and brighten every day. Hope all is well with you, Steve and the Jersey shore. Rosanne

  4. I only wish that I had experienced such a supportive environment. It was disheartening, to say the least.

    • Rosanne M. Selfon
      Rosanne Selfoon January 30, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      Hello Ida,

      Maybe you can try again in a new place, a more welcoming environment. I always try to remember that building relationships is a two-way street. Try anew or seek a different community. Rosanne

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