Alan Silverstein

Synagogue Adult Auxiliary Organizations: Women’s League and Federation of Men’s Clubs

One innovative approach that has strengthened American And Canadian [and world-wide] synagogue life has been the creation of synagogue Auxiliary Groups, e.g. Sisterhoods and Men’s Clubs [Brotherhoods]

Case Study: Women’s League for Conservative Judaism

The origin of Women’s auxiliaries within the structure of local synagogues first emerged in the late 19th century in Reform Temples. Middle and upper-middle class Jewish married women had increasing amounts of leisure time. It was culturally not befitting for the wife of a successful businessman to work for a salary. Instead, the early Sisterhood ladies engaged in what would gradually become the field of social work, assisting the households of the immigrant working poor. As Temple volunteers, Sisterhoods became more and more popular and effective. Accordingly, roles for leadership arose within the Temple base of core activities. Although yet ineligible to be official “members” in their own right, Sisterhood leaders assisted in the Sunday schools, in Youth activities, in Social Action projects, and in Torah study.

Interest in engaging women in a broader spectrum of synagogue life was enhanced by the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In 1913 Temples Sisterhoods responded to the societal push for voting rights by organizing the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, under the auspices of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This popular initiative caught the attention of Solomon Schechter, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Schechter urged the formation of Sisterhoods within Conservative synagogues, too. Schechter hoped “to assign a certain portion of the United Synagogue’s work to women and to give them a share in its activities.” With Schechter’s untimely death in 1915, his wish in this regard was pursued by his widow, Mathilde Schechter.

Immediately after the conclusion of WWI, Mrs. Schechter established The National Women’s League under the mantle of the United Synagogue. 100 women, many the wives of prominent rabbis and scholars affiliated with the Seminary, set forth a mission to “perpetuate traditional Judaism in their homes, synagogues and communities, a task for American Jewish women.” When subsequently asked at the 1918 United Synagogue convention to summarize the essence of her organization, Mrs. Schechter replied, “We stand for everything Jewish and American.” Initially calling themselves the Women’s Religious Union of the United Synagogue, the early leaders began to disseminate their message through the publication of educational materials written in English, whose purpose was to guide young women through the process of Americanization.

Following the Allied Victories in WWII, what had become known as Women’s League launched a program of expansion. Recognizing the increasing demands to engage adolescents, in 1952 Women’s League and United Synagogue formed United Synagogue Youth (USY). That same year, the Torah Scholarship Fund created Chai Clubs, whose instant success encouraged the League to ultimately make a $500,000 pledge toward the creation of the Mathilde Schechter Residence Hall at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Women’s League activities expanded dramatically with the rapid post-WWII growth of the United Synagogue. As Women’s League memberships grew, in 1958, WL was organized into departments to accommodate enhanced needs.

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, feminist issues spurred WL’s re-examination of a woman’s role in Judaism [e.g. counting in a minyan, having a Torah Aliya, leading the prayers], culminating in the 1980s advocating on behalf of the ordination of female candidates as rabbis and as cantors.

In terms of Jewish Peoplehood, Women’s League became an independent member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, World Jewish Congress, World Council of Synagogues, World Zionist Congress, and 27 other agencies devoted to Jewish communal service. Notably, WL serves as one of 17 national organizations with membership in JCPA.

WL also expanded its relationship with newly its formed overseas affiliates and continued its financial commitments to already established global projects. During the 1980s, Women’s League’s voice grew consistently stronger in Israel. WL is credited with the late 20th century increased membership in MERCAZ (the Zionist membership organization of the Conservative Movement). Mercaz’ growth allowed the Conservative Movement to become a leader in the World Zionist Organization.

Through Women’s league’s Torah Fund annual development efforts, WLCJ continues to play an important supportive international role for the Conservative/Masorti Movements 5 rabbinical schools — JTS [NYC], Ziegler [LA], Frankel [Germany], Seminario [Argentina] and Schechter [Jerusalem].

The 1980s and 1990s saw major opportunities as women gained increasing as Ordained Conservative/Masorti rabbis. Consequently, the foci of the Women’s League program have expanded:

  • International Study Days, including Study days inside Israel for Israeli Jewish Women, organized and supported by WLCJ
  • WLCJ’s Outlook magazine
  • WLCJ international conventions
  • Women’s League Reads,
      • A worldwide conversation about books of interest to today’s Jewish women.  Women’s League Reads is a moderated online discussion group, via Google Groups, in which everyone is invited to post comments, ask questions, and make observations about the book and benefits by having the author on the call
      • Examples include: If All the Seas Were Ink author Ilana Kurshan; Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of Waking Lions: Dara Horn, author of Eternal Life.
  • Distance Workshops,
      • 18-Month of Study of Mishnah Berakhot with WLCJ via the website
      • On-line “Study with a Scholar” – most recent scholar was Historian Pamela Nadell
  • Topical symposia,
      • A “Wellness and Learning Network,” – monthly opportunities for women to learn about their own health and wellness as well as to engage in Jewish study. The WLCJ Wellness Committee is composed of health professionals, female clergy, educators, and lay leaders. They have developed a list of health and wellness topics, ranging from Torah Yoga to the physical need and the spiritual dimensions of water.
      • Topics Relevant to the “Modern Jewish family” – The intact Jewish family of the past has been often been eclipsed by current social reality: intermarriages, divorce, later marriage, later ages of having children, adoption, single parent households, long term single Jewish adults, same sex families, etc.
      • Increased efforts to serve the local sisterhood chapter and the individual member
      • Tefillin 101 – on WLCJ website, was a series educating women about tefillin
  • WLCJ Leadership Training Institute
      • Materials to Support Women’s Rosh Hodesh Groups
      • Best practices in Tikkun Olam Projects for individuals and for WL chapters
      • Day Time Course Offerings for WL at JTS Share1
  • The Women’s League Hiddur Mitzvah Project is an innovative approach to enhancing the observance of mitzvot at home and in our communities. E.g.
      • Chanukah Sisterhood Guide
      • Purim Sisterhood Guide
      • Pesach Sisterhood Guide
      • Creative Judaic Arts Patterns – needlepoint for holidays and on-going Jewish observances

Women’s League has matured into a network of approximately 500 women’s clubs in North America and Israel. It provides materials and programs designed to expand members’ knowledge and involvement. WLCJ is active in Jewish national, Israel, and world affairs and among the various arms of the Conservative/Masorti Movement. It also is an accredited non-governmental observer at the United Nations. In aggregate, WLCJ engages hundreds of thousands of Jewish women [members as well as non-members] each year.

Case Study: Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs

The concept of synagogue-based brotherhoods/men’s clubs first arose in the Reform Movement in the late 19th century. In a secular era, fewer and fewer young men [children of German Jewish immigrants] seemed ready to attend prayer services. As a strategy to attract and build social networks of these future shapers of American Jewish life, Temples established Brotherhoods. Brotherhoods were charged with providing leisure time recreational and social activities as an initial step for young men toward the sanctuary and toward adult Torah study.

In the aftermath of WWI, the Reform Movement witnessed increasing engagement of middle-aged men within the Brotherhoods. Brotherhood activists became more and more involved in service projects within the Temple. Brotherhoods thereby became a new path toward Temple lay leadership. Accordingly, in the early 1920s, the Reform Movement created the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. The success of the NFTB caused alarm within the Conservative Movement. Conservative rabbis feared that their own Men’s Clubs, without any alternative, would join the NFTB and be led gradually into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [Reform].

In the mid-1920’s, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohen, then the Director of the United Synagogue of America, conceived of bringing together leaders from existing Conservative Movement Men’s Clubs into a “National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs of the United Synagogue of America.” The mandate was “to build a network of Men’s Clubs in order to strengthen the Jewish home, synagogues and the Conservative Movement.” Cohen envisioned that this group would foster an interchange of ideas that would help them focus on their common needs.

With the end of WWII [1945], the Jewish Theological Seminary appointed Rabbi Joel S. Geffen as FJMC’s spiritual advisor. Rabbi Geffen’s initial responsibility was to travel throughout North America to expand the influence of the Seminary and to build future synagogue leadership through Men’s Clubs. Rabbi Geffen guided the organization for 40 years, during which he linked FJMC to the rabbis in the field and to Seminary leadership. In 1997, FJMC established the Rabbi Joel S. Geffen Leadership Development Institute dedicated to training lay leaders for the Conservative Movement.

FJMC’s growth was very strong in the years following World War II, paralleling the growth of the Conservative Movement. A regional structure was developed to provide more direct service to member clubs. The New York Metropolitan Region was established in 1944. The Middle Atlantic, New England, Pacific Southwest (later changed to Western), Seaboard, Tri-State, and Midwest Regions were established between 1949 and 1951. The Great Lakes Region was created in 1953, followed by the Connecticut Valley Region (1956), Northern New Jersey Region (1957), Florida (1964), Northeast (1966), and Southwest (1967). More recently, the FJMC added four new Regions – Anshei Darom (Men of the South; originally called the Southeast Region) in 1999; KIO (Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio) in 2001; Hudson Valley Region in 2004; and Michigan in 2007.

In 1967 the NFJMC became an independent 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. With the growing strength of Canadian Men’s Clubs, the adjective “National” [e.g. American] was dropped from the organization’s name in 1983. Today, the international Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs is known by its acronym, FJMC.

Under Rabbi Geffen’s leadership, during the 1940’s, FJMC introduced regional kallot, a Layman’s Institute, which brought Men’s Club leaders to the Seminary for a Shabbat of prayer and study. Ultimately, FJMC regions replicated the Institute program; Another innovation was the Toraharians, a business lunch-study program conceived by NFJMC President Arthur Bruckman. Additionally, FJMC published a series of pamphlets dealing with the importance of ritual life. These publications included: “When Religion becomes Vital” by Mortimer Cohen; “The Sabbath” by Abraham Millgram; “Jewish Dietary Laws” by Samuel Dressner; “Jewish Ethical Living” and “The Ideals of the Prayer Book.”

A high point was Hebrew Literacy Campaign – In 1975. Rabbi Noah Golinkin created a lay person-to-lay person FJMC method of teaching synagogue Hebrew. The unique approach was designed to provide members of congregations with lay role models and a sense of comfort within the synagogue. The Hebrew Literacy Program consists of two volumes: “Shalom Aleichem” (1975) was based on the Friday evening service, and “Ayn Kelohenu” (1981) focused on the Shabbat morning service.

In 1981, Rabbi Charles Simon assumed the mantle of Executive Director for the next 36 years. Rabbi Simon launched an era of programmatic expansion – in accord with a 3-Fold Mission of “Involving Jewish Men in Jewish Life” via Leadership, Innovation, and Community.


  1. Leadership activities

FJMC strives to help men reach their full potential as leaders, for their clubs, their regions, also as leaders within their synagogue and in the greater Jewish community. The annual Leadership Development Institute as well as numerous other retreats and workshops each year are designed with these goals in mind.

  1. Community

FJMC activities foster friendship and camaraderie among members beyond the boundaries of their synagogues.  Lifelong friendships between men across the country and internationally have developed over the years. The networking opportunities that result from active involvement in FJMC is one of the major benefits of our organization.  This networking also enables programs that are developed and field tested by individual clubs to be shared across all clubs, thereby supplementing the programmatic offerings of the parent organization.

  1. Innovation – a wide range of innovative FJMC projects
    • Ramah Projects – In 1981, the Middle Atlantic Region built an indoor recreation center for Camp Ramah in the Poconos with funds raised through an annual concert series.

In 1983, the Western Region adopted the Tikvah program, which provided a Jewish camping experience for children with special needs at Camp Ramah in California.

In 1989, the Great Lakes Region committed itself to building a guest facility for Camp Ramah in Canada and dedicated it in 1995.

That same year, the New England Region adopted Camp Ramah in New England’s Tikvah program

The Southeast and Florida Regions began the drive to create Ramah Darom, which had its inaugural summer in northwestern Georgia in 1997.

In 1999, New York Metro Region laid the groundwork for an innovative program for challenged children at Ramah Berkshires.

    • Art of Jewish Living – FJMC enlisted Ron Wolfson in 1985 to develop materials to create a total living and learning environment around key Jewish holidays. The first book, on the Shabbat Seder, was followed in 1987 by the Passover Seder book (subsequently translated into Russian). Next followed the Hanukkah volume and then a final publication entitled “A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort.”
    • Yom HaShoah Yellow Candle Program -Originally developed by the Beth Tzedec Men’s Club of Toronto in 1983 to provide Jew and non-Jew alike with a meaningful ritual which would enable them to observe Yom HaShoah in their homes. By 1989, the program expanded into an international FJMC effort for families in their homes to commemorate the Holocaust and keep alive the memories of the six million who perished.
    • Shabbat Morning Torah Service Video – was distributed in 1989 as the first FJMC educational videotape designed to teach a synagogue skill and reduce anxiety in synagogue members who do not feel competent in ritual matters.
    • Mezuzah Ceremony – At the 1995 convention, a ceremony was launched for affixing a mezuzah to a door post and another project encouraged the wearing of non-leather sneakers to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Also in 1995, FJMC began working with Rabbi Tovia Singer, National Director of Outreach Judaism, to counter efforts of cults who specifically target Jews for conversion.
    • Hearing Men’s Voices –  In 1997, the FJMC introduced its Hearing Men’s Voices initiative, e.g. six program guides devoted to men’s concerns in a changing Jewish and secular world: Our Fathers/Ourselves(1997), which explores men’s roles in the Jewish family; Body and Spirit: Men Staying Healthy and Fit (1999), exploring men’s health issues; Listening to God’s Voice, focusing on men’s spiritual lives; Our Fathers Ourselves, concerning men’s relationships with, and legacies from, their fathers; Building the Faith/Let’s Talk About It, to assist men deal with the issue of dual faith intermarriage; and For Whom Do I Work, regarding men’s self-identification with their work and jobs.
    • Promoting the Use of Tefillin – FJMC’s film about the traditions behind the use of tefillin coupled with instruction on how to wear them, The Ties That Bind, was released in 1999.

The World Wide Wrap – Sunday, January 28, 2001, marked the first World Wide Wrap in which Conservative Jews from around the world celebrated the mitzvah of tefillin at their morning minyanim.   Held on the Sunday of the SuperBowl, in 2011, over 5000 men ‘wrapped’ tefillin.  And, to help introduce the mitzvah to younger Jews, a companion program, ‘Build-a-Pair’ allows fathers and their fifth through seventh grade children to create model ‘tefillin’ and decorate them as they learn about the mitzvah.


    • Sefer Haftorah Scroll – FJMC’s desire to make men more ritually sensitive, to foster Jewish learning, and enhance awareness of the importance of local Men’s Clubs resulted in the creation of the FJMC’s Sefer Haftorah scroll in 2003. The scroll, consisting of all the haftorot and written on parchment with vowels and cantillation, is circulated among Men’s Clubs and at FJMC events. In addition, synagogues can purchase their own Sefer Haftarot scrolls.
    • Intermarriage Concerns; Keruv – In 2003, FJMC undertook to study the impact intermarriage and changing families have on the Conservative Jewish population in North America. Since that time, two volumes and a host of seminars have taken place for hundreds of rabbis and lay leader
    • Shomrei Ha’Aretz – The “Green” Initiative – In 2008, FJMC  created Shomrei Ha’Aretz – “Guardians of the Earth” – with the creation of soy based Shabbat candles, a solar eternal light (Ner Tamid) kit, partnering in North America and Israel with carbon offset efforts, and joint purchasing of bio-degradable products for institutional use.

Since the late 1980s, like Women’s League, FJMC has played an important role in building the Global Conservative Movement. FJMC leaders serve on the boards of the Jewish Theological Seminary; the World Zionist Congress; Mercaz; the World Council of Synagogues, and as member of other Conservative Movement round tables.

FJMC has blossomed into a partnership of over 250 affiliated clubs with more than 20,000 members across North America and around the world. FJMC brings value and adds meaning to the lives of men and their families.  Through FJMC programming and the broad dissemination of the creative programming developed by local clubs, FJMC touches hundreds of thousands of people each year.

In sum, by engaging women and men of all ages in diverse paths of entry into Jewish life, auxiliary organizations assisted the growth of synagogues into becoming a pivotal part of North American and World-Wide Jewish institutional life. Heading deeper into the 21st century, under the direction of Rabbi Ellen Wolentz-Fields [WLCJ] and Rabbi Andy Shugerman [FJMC}, these Sisterhoods and Men’s Clubs [Brotherhoods] continue to innovate and to broaden their agenda.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”