Building Women's Leadership: WRJ and the YES Fund

August 17, 2015

by Elle Muhlbaum

This week we are celebrating the WRJ YES (Youth, Education, and Special Projects) Fund with a series of blogs from those who have benefited from the Fund and other WRJ philanthropic efforts. We are proud to build Reform Jewish women leaders within the Reform Movement and beyond. 

This year, I was the proud recipient of the Women of Reform Judaism Scholarship on the New York campus of HUC-JIR. When I first got the email notification, I was thrilled to be receiving a scholarship at all. But after a couple of minutes, the significance of this honor started to sink in. I remember when my mom started to get involved in the sisterhood at our congregation in Cincinnati. We had just joined our temple, and some of the ladies my mom connected with were kind of involved in sisterhood. They personally invited my mom and, wanting to get involved, she decided to check it out. She slowly got involved, coming to meetings and different programs. She and her friends realized that they were among the lonely few young women who were involved. My mom used to go to meetings with her friend, Barrie, and they would be the only two who were under 70. Barrie’s then-toddler daughter would pop up in the middle of the board room table, entertaining and distracting the women of the sisterhood during their meetings. My mom realized that the group was on the verge of disappearing; the older members were losing mobility and the younger women at the congregation weren’t involved. But my mom saw the different things sisterhood was doing around the community. She saw how the sisterhood was able to fund scholarships for different youth programs, and that they really fulfilled a need in the community. She also knew that the sisterhood had a healthy endowment, after a successful cookbook fundraiser project the sisterhood had done years prior. My mom saw that the sisterhood had an important role to play in supporting the temple, and she felt an obligation. She couldn’t let the sisterhood die out. So, with a few core leaders, my mom served as sisterhood president for three years. She told me it felt like an impossible position to be in: how can you save an organization from dying? It felt like our sisterhood was really at its end. She said she hadn’t planned on being president (she said further “of course, you never do plan on being president,” a nod to her own modesty). As our congregation went through a major renovation project, she worked closely with the temple’s executive board to help design the sisterhood gift shop. The gift shop was more than just a place to get trinkets; it was the place where our religious schoolers and young families could enter into the world of Judaica and ritual objects. It was the place where families could get supplies for dynamic Seders and festive family hanukkiya lightings.  It was the place where our students preparing to become bar or bat mitzvah would pick out their first tallit, guided through the process by a knowledgeable sisterhood member. This wasn’t just a shop for knickknacks; it’s the place where Judaism moves outside the synagogue and into the home. My mom served as a bridge between the generations of sisterhood members. She and her friends successfully reinvigorated the group at our congregation, and she passed the torch to a string of capable leaders. Now, she runs our college outreach program. She gathers together holiday-themed treats, gift cards, and writes a personal note to participating college students. Now, she not only serves as a bridge between generations, but as the connecting point between homesick college students and their spiritual home, our congregation. I’ll be the first rabbi in my family. But when I look at what my mom has done for our sisterhood, it’s clear that Jewish leadership runs in the family. My mom’s focus on community and her commitment to the potential of her organization serve as inspiration to me today. My mom recognized a need in the community and worked hard to fix that need. As a high school student, I remember I would be preparing for NFTY events and my mom would be getting ready for URJ Bienniel Conventions and other sisterhood committee work. Now, as I near the end of my rabbinical school career, my mom is serving as the awards chair on our WRJ District Board. I’m amazed at the connections she’s made in our hometown with sisterhood members of other congregations, and even within our own temple family. I’m so thankful to her and her fellow Sisterhood leaders for reviving such a critical piece of our community. One thing my mom has always felt important was our temple’s sisterhood’s ability to pay their dues to the YES (Youth, Education, and Special Projects) Fund. The reason I’m so proud to be the recipient of the WRJ Scholarship this year is not just because I think the WRJ is an important organization, with wide-reaching programming that impacts communities close to home and abroad. The reason I’m so proud? Because this scholarship takes my rabbinic training and directly links it to the inspirational work my mom has done at our congregation. It reminds me that my rabbinate will be about connecting people with each other, with Judaism, and with God. Like my mom, I’ll get to serve as a bridge. I’m so thankful to be this year’s recipient of the WRJ Scholarship at HUC-JIR; this scholarship serves as a bridge between the hard work that sisterhood members around our country do to serve the Jewish community, and my own work at HUC-JIR! Elle Muhlbaum is a fourth year student at HUC-JIR—New York. She grew up in Cincinnati, OH and studied at Ohio State University, where she majored in Hebrew and minored in Linguistics and Sexuality Studies. This year she is proud to serve as the rabbinic intern at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, NJ. She loves singing, cooking, and photography. 

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