Harrisburg Area Sisterhoods Thrive on Service, Socialization

By Mary Klaus

One Harrisburg area sisterhood erects and dismantles the synagogue’s sukkah each year, sends gift cards to college students, and more. Another makes Shiva meals and hosts book reviews.

Still another makes hamantaschen for the Purim celebration and sends holiday packages to the homebound. A fourth has been meeting via Zoom conference since the Covid-19 outbreak began – organizing everything from non-impact aerobics classes to virtual baking sessions.

Nationally, and in the Harrisburg Jewish community, Jewish sisterhoods are here to stay. Of the five synagogues that are members of the Rabbinic Council, all but one (Kesher Israel) still have an active sisterhood.

These synagogue-affiliated groups have been around for more than 100 years, strengthening Jewish religious life, doing social service work in their congregations and community, and more. Yesteryear’s sisterhoods poured tea from silver urns at onegs, served meals to mothers with new babies and collected nickels and dimes to help with war efforts.

Today’s Harrisburg-area outfits are not your bubbe’s sisterhood. But they’re relevant to 2020, a time when sisterhood members communicate by text message and e-mail,

Sisterhoods offer women a place to come together both as women and as Jews, a place to give and get support and a place to connect. Sisterhood members run the gamut – young stay-at-home mothers or moms who work outside the house; single and married professionals who need to connect with kindred spirits; retired women who may miss the daily connections they once had; Sandwich Generation women who raise children while taking care of elderly parents.

Beth El Temple Sisterhood is a close knit group, said Rhea Swidler, group president. She said that sisterhood has been an important part of Beth El Temple for decades.

“My husband’s grandmother was president of this sisterhood years ago,” she said. “Our sisterhood was waning for a while, so we started getting together, having dinners and socializing. Now, we have women of all ages. It’s enjoyable.”

Beth El Sisterhood members have had Passover recipe exchanges, made challah, held Sisterhood services followed by luncheons, and more.

The members raise funds by sending Leagrams, messages sent to celebrate new babies, birthdays, anniversaries and bar or bat mitzvahs or to express condolences in the case of a death. Money from fundraisers supports everything from the synagogue to March of the Living to day camp.

 “We hold educational events and bring in speakers,” Swidler said. “Lately, we’ve been in touch with Zoom conferences. Andrea Lieber ran a non-impact Zoom aerobics class from her living room. We may bake together by Zoom, too.”

Temple Beth Shalom started its sisterhood less than a year after that shul’s founding nearly 50 years ago, said Eileen Kranzel, founding member.

 “Our sisterhood began in the fall of 1971,” she said. “At the time, I was president of the Chisuk Emuna sisterhood and had a new baby plus a 3-year-old and 7-year-old at home. Parker Grossman was our first president. She did an outstanding job.”

The Temple Beth Shalom Sisterhood held fundraisers to pay for the shul kitchen, which over the years was used for bar and bat mitzvah luncheons, weddings and other celebrations, and for bingo.

 “Every year, our sisterhood held a fashion show featuring our members along with arts, crafts, and a bake sale,” she said. “We also have a monthly book group. The one constant and most important thing our sisterhood has done since day one has been to take care of the Shiva meal to ease the burden on grieving families. We have always been a family. We continue to help wherever needed.”

The Chisuk Emuna Sisterhood dates to the 1930s when it began along with the shul’s Ladies’ Auxiliary. The two groups merged in 1948 as the Sisterhood.

Its social life roared in the 1960s with card parties, rummage sales, donor meals, educational speakers and the group’s “Baking Ladies.” These women provided refreshments for various congregation events and sold dessert and holiday baked goods to the Jewish community.

“We still have a baking group,” said Barbara Bazelon, Chisuk Emuna Sisterhood co-treasurer. “Our big project is making and selling hamantaschen for Purim. We also have an active book discussion group. We send Leagrams and do Shiva meals for mourners when they come home from the cemetery. We try to serve some round food to symbolize the circle of life.”

She said that over the past year, the sisterhood president and treasurer both died. “We don’t have a lot of meetings right now, but we’re still busy.”

The Temple Ohev Sholom Sisterhood started as the Ladies’ Aide Society at a time when women didn’t often work outside their homes, said member Linda Stewart, who joined in 1982. “My favorite memories of our sisterhood are our rummage sales, first at the Broad Street Market and then at the Uptown Shopping Center.”

The sisterhood gave money to Temple Ohev Sholom, to the shul’s religious school, and to other synagogue functions.

“We have great camaraderie,” she said. “Sisterhood brings our women together as a group. We have at least three programs each year for the general membership: an opening program in the fall, a brunch in February and our closing program with installation of officers in early May.”

Patti Hivner, an Ohev Sholom Sisterhood member, said that the group has book reviews that include a dinner, a presentation by the author and a book signing.

“We also put on Hanukkah dinners before our holiday service and do a sisterhood Shabbat,” she said. “We give our religious school kids boxes of candles for Hanukkah and honey and apples for Rosh Hashanah. We put up and take down the sukkot each year and provide apple juice and cookies to the kids. We send gift cards to college students to keep them engaged with the temple while they are away in college.”

The sisterhood supports the temple’s needs, Hiver said, while also providing an opportunity for community amongst members. “We’re good friends, too.”