Jane Marcus: Beth Am Women President 2005-07, 2009-10 | Congregation Beth Am

Jane Marcus: Beth Am Women President 2005-07, 2009-10

Jane Marcus: Beth Am Women President 2005-07, 2009-10

Watch Jane's video interview or read the edited highlights from her interview below:

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What would you say is the purpose of Beth Am Women?
Beth Am Women is needed to coalesce the women of the congregation into a supportive, functional and contributing group to congregational life. We also provide outlets for women’s personal growth and ways for them to contribute to the larger efforts of Women of Reform Judaism, of which they are a part.

Do you think that Beth Am Women is a central part of Congregation Beth Am?
I think our part is largely hidden. We have tried to get away from the term “sisterhood,” and a lot of sisterhoods that I know of through my work with Women of Reform Judaism will use the epithet, “not your mother’s sisterhood.” We have tried not to use the term “sisterhood,” but there is still somewhat of an assumption on people’s part that we’ll be doing the work in the kitchen. Indeed, when the kitchen needed to be retro-fitted, the congregation board came to Beth Am Women for the money and the expertise to make the kitchen better.

More importantly, I don’t think people are aware of how socially- and politically-active we are and the significant and powerful actions we take on. Some of the work is local, but a lot is done through Women of Reform Judaism. I think that connection is largely unknown even to our own members, which is unfortunate, because if you pay dues to Beth Am Women, you are a member of Women of Reform Judaism, which is a very powerful organization.

What are some of the accomplishments for which Beth Am Women is responsible?
The one that actually is most powerful to me that I think will surprise people is medical marijuana. The nation has reached the tipping point on this issue and discussion of it appears regularly in the press.

What people don’t know is that Beth Am Women was ahead of the curve on medical marijuana and it all started here with Susan Gaskill, a revered and loved religious school teacher who unfortunately developed AIDS through a blood transfusion she received from blood that had not been screened. Susan was ill for many years after the transfusion and did not know why. When she was refused insurance, it was eventually determined that she was HIV positive. Prior to the passage of Proposition 215, which made it legal to use medical marijuana in California, Susan was quite ill. Once the proposition passed, her friends encouraged her to try cannabis to help her fight the nausea that prevented her from keeping her medicines down.

Cherie Half, a prominent member of Beth Am Women, was appalled that medical marijuana was not legal. She used her position as president of the Pacific District of Women of Reform Judaism to take action. She decided that our district should pass a policy resolution in support of the medical use of marijuana. And, sure enough, we did it at the District Convention in San Jose in 1999.

With the help of the Social Action Team at WRJ, we then took the resolution to the national organization where it passed. And in 2003, Congregation Beth Am took a medical marijuana resolution to the entire Union for Reform Judaism, where it also passed.   

Sadly there are still federal restrictions on the use of medical marijuana despite historical and scientific evidence that it is an effective medicine. But Beth Am, and Beth Am Women in particular, should be extremely proud that our congregation, in its response to Susan Gaskill’s illness, led the Reform Movement to become the first organized religious group to come out in support of medical marijuana. I think it’s important to tell this story to our congregation’s newest members who don’t know it. I hope that telling this story you will show you how much power we women can wield when we choose to do so.

Another project that I’m working on now, that is also extremely meaningful and personal, started around 2005 when there was a tragic suicide in the congregation. I was becoming president of the sisterhood and realized that we had to do something to educate the congregation about mental illness. So I went to the BAW Board and shared a book with them about dealing with mental illness that was published by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Press. The board’s response to the book was to organize a conference about mental illness.  

In cooperation with Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, we organized a conference utilizing volunteers from the congregation. I think the only thing that Beth Am Women ended up paying for was copying of the programs and handouts. All the volunteer speakers were mental health professionals from our congregation and from the larger Bay Area Jewish community.

Out of that conference, we recognized a need to support congregant families who had adult children living with mental illness. They wanted to know who else in the congregation they might bond with. They were isolated and they wanted to come together and deal with these issues together. That was the beginning of our group called Beit R’fuah, which means House of Healing.

We went to the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church to learn from them about their mental health support group. It was an interesting learning process, because their model was very different. Our challenge was to convert what they were doing from a Christian perspective into what we needed to do in a Jewish environment.

We have been able to do that very successfully. Beit R’fuah has been meeting once a month for about 11 years now. We have become a family of families and our approach has become a model for a number of congregations in the Bay Area. We’ve won awards for the program and published two documents for which we got grants and have received awards.

One document is a guide to bikur cholim (visiting the sick) or, in our case, visiting people who have mental illness. The other is a guide for forming a support group like ours. Both documents are available on the web. In this way we’re doing what we can to promote support for individuals and families within the Reform community and beyond, because mental illness is prevalent in all communities, cultures and faiths. We believe it is the responsibility of all communities of faith to provide support for those who struggle to cope with these diseases.

What would Beth Am be like if there never had been a Beth Am Women?
I think we’d be less welcoming, less warm, less hamish, less beautiful. I’m pleased that younger women are getting involved so I feel that we are leaving—and I say “leaving” because I’m no longer taking a very active role with Beth Am Women—the future in good hands with new and exciting directions ahead as newer leadership formulates its plans. There’s a renewed commitment to Beth Am Women, which I’m hoping will extend beyond Beth Am into Women of Reform Judaism, because that’s the place to find recognition of how we can impact the community beyond Beth Am.

What else would you like to say?
I would like the women who are watching this film [or reading this document] to know that they are welcome at Beth Am Women—that anything they want to get out of it, they can get out of it. I love that if you have a cause, if you have an idea, if you have something that you would want to accomplish, all you have to do is come and propose it, and somebody is probably going to resonate with it. Somebody’s going to say, “That’s a great idea.” If you want to put the energy into it and if you want to make it happen, we’ll help you make it happen, because that’s what happened with me.

What I did in honoring Susan Gaskill with Cherie Half’s help ended up being very big. But it doesn’t have to be that big. It could be something small, but meaningful to you. If you can express that meaningfulness and the energy that you want to put into it, you’re going to have ears that listen to you and you’re going to have a supportive environment that is going to help you do what you want to do. That’s who and what we are.

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