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Remembering the Sisterhood of BHA

07/27/2021 03:57:10 PM


Anna Brady Marcus with research by Ann Gross

Article on the 40th Anniversary of the Sisterhood of BHA on Jan 8, 1962, photo by Shea

One of the first mentions of the Ladies Aid Society in BHA’s board minutes from June 27, 1923

As we continue to explore the rich history of Beacon Hebrew Alliance and Jewish life in Beacon over the past 100 years, this month we are recognizing the contributions of Jewish women to the community, particularly through their collective efforts as the “Sisterhood of Beacon Hebrew Alliance.”

For almost the first sixty years of the synagogue’s existence, from 1921 to around 1980, the congregation of BHA was divided between the sexes, with only men being allowed to participate in religious rituals and have a proper bar mitzvah. Jewish men were also the only people allowed to serve on the board of BHA, and be official members of the Alliance. Despite these barriers to participation, women still played important roles in the religious community. Their contributions were even mentioned in the earliest board minutes at the founding of BHA, for helping to raise funds for the purchase of BHA’s first Sefer Torah.

While women could not be official members of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, they formed their own organization in 1922 known as the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society, which had its own president, officers, and members. These women had to be married to members of the Alliance, and as was the custom at the time, they were referred to exclusively by their husbands’ names - ie. Mrs. Samuel Cahn, Mrs. Max Glick, etc. On the plaque commemorating the founding members of the synagogue when the building was erected in 1929, there are two sets of founders listed - those listed on the board of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, and those listed on the board of the Ladies Aid Society. The reason they are listed this way is because they were in fact two separate entities, working towards a common purpose.


Plaque honoring the Beacon Hebrew Alliance and Ladies Aid Society Trustees and Members who built the Temple in 1929

Excerpt from the script for the “Floral Installation” of new officers to the Sisterhood, c. 1964

Sisterhood of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance

In 1952, the Hebrew Ladies Aid Society changed their name to the Sisterhood of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance. The reasons for this change are unknown, however in practical terms, the group became a chapter of the national Women’s League under the auspices of the United Synagogue of America - the coalition of Conservative Jewish synagogues. The President of the Sisterhood of the B.H.A. was then invited to attend the national convention of the Women’s League, and she also served, along with three other trustees from the Sisterhood, as board members of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance representing the Sisterhood. At the time, BHA was not officially affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement. The women, who had their own separate authority, must have felt there were advantages to being affiliated with the national organization, and this could have influenced BHA to join the Conservative Movement later in the mid-1960s.

The national organization put out guidelines for all of its chapters about how their Sisterhoods were supposed to be run. There was a template for setting up the constitution, a list of committees and programs to establish, and even detailed scripts for how to install new officers! Flowers were often used symbolically and decoratively in the Sisterhood’s rituals and events. New members were given corsages to wear at their induction ceremony, and beautiful vases of flowers were set up at every Sisterhood event.

The primary function of the Sisterhood was to raise funds for BHA. They had committees for all sorts of different revenue-generating programs including: selling candy and Golden books; organizing rummage sales and card parties; running food sales (ie. onegs for bar mitzvahs); and running the gift shop (which was originally located in a glassed-in area where the window to the office is currently located). One of their biggest and most successful fundraisers was an annual businessman’s luncheon. According to BHA’s board minutes, in 1954 the Sisterhood raised $2400 to support major renovations to the synagogue building (about $24,000 in today’s dollars). In that year BHA redid the bimah and replaced the folding chairs in the sanctuary with the current velvet-covered permanent seating that is there today. The Sisterhood specifically paid for a large portion of the renovations to the downstairs bathrooms, which included moving the ladies room to its current location where it is now next to the mens room and other improvements.

The Sisterhood was also responsible for starting the Tree of Life plaque in the synagogue. Installed in honor of Mrs. Sarah Ritter, a founding member of BHA, on her 80th birthday, members can purchase and dedicate a leaf to celebrate someone in the BHA community. The Tree of Life is still prominently displayed in the downstairs community room at BHA, and it has room to grow! By adding new leaves, it creates a permanent record of the people and milestones that built the synagogue.

Other important Sisterhood roles were running adult programming, making sick and courtesy calls, organizing group visits to Matteawan State Hospital (now Fishkill Correctional Facility), hostessing for Saturdays, organizing meetings, raising funds for the Hebrew School (Talmud Torah), and running the Sunday school.


A photo from a newspaper article about the installation of the Tree of Life plaque at BHA in honor of Sarah Ritter (standing right) on her 80th birthday. On left is Eric J Strauss, president of Temple Beth-El, Poughkeepsie. 1979, photo by Robert DeFillippe

Photo from a newspaper article about the 40th Anniversary dinner of the Sisterhood of BHA from Jan 1, 1962

Sisterhood and the Community

For married Jewish women in Beacon, who often were housewives, joining the Sisterhood gave them something meaningful to do, and a social network outside of the home. They took their responsibilities very seriously. At its height in the early-60s, Sisterhood of B.H.A. had 37 officers and chairmen (they always used the male titles) overseeing 27 committees and programs!

Dr. Harold Ginsberg recalls how Sisterhood members welcomed his wife Phyllis and their whole family when they moved to Beacon in the late 1950s: “As soon as we moved back, there was a knock on the door; and there were two women outside who wanted to meet Phyllis. It was Tillie Shapiro and Dannie Epstein, which I thought was very nice. Then Phyllis became involved in the Sisterhood.”

Tillie Shapiro (usually referred to in documents as Mrs. Morris Shapiro) was the president of the Sisterhood of the Beacon Hebrew Alliance for many years. Betsy Solomon, who was the last president of the Sisterhood of BHA in the 1980s, recalls: “One of the things about BHA is they were very good at covering whatever was needed. It was a family-run organization … you know you had the Sisterhood … who had their own stash of money, and were the only ones who ever had any money … and Tillie Shapiro, G-d help her ran the Golden book, and had such a lock on the check book that - it was Tillie’s money … and if you wanted anything from the Sisterhood and if Tillie didn’t want to give it to you, you weren’t gettin’ it.” 

Tillie’s friend was Lillian Etkins who was the Vice President of the Sisterhood. Betsy recalls their friendship: “I’d never heard of anybody who got their names glued together, and you knew who they were talking about, but it was in fact Tillian (Tillie and Lillian)… who were best friends and then at each other’s throats … It was so funny to watch, and yet so endearing. You knew that they loved each other, but man, they could really go at each other.” 

Lillian was very involved in all aspects of the temple, from teaching the Sunday school kids, to hosting the new rabbis for Shabbat dinners. Her daughter Donna Etkins recalled how much the synagogue meant to her mother and her family: “My mother was the Florence Nightingale - out there with that core group of women - who was always involved, wherever she was … that was her family. I think it gave her strength when my dad died, and my brother and I weren’t there anymore. I don’t think without the temple, my mother would have been ok. People came through for her.”


The End of the Sisterhood

As the congregation at BHA became more egalitarian starting in the mid-70s, the division of roles between the Sisterhood and BHA’s board became blurred. Women were now serving in officer positions on BHA’s board. Also, the congregation in the late 70s and 80s was quite small, so it was difficult to maintain separate organizations for men and women, and do them very well. The fundraisers became joint affairs planned in conjunction with the Sisterhood and the BHA Board. Betsy Solomon came up with the idea of doing the calendar as a fundraiser, and according to her, it was the success of that fundraiser that led to the downfall of the Sisterhood.

Betsy says: “My childhood synagogue had a fundraising calendar … and so I talked to people at the Sisterhood and told them how we could make this calendar and that should make us a fair amount of money. But the Sisterhood said, ‘Yeah but, Harrison Libby makes us a calendar, and it doesn’t cost us any money, so there is no risk and it’s a very nice calendar …’ But I knew at Pelham [Jewish Center] it had been a very successful fundraiser. So I went to the general meeting and I said, ‘So, what do you think of the idea of doing a fundraising calendar?’ And they said, ‘That’s a great idea!’ 

In the first year Harrison Libby put in four quarter-page ads, and we sold lines on a patron page … which covered all the printing costs, so we couldn’t possibly lose … And Sy Lewis went out on the streets and sold a whole bunch of ads. Sarah Hitsous … who was just one of these Energizer Bunny women … she sold all these ads, so it then got to be quite the fundraiser.”

I think that was sort of the start of the end of the Sisterhood, because ... working together we only needed theoretically half as many programs. There weren't men's programs and women’s programs, so it worked out really well.”


BHA’s Rosh Chodesh group making small pillows for post-surgery breast cancer patients, c. 2019

The Legacy of the Sisterhood

While the Sisterhood of BHA dissolved in the mid-80s, women’s activities still continue to this day at BHA. BHA’s Rosh Chodesh Group meets to celebrate each new month with ritual and community service projects. Started over 15 years ago with just twelve women in Cantor Ellen Gersh’s living room, the group has since grown and packed hundreds of backpacks with food and toiletries for youth and their families that don’t have enough food to get through the weekends. They have also made pillows for post-surgical breast cancer patients, made blankets to raffle off at the Purim carnival and for shomrim (those who watch over the body until burial) and organized the annual Women’s Seder at Passover time. If you are interested in joining the Rosh Chodesh group, please be in touch with Cantor Ellen Gersh.

Ultimately, the Sisterhood of BHA never really went away, it just morphed over time to be one and the same as BHA. Occasionally there are still gender-specific programs, such as the Women’s Seder, or men’s full moon hikes, which can be enjoyable to do separately. What remains is the familiarity and closeness of BHA. It still functions like a family, all-be-it more modernized, in which all members are valued and appreciated for their contributions to the community.

Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts. BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

Sun, May 26 2024 18 Iyyar 5784