The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism is taking “Big Bold Steps” as it enters its second century. That was the title of the organization’s plenary session at its recent annual convention, and it reflects the league’s new agenda, zeroing in on a select number of issues and causes.
From July 23 to 26, 450 women clad in their purple shirts commemorating the League’s 100 years attended workshops, listened to speakers, and bonded with other sisterhood members from throughout the United States and Canada.
The convention, which was held at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, marked the first time that the heads of all five Conservative seminaries were in the same room. It also featured the installation of its new president, Margie Miller, who will serve until 2020.
Outgoing President Carol Simon detailed the Big Bold Steps initiative, which was two years in the making and designed “to enrich every woman,” she said.
Rather than getting involved in multiple projects, the League will focus on just three, providing program materials, information and support to its sisterhoods, said Simon.
Those social action projects include partnering with Sharsheret, a national organization that supports Jewish women and their families who have breast or ovarian cancer; creating Mathilde’s Mentionables, which collects bras and feminine hygiene products for homeless women; and providing programs to support the modern Jewish family, regardless of sexual preferences or marriage status.
WLCJ will continue its support of Israel and the Conservative Jewish seminaries.
Included in the plans for the future is the closure of the League’s Z’havah Institute, which was conceived to attract young, unaffiliated women not yet aware of sisterhood. It wasn’t attracting younger members, Simon said.
The League will also stop paying dues to several groups, including the American Zionist Movement (AZM) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), which Simon said wasn’t providing them with anything they couldn’t get just by going to JCPA’s website.
“We need to evaluate where our resources go and have the most impact,” she said.
Over the course of the four-day convention, the women held a Torah Fund luncheon, conducted workshops on a myriad of topics, listened to book authors and conducted a forum on North American Jewry and Israel, which touched on topics including the two-state solution, settlements, Jerusalem and religious pluralism.
Ellen Kaner Bresnick, convention cochair, explained that the League’s mission “must be to truly enrich every woman through Jewish values and experiences.”
All sisterhood programs should include the themes of Jewish wisdom, social justice and action, holidays, health and rituals, she said.
During her talk, Rabbi Abby Sosland from Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester urged the women to avoid labels and get to know, and welcome, everyone. She described herself as a 48-year-old single woman without children who often has been made to feel uncomfortable and unable to fit in.
She warned the women in attendance that ignoring people like her comes “at our peril.”
People should not be made to feel ashamed because they don’t fit into a set mold, she said. Widows, single heads of households, those outside the normal economic and social framework should not be treated as strangers to Judaism.
People don’t want to be alone or feel isolated, she added.
While acknowledging that Judaism needs traditional families to thrive, Sosland said women on the margin must still be included. “It’s time to celebrate that diversity,” she said.
Speaker Karen Block, chair of WLCJ’s Modern Jewish Family, agreed, noting that placing labels on people “is isolating. It’s stigmatizing, and it’s also unnecessary.”
High holidays are the time to kick off sisterhood inclusive programs, she said.
Those attending the convention also learned about Sharsheret and Support the Girls.
Melissa Rosen, director of national outreach for Sharsheret, urged everyone to “make a difference” for someone with cancer. One out of every 500 people carry a BRCA gene that makes them more susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer.
One in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish are carriers, she said.
Dana Marlowe, founder of Support the Girls and and popularly known as "the bra fairy," thanked the League for creating Mathilde’s Mentionables, noting her organization has already collected 135,000 bras and 850 menstrual products for homeless women, many whom have been wearing the same bra every day for years or use belts, ripped T-shirts, duct tape and cardboard in lieu of actual undergarments.
By Suzanne Pollak
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.