Ellen Schwartz: Beth Am Women President 1978-1979 | Congregation Beth Am

Ellen Schwartz: Beth Am Women President 1978-1979

Ellen Schwartz: Beth Am Women President 1978-1979

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

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What were the times like during your tenure as president of Beth Am Women?  
I was asked to be president by Evelyn Miller. Karen Druker had been president before me. Beth Am Sisterhood was at a survival level. We were not card-carrying members of the national organization [the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, now Women of Reform Judaism]. I was involved with Hadassah where I had taken leadership courses and I had been in women’s discussion groups throughout the Bay Area. I call myself a modified feminist and, growing up in the Washington area, I had participated in the marches and that sort of thing at about the time we joined Beth Am and I became president. My youngest of four children was just going off to kindergarten in the fall, so my whole life had changed, but I knew what was happening.

Women were going back to work, and many of the things that Beth Am Women had been doing, the women of the late ‘70s were not willing to do. Other sisterhoods had not encountered this yet, so we were kind of pioneers. I felt that my job as president was to keep sisterhood going and to bring it to a place where we could be the leaders instead of being the people that were going to disappear. By doing this, I formed a very small board. I was constantly in touch with the board and didn’t make any unilateral decisions. I had to have the pulse of the board because we were it—maybe eight or ten of us.

What did sisterhood do in those years?
We made many contributions to the congregation in terms of money and gifts for the Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and confirmands. We supported a Vietnamese family. For that, we had an old-fashioned rummage sale. We ran a Judaica gift shop. I was on the temple board as a voice for the women of the congregation. We had a tennis tournament. We were asked to take over the Purim carnival, which had lost money in previous years, and bring it into the black. Then Beth Jacob had a fire. Rabbi Akselrad asked us to invite Beth Jacob to participate in our Purim carnival and to make it a fund-raiser for them. We raised thousands of dollars for Beth Jacob. We welcomed each new family of our congregation with a personal home visit with challah and candles and information about our synagogue. We had an Interfaith Shabbat and Grandparent Shabbat, a Sisterhood Shabbat, a Community Women’s Education day. We did all the Oneg Shabbats. We had a sisterhood opening and a closing big program much like today. Sisterhood was the basis for many of the committees and funds [at Beth Am] today. It was a time when women were going back to work and women’s roles were changing. As president, I listened carefully to my board and did only what they directed.

What type of roles did women fill in those years?
The activities that women engaged in outside of their homes and their work had to be tuned down to the level that they could handle. On the board we discussed how often we would have an activity: maybe once a month—not three times a month or four times a month. What’s so wonderful is the things that we did, when I reflect back on them, are many of the things that still have roots and are important to Beth Am today. That’s really gratifying. For example, one of the things that we did was to sponsor somebody from Vietnam: help a family that lived in Sunnyvale. Today we have Joseph, the custodian who has been with us over 25 years and is our right arm here at Beth Am. In the ‘70s we did a rummage sale for this family. We did all kinds of things for this family.

When I was president, Beth Am consisted of one rabbi, Rabbi Akselrad, Fran Larson, who was the temple administrator, and one bookkeeper. There were less than five hundred families—five hundred was the goal. And now I look at what it is today!

We had one custodian and one temple administrator, who first had one secretary and then a secretary-and-a-half. People were part-time—women working in the office—a lot of volunteers: a lot of things were done by women. We had women who were writing notes from the congregation, as opposed to how things are today—computerized. They were personal notes. We had a couple of ladies who were willing to do that.

Beth Am had not yet had a woman president and I was asked a number of times to think about being president. Then someone that I had met, a current board member, Jerrell Siegal, decided that she was going to become president, and I thought that was wonderful. She was a native San Franciscan. She had raised her family here at Beth Am and had been a Beth Am member far longer than I had. At this point I had been a member of the congregation two years. I didn’t know the members of the congregation well enough to know who could do what, and whom I could ask for various things, so I supported her. Jerrell came to the opening sisterhood luncheon of the year and we were support for each other and that was great. We all helped each other to reach our goals.

How did you grow during your time as president?
I grew in all the challenges that I faced during the year, especially time management. I had four young children and I took the presidency with the anticipation that I was going to have live-in help. The live-in help decided to leave, so I had to be even more organized. I set myself the challenge to participate as president for 15 hours a week and I was able to manage things on that scale. My family understood and it worked, but it really stretched me. All the things I had learned in classes and workshops though Hadassah, I was able to put into practice. It was a wonderful community to work with here at Beth Am.

How has Beth Am changed since your presidency?
It has spread to serve a larger community. I see that there’s far more cooperation now between say Kol Emeth, which is the Conservative synagogue down the road, and Beth Am. Their rabbis have gotten together and team-taught. Just as we helped Beth Jacob during the fire, now Rabbi Marder has invited Kol Emeth to come here whenever needed during their major renovation.

The congregation has become very large. We built the lower campus and the upper campus. Then we purchased another property—a lot with a house sold near here—so we’re expanding and growing. We’re getting many members who are young, who are either not married or have young children and are working. There are all kinds of programs and we work together with the OFJCC [Oshman Family Jewish Community Center] and other congregations. I think we’re the best!

What are you proud of?
Sisterhood survived and with the next president reaffiliated with the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. It was an exciting and difficult time for sisterhood. I came into Beth Am Sisterhood when it was struggling and I see it surviving and thriving and doing marvelous things. It is helping the community and taking care of our own congregants as well. It gives me great nachas to know that Beth Am Women is here for us because there were really four presidents that insured that it stayed and it came to be what it is today and it’s a marvelous thing.

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