Sisterhoods as auxiliaries of synagogues have been around in the United States for more than 120 years. Both Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods (or Men’s Clubs) were formed as a way to keep folks engaged in synagogue life. The goal was to form a regular vehicle through which activities would be coordinated.
The notion ran across the various denominations. The sisterhood would be in charge of everything from flowers on the bimah to food for the oneg to arranging social events for the congregation. If Purim was coming, the sisterhood would arrange the shpil, the costume parade – or at least the hamantaschen. At Pesah, the sisterhood would collect the bread from houses and make sure that everyone had a seder to attend. For confirmation they made a “function.” In the days when women were less likely to be employed outside the home, sisterhood provided both a social connection and a useful endeavor. Sisterhoods were and are responsible for New Building Funds, Ballroom Funds, Torah Funds, Wimple Projects, Gift Shops, etc. Sisterhoods would take care of the Jewishness of the congregation, and also the nurturing.
During war time, sisterhoods would organize bandage rolling and fund raising for the troops. Alongside other organizations such as Pioneer Women (NA’AMAT), the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and others, sisterhoods would focus organizing from within the congregation, toward work both external and internal. Reportedly the first U.S. “Sisterhood of Personal Service” was formed in the late 19th century at Temple Emanu-El in NYC, created primarily to tend to the masses of Jewish immigrants. By 1905, most of the large NY congregations had sisterhoods, and in that city they formed a Federation of Sisterhoods in 1896 to coordinate work with the United Hebrew Charities. The whole point was keeping folks engaged in the congregation, while enhancing both the lives of the women and the synagogue experience. Another mission was bringing together women of all “classes” and incomes toward the common good.
Three umbrella organizations were founded, as well: the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods in 1913 (now Women of Reform Judaism); the National Women’s League of the United Synagogue in 1918 (now Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, founded by Mathilde Roth Schechter, wife of Solomon Schechter, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America); and the Women’s Branch of the Orthodox Union of Jewish Congregations of America in 1923. The sisterhoods emphasized and provided for Jewish education for children. They also got involved in tikkun olam – as early as 1920 sisterhoods were raising financial support for the Jews of Ethiopia. In the 1970s they worked to Save Soviet Jewry. During WWII, they sold War Bonds, turned their buildings into makeshift hospitals, and trained for national defense. And now Sisterhood continues on, into the future, empowering women and teaching our children how to be Jewish leaders. And maybe a “function” here and there.