An Army of Moms and Sisters
By Toba Strauss
Sisterhood women have had an incredible impact on my life. I am largely a product of the religious school system, of NFTY and URJ camping, all of which are opportunities afforded to me through sisterhood support. I feel fortunate to be a student at HUC-JIR, an institution that ordains women like me, in part because of the support (and perhaps pressure!) of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods/Women of Reform Judaism, and this year I have the opportunity to work for WRJ for my rabbinical internship. I am thankful to Women of Reform Judaism, and I personally owe a great deal to sisterhood women, both past and present, who have helped me to achieve my goals.
A sense of gratitude and a corresponding sense of duty are enough to make me spend several hours of an otherwise busy day working on a Mother’s Day gift for my own mother. However, these are not the feelings that get me out of bed in the morning, nor keep me motivated throughout the course of the day. After a long day of studying – which often entails the rigors of the rat race in New York City – it is not debt, nor appreciation, nor responsibility that pushes me onto a crowded train bound for the WRJ office. While these feelings are enough to get me to make a donation, or “like” the page on Facebook, they would probably not be enough to get me to join a local sisterhood chapter, nor are they the factors that brought me to the WRJ this year.
Why, then, do I give up rare afternoons on my sofa to send out last-minute office memos? Why do I sacrifice precious evenings with my boyfriend to instead sit in a small cubicle answering emails? Of all the internships to which I could have applied, why was Women of Reform Judaism at the top of my list? What inspires me, and women like me, to become active in local sisterhood chapters? It’s not the goals I’ve already achieved with the help of sisters and sisterhood, but the goals I am still working towards that motivate my contribution.
I am the daughter and granddaughter of activists. I am looking for others to link arms with me as we march together for a better world. It’s a nice image, perhaps a little cliché, but what does it mean? First, it means that I want to feel a part of a movement forward, part of something bigger than myself. Second, I know that my voice will be louder in unison with others. I know that I need the group and the group needs me, or we will not achieve the goals I am so passionate about. Lastly, I’m looking for a motivator, my gym-buddies in activism. I want to hear a voice on the phone, saying, “Toba, get up! I’m going to volunteer. I’m going to protest. I’m going to learn, to work, to study, to change the world. Come with me. We can get coffee on the way.” I work for WRJ because together we demand women’s freedom and religious pluralism in Israel, we fight for women’s access to health care and the right to make decisions that impact us, for equality in a nation where women still make less money for the same jobs as men, and for a voice in a tradition in which we have only recently been acknowledged. WRJ, sisterhood, this community, gives me the opportunity, the ability, and the motivation too, to make the world a better place.
Of course, there are days when my goals, my mission, my desire to change the world, are obscured by my immediate everyday life. There are days when a routine doctor’s appointment becomes anything but routine, and I am scared and lonely. On those days there aren’t enough causes or passion to motivate me to get out bed. On those days, when my own sister and mother are a thousand miles away, it is the women of WRJ that offer me love and support. It is the email from a board member reminding me that though “life can be so challenging,” I have lots of “sisters (more like Moms!) who care,” that truly inspires me to get up and keep going.
As my friends and I begin to make our lives and build our families, states and time zones and plane rides away from the families who raised us, these women, our adopted “sisters” and “mothers” have been the women who have stepped into the roles our families are too far away to play. These women are the “mothers” who hold us and comfort us after the doctor’s visit, make places for us at the family seder table, and throw us parties to celebrate our success. These are the “sisters” who advise us on the best Thai food in town, and take the babies for a night so we can have some peace and hold our hands as we cry, because they understand us in a way only someone else who has been there truly can. These are relationships that sustain us, these are the women for whom we would do anything in return. This is what sisterhood can provide, and these are the relationships that truly motivate me.
As we celebrate the achievements of WRJ in this centennial year and look toward the future of the organization, I have been asked what we can do to get young women involved in sisterhood. As nice as it sounds, no catchy program title or flashy social media page will ever be the answer. If we want to engage people, we must tap into their true motivation, the values that truly drive their lives. If they are anything like me, we must do as we have always done. We must continue to focus on justice and the mission for which we were founded. We must remember too, that we would do anything for our Jewish mothers and sisters.
Toba Strauss is the Rabbinical Intern for WRJ and just completed her third year of rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR in New York. Originally from Gillette, WY, Toba spent most of her childhood in Texas. After completing her degree in Cultural Anthropology and Jewish Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, Toba set out to explore American Jewish life. She has worked for Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at Cornell and Northwestern Universities, the Federation of the Greater East Bay in Oakland, CA, and synagogues in Denver, CO and New York City. She looks forward to honing her education skills next year in HUC-JIR’s Masters in Religious Education Program. Toba says she wouldn’t be where she is today without the opportunities provided by her home congregation and sisterhood, Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands, TX, and the constant love and support of her mother and sister, Dr. Bernice and Naomi Strauss.