Cherie Half: Beth Am Women President 1983-85
Cherie Half: Beth Am Women President 1983-85
Watch Cherie's video interview or read the edited highlights from her interview below:
What was Beth Am Women like when you became president?
When I became sisterhood president, the sisterhood did many, many things in the congregation. They did the Interfaith Shabbat; they did the Onegs; they did break-fast meals and Chanukah fairs. When I came, Beth Am Women was in a transition period. Women were going to work and they didn’t have as much time to do those kinds of things, so we began transitioning into other spheres.
My husband and I took a B’nei Mitzvah class with Cantor Unterman and it changed my life; it changed my direction. At this point, I was reading Deborah, Golda, and Me by Letty Cottin Pogrebin and it opened up the world of women’s spirituality. With my new knowledge and continued education, we started Rosh Chodesh and the Women’s Seder and they’ve been ongoing since that time. Each month we had a new kind of Rosh Chodesh celebration with different women being the leaders and different women participating. In the beginning we had it at different people’s homes and eventually it came to the synagogue and then back to people’s homes again. The Women’s Seder evolved from a group of maybe 30 or 40 women gathering in this Conference Room to the Social Hall with 100 to 120 women, sometimes more or less depending upon what time of year it fell. Those have been exciting, wonderful experiences for women at Beth Am.
What were some of the major projects during your time?
We helped with the Purim carnival and did most of the Onegs. We were responsible for the kitchen, Torah and Tots (babysitting and lay-led Torah study), a Joint Educational Day (with all the other women’s groups locally), Rap with the Rabbi and Interfaith Shabbat services where we invited many non-Jewish communities to come to services and sisterhood presented booths that depicted each of our holidays. A member would have food and notes to share with people. This was an ongoing project that Evelyn Miller chaired for many years. The congregation would be packed. There were speakers from other denominations each year. We did outreach for interfaith families, Book Review Group, Intergenerational Fashion Show, Lox Box Fundraiser and Sisterhood Shabbat—we wrote our own service. Looking at our agenda for a year, I am amazed at how much we did and how we were reaching out to all segments of our community. We created our own sacred space by touching the hearts and minds of our community in so many unique ways.
What are some of the innovations you brought to BAW that have had a continuing impact?
Shalach Manos [or Shalach Manot], which is bringing hamantaschen to the elderly and anybody who’s in need, the Women’s Seder, which has been ongoing, Rosh Chodesh, which is monthly ongoing. I started a Minyan when my father passed away and that’s every Thursday at 8 o’clock. Those are the ongoing things that I started. Medical marijuana was something that Jane Marcus and I worked on starting with a Rosh Chodesh experience and it’s an ongoing project in terms of drug education for the Reform community and the community at large.
I started Shalach Manot at the time when we had new Russian émigrés. We had an incredible program here with Inna Benjaminson. Rabbi Block was involved and welcoming everyone to Beth Am and, as part of that welcome, I thought it would be nice at Purim to bring portions, Shalach Manot, to families, to friends, to neighbors and to those who were in need, which is an Orthodox tradition. I took that concept—and I think I was chair of the youth group committee at that point—into a youth group/sisterhood joint project.
We had the sisterhood women and BATY [Beth Am Temple Youth] youngsters delivering the hamantaschen. We received beautiful notes from people because people visited them and talked and shared their stories. Relationships developed and it was a very special time. I delivered hamantaschen to a woman named Laura who has been my friend ever since. And, you know, relationships begin on something so simple as just a visit.
When my father passed away, we had a Minyan at my house every day and I would make a little something afterwards. People liked it and they said, “Well, we could do this at Beth Am, but not on an every-day basis.” As Reform Jews, many of us don’t have the time to come every day, so our compromise was coming to Beth Am on Thursday mornings to have a prayer service. Louise Stirpe-Gill leads it. We take turns doing a drash on the Torah portion of the week and we alternate: we sometimes do meditations. It’s been going on for eight years now and the people who come have formed a little community and it’s really nice.
What is Rosh Chodesh and why is it significant for women?
Rosh Chodesh is the celebration of the new moon. When the Jews made the golden calf, the women did not contribute to it. So, according to the Torah, women have the half-holiday of Rosh Chodesh. The rabbis didn’t want women to have that holiday because they thought it reflected primitive times. But women through the ages kept it up in Orthodox circles. Then the Reform and women’s feminist movement took it upon themselves to embellish that idea and make it a monthly holiday for Jewish women’s spirituality: for learning, for connecting, for sisterhood in the biggest sense.
I think many women had no knowledge of their history—of women in Torah and women in Biblical studies, in being able to come to the Torah and read Torah, to have knowledge of Hebrew and to take that knowledge and use it. And that’s what we did at Rosh Chodesh: we let women’s voices be heard on a monthly basis. We celebrated all the different holidays—we had food; we had festivities; we danced; we sang; we created new rituals separating times of good and times of learning.
What were some of the challenges that you faced during your tenure as president of BAW?
Getting out of the kitchen and into the shul...
I had a disagreement with Rabbi Block when he was here. It was before the change in liturgy happened and I wanted to include reference to the imahot [mothers] in the ancestor prayer. We went back and forth for a couple of years and I finally said, “Well, what’s the problem?” He said, “I can’t decide whether it should be ‘Abraham and Sarah’ or ‘the fathers and the mothers.’” And I said, “Well, make a decision. We can do whatever.” The Reform movement came back about a month later and said that it should be “the fathers and the mothers,” and he said okay. So we made copies of the imahot that way, and pasted it in the prayer books to acknowledge both the male ancestors and the female ancestors and how they contributed to our history.
What did you learn from your time with BAW and Women of Reform Judaism?
I learned so many different kinds of skills—people skills, organizational skills, computer skills and putting together newsletters and emails. I came into the digital age with sisterhood and Women of Reform Judaism. And the workshops at the national conventions, the district conventions, the workshops that I did—I learned so much from them. People learned things from me also. I did a lot of workshops on how to establish and run Rosh Chodesh groups. Beth Am Women was one of the first to do this; we’ve been in a couple of anthologies about how and when our Rosh Chodesh group was started.
It’s an amazing journey to see women who were not sure of our heritage as Jewish women talking about feminism with the help of leaders like Betty Friedan. Feminism is not a dirty word. It’s a word that says men and women can exist equally in society, and do the same things and be adequately commended for those things. Whether it’s fathers or mothers staying at home and raising their children, or whether it’s community activism, or whether it’s a job in the marketplace doing work that you get paid for, it should be that you have a feeling of accomplishment with whatever you want to do. It should be that you have a stake in the society that you belong to, that you do good works and that you create a better world wherever you go. That’s what’s important and that’s part of what feminism is to me: making this world a better place, and feeling strong about who you are as a person.
When I became sisterhood president, the membership was declining, and just keeping sisterhood going and getting new leadership was always a challenge. It was hard keeping the kind of person in there that was welcoming and open and wanting to try new ideas and new things—someone to come forward and do things that were important for the community, someone who could see a vision of what needed to be done and go do it. We had women returning to the workplace and we still have that challenge today.
Young women see sisterhood as “those old ladies doing Onegs” and that’s not what WRJ is today, and that’s not what our history was, and that is not what we want to be in the future. We need to reach out to other people. One of the things that I try to do wherever I am is to welcome and to reach out. Many of us are very shy about doing that, but if you just say hello to people, it is that smile, that handshake, that hug that changes whether somebody feels part of a community or ostracized. And with 1500 families and counting at Beth Am, we have to find ways of connecting with others. I think sisterhood at Beth Am does a great job and I think Debby Satten is reaching out with this project. We need young women to find the time—to make the time—to be part of the community and to find it valuable.
Previously, women did not have other options. Now you can be a member of any kind of social group. You can be on museum boards, on school boards, in country club sets … you can do anything you want. To be involved in temple makes a commitment to your Judaism, makes a commitment to your community and it is something that you have to develop and you have to nourish and you have to feed. And Beth Am Women is trying to do that in what we’re doing today.