A roomful of women come together on a chilly December evening in Southern California. They eat, they laugh, they talk. One woman stands up and tells everyone that she learned how to say, "No." Her announcement is met with applause. Another stands up and says how happy she is that she has the support of her friends and family.
No, this is not a self-help group. It's a Chanukah party for the sisterhood of Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation in Thousand Oaks, where the 45 or so women in attendance spend so much time helping others that sisterhood isn't just an activity, it's a way of life.
While "sisterhood" used to conjure up images of a klatch of women wearing aprons and serving challah and wine as the men took care of synagogue business, today, the sisterhood has made a comeback. In an era when women often have equal roles to men in and out of the synagogue, sisterhood groups give women an opportunity to raise funds, learn, teach and gain sisterly bonds similar to those found in a sorority.
"Sisterhood has always been seen in the kitchen," said Wendy Margolis, Sisterhood president at Temple Etz Chaim, a conservative congregation in Thousand Oaks. "Women who say, 'Sisterhood isn't for me,' probably have never tried it. They make assumptions that aren't necessarily true."
The sisterhood comeback isn't the only one in the area. The Women's Group at Chabad Agoura Hills/Conejo/Oak Park offers weekly study groups, roundtables, Rosh Chodesh programs and retreats. Hadassah of Southern California has three groups in the Conejo Valley that raise funds for numerous causes, including breast cancer research and the Hadassah hospital in Israel.
Margolis, who has been an active member for 10 years, began as recording secretary in the Etz Chaim Sisterhood and had no idea that she would someday be president. She believes that the old-fashioned view of the group is gone.
"I want people to have an open mind and don't assume that it's the sisterhood of their mother and grandmother," Margolis said. "It's not. There's been a resurgence this year."
Sisterhood membership at Temple Etz Chaim, which has typically been around 100, shot up to 160 this year, she said.
The Etz Chaim Sisterhood has three guiding principles that are really shared by all sisterhoods: a connection to Jewish women of all generations, a commitment to the synagogue and its children and a contribution to the greater Jewish community.
Ruthanne Begun, of Adat Elohim, found herself seeking to make a contribution to the Jewish community when she moved to the Conejo Valley in 1980, after attending the now-closed Temple Soleil.
"When I first came out here, nobody even knew what a bar mitzvah card was," she said. "I went to buy one at Rite-Aid and asked where I could find one. They said, 'What?'"
Like Margolis, Begun, who was named Woman of the Year for her sisterhood and coordinated the Sisterhood 2000 convention, had no idea where things would lead when she joined.
"In 1970, they told me to take one job -- make sure the candlesticks are on the bimah for the Shabbat services. By 1980, I was president of Sisterhood, and by 1990, I was president of the [24th] district."
Begun, whose mother was also in sisterhood, said one of the best reasons for joining is that "it's a place to meet people with similar interests who have common goals." She said you don't necessarily have to be a member of the temple to belong to the Sisterhood, whose 180 members' similar interests include a Rosh Chodesh program, a women's seder, book clubs, Torah study groups and a mah-jongg tournament.
Meeting people was one of the biggest reasons Lori Crane was drawn to the Adat Elohim Sisterhood. The b'nai mitzvah coordinator was at first just a member of the temple but found that getting involved in the group made a big difference.
"You keep going back because you like the women," she said. "You feel like you can make a difference, and it makes you feel better."
For Wendy Gootkin, co-president of Emek Hailanot Chapter of Hadassah, making a difference was what brought her to the organization. Gootkin, who grew up in Los Angeles, moved to the Conejo Valley because she wanted to give her kids a chance to ride their bicycles on the street in a safe community. She joined Hadassah soon after she moved, even though she didn't know anyone.
"I wanted to meet Jewish women," Gootkin explained. "The more involved I was, the more inspired I was to Hadassah's cause.
"We are doing something very important and not only for Israel," she said. "We adopt families for the holidays in the Conejo who have terminally ill children."
The 200 members of Emek Hailanot are the youngest of the three Conejo Valley groups, with participants between the ages of 35 and 45. Out of the 200 members, Gootkin said, 30-40 women are the most active members.
"There's a giant Jewish community out here," said Gootkin's co-president, Betsy Saltman, who believes that one of the biggest rewards women's groups like Hadassah can offer are the friendships its members make.
Those friendships are expected to continue to bloom every year as more Jewish families come to the Conejo Valley. However, for those in their 20s and early 30s who fear these groups are still only for mothers and grandmothers, Saltman offers some advice: "When I got out of college, joining a Jewish organization gave my life meaning. Getting involved in Jewish life gives you direction."
As one sisterhood member said, "Remember, the sorority president of today can be the sisterhood president of tomorrow."
For information about Chabad of the Conejo, call (818) 991-0991 and for Chabad of Simi Valley, call (805) 577-0573; for information about area Hadassah chapters, phone (818) 783-3488; for a list of congregations, visit The Journal's directory at www.jewishjournal.com/local/directory.php .
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