By Rabbi David Ellenson
The history of the rapport between the Women of Reform Judaism and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion starts with the founding of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods in 1913 when NFTS established a National Committee on Hebrew Union Scholarships. Through Harvest Balls, dances, raffles, card parties, rummage sales, bazaars, the charging for refreshments at meetings, and other devices, NFTS in its first year raised more than $2000 in HUC scholarship support at a time when annual tuition was $300 per student.
By 1915, the Sisterhood women proposed a 25 cent per capita tax on all members for the establishment of scholarships. Another source of scholarship revenue was discovered through the sale of NFTS Jewish Art Calendars and, in 1917, NFTS proposed that the profits of Uniongram sales be used for “the maintenance of the Hebrew Union Scholarship Fund.” The results were remarkable, and while no single contribution was “large,” the NFTS women succeeded in amassing an “aggregate” that constituted “a considerable sum.” By 1920, NFTS provided more than $12,000 in scholarship aid for HUC students by mobilizing thousands of women through participatory and grass roots methods to raise thousands and thousands of dollars.
The contribution of NFTS to HUC was not limited to scholarship support. In her Presidential Message of 1921, Mrs. Joseph (Hattie) Wiesenfeld asked the Sisterhood women to take the lead in constructing an HUC dormitory. NFTS responded with enthusiasm to this charge. An NFTS H.U.C. Dormitory Committee was established under the chairmanship of the founding President of NFTS, Mrs. Abram (Carrie) Simon. NFTS assumed responsibility for raising the then astronomical sum of $250,000 required for the building of the dormitory. Mrs. Wiesenfeld stated, “The Dormitory … will testify in eloquent and undying marble to the unity, purposefulness, and Jewish earnestness of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods.”
On December 9th, Mrs. Simon proclaimed, “The hour has struck. Let every Sisterhood President appoint a Chairman and select a strong Campaign Committee. The Dormitory Campaign must be completed in eight weeks.” She asked that every member of Sisterhood contribute $7 to this campaign.
At the Union Biennial that year, NFTS, concluded its resolution calling upon the Union to endorse the dormitory project, with words that reflect the domestic role assigned women in that era. The resolution stated, “The woman in Israel must be man’s helpmate – a high priestess of the temple of her faith. Upon us, therefore, has devolved the pleasurable responsibility of sustaining and embracing faith by practicing the age-old duty of womankind: homemaking!” On January 27, 1922, a pamphlet “The Four Steps in the Dormitory Campaign,” with the frontispiece, “You Are Going to Succeed,” was sent to every Sisterhood. By March 29th, $139,500 had been raised!
A letter of April 14th indicates that Mrs. Wiesenfeld would let nothing deter the successful completion of the dormitory campaign. Fearing that the creation that year of the Jewish Institute of Religion would impede the fund raising progress for the dormitory, she cautioned the NFTS membership, “I cannot but look upon this enterprise as unnecessary, ill-timed and fraught with mischievous possibilities for our Hebrew Union College. I sincerely trust that you will not permit this to interfere with our Dormitory campaign.”
Twelve days later, on April 26th, Mrs. Wiessenfeld admonished her NFTS lieutenants, “This is a ‘Drive’ not a party. People don’t particularly like to be driven, although when it is over, they usually acknowledge they are glad they did it.”
Sisterhood women throughout the nation responded. A letter written on May 19th by Mrs. D.S. Lisberger of San Francisco is typical of the determination the Sisterhood women displayed. She wrote, “Today’s enterprise is a test. In every city and hamlet of this country, [women] will work to complete what they have undertaken. A woman’s yea is yea. A woman’s promise is a bond.”
On November 13, 1922, Mrs. J. Walter (Stella) Freiberg, then Vice-President of NFTS, gave a gift of a gymnasium “to the men at the Hebrew Union College.” Ground was broken for the gymnasium and the dormitory on December 8, 1922. Fund raising was successfully completed in early 1923. The triumph of this campaign bears witness to the indefatigable talent and resolve of these women in pre-feminist times.
During the dark days of the Depression, NFTS continued to provide scholarship support to HUC students. HUC President Julian Morgenstern said to the 1935 NFTS plenum, “[HUC students] are in a most literal sense the sons, the children, of the Sisterhoods. Without your friendship, without your continued whole-hearted generous and enthusiastic support, we would have extreme difficulty in continuing our work and rendering the service which the Jewish community in America needs.”
The generosity of NFTS during those years of persecution also allowed exiled professors and students from Europe to find refuge at the College. NFTS and HUC literally saved the lives of more than a dozen refugees. Fully conscious of the horrible plight of these Jews, Blanche Stolz, on October 31, 1935, wrote, “Our Scholarship Committee is linking its efforts with those of many other agencies in attempting the solution of the difficult problems facing World Jewry because of the German Jewish situation.” Six years later, on April 29, 1941, Mrs. Aaron L. Lambie could observe, “Young rabbinical students from now-closed seminaries of Central Europe have been able to pursue their chosen careers by means of this [Scholarship] Fund.”
Though the history between NFTS and the College in these early years reflects notions of gender-roles far removed from the present, WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, first proposed to WRJ by current HUC-JIR Governor Cantor Sarah Sager and later co-edited by HUC-JIR Professors Tamara Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss, as well as the very generous annual scholarship support that the WRJ still provides for the students of HUC-JIR, are extensions of the foundations planted by the women of the NFTS in relationship to HUC so long ago. Women of Reform Judaism and HUC-JIR can justifiably take pride in and be grateful for this history and for our ongoing relationship.
Rabbi David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion and I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought.
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund and by Sandi and Michael Firsel and Temple Chai Sisterhood.