Like any good family history, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has more than a few standout matriarchs. Each one has some colorful notes in their histories, and each helped move the organization forward.
As the Union of Reform Judaism celebrates its 150th anniversary, and as we celebrate our 110th anniversary, here are a few WRJ women who put the W, R, and J in WRJ.
Carrie O. Simon
It’s not always easy being the rabbi’s wife, especially not the rabbi’s wife of the very large and well-known Washington Hebrew Congregation. Simon was chosen as the temporary chair of what was then the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods at its founding conference in 1913, but she was not a go-with-the-flow kind of individual. She called for “giving the synagogue back to the people … and putting Jewish womanhood on the road of highest usefulness to the cause of American Israel.” She endorsed free Jewish education for all families, whether or not they could afford it. She also initiated the first rabbinic scholarships from WRJ to Hebrew Union College in 1919. WRJ remains the longest-sustained donor to HUC-JIR.
Simon officially served as the first president of WRJ from 1913 to 1919, a time in which WRJ grew from 52 sisterhoods to 258. She died in 1961.
Our first full-time executive director thought she would pursue her passion in art when she was asked in 1933 by the then-National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) president to come to Cincinnati from St. Louis to work temporarily for the NFTS. That became a 46-year career as the executive director. Evans was ahead of her time, talking to 1,000 Union delegates in 1957 about the need and right for women to be ordained as rabbis. They would finally catch on in 1972. Evans was truly a Jane-of-all-trades. She designed an oscillating fan, taught political science at the New School, commuted to the office in New York by a boat she piloted, oh, and yes, she helped start the United Nations. Even after she left NFTS as the executive director in 1976, she still came to the office almost every day to oversee something. After her death in 1996, WRJ created the Jane Evans Pursuit of Justice Award in 2004 to honor women like Jane Evans who have stood up for justice, though there will never be another Jane Evans.
Norma U. Levitt
Norma U. Levitt served as NFTS president from 1967 to 1973, but in reality, she was more like the queen of England and remained our moral compass as the honorary president of the board until her death in 2020. Levitt’s presidency gave WRJ the practice of giving to the YES Fund regularly, and not just to the endowment, but in donations that could be used that year. She traveled across the globe in her work with the United Nations Decade for Women from 1975 to 1985. As a leader in the Union for Reform Judaism, Levitt pushed hard for non-gendered language in prayers, and was interested in ways to help aging synagogue members. Her years as a dancer were reflected in the regal way she carried herself at board meetings, even in her later years when she was in a wheelchair. Levitt lived to be 103.
Dolores Wilkenfeld made her living in TV and radio and has been a voice of authority well-passed her time as NFTS president from 1985 to 1989. Wilkenfeld wrote many Sisterhood plays and scripts, and her work continues to be used in the WRJ board installation services.
Wilkenfeld’s passion is Judaism around the world. She served as chair of the North American Board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism shortly after her term as NFTS president. She was part of the growing conversation about allowing Jews to leave the Soviet Union.
Dolores established the WRJ Wilkenfeld International Women's Leadership Seminar to bring leadership training opportunities to Jewish women around the world And while Dolores was a district president, a NFTS president, a North American board chair for WUPJ, she never has served as Sisterhood president at her Congregation Emanu El in Houston. She has, however, mentored three generations of bar mitzvah students on how to speak slowly, annunciate, and have a presence on the bimah.