Joan Karlin: Beth Am Women President 1993-95
Joan Karlin: Beth Am Women President 1993-95
Watch Joan's video interview or read the edited highlights from her interview below:
Why did you join Beth Am Women?
My reason for joining was so that I would know people when we came to services—to have at least a few familiar faces. That came to be the case and it was helpful in that way. It was a way to volunteer and gradually find my way to different people and different activities.
I can pin my joining or becoming involved pretty precisely to 1983. We had been members of Beth Am for a couple of years at that point. We had a daughter in Sunday school and a second child on the way and realized that we would come to services occasionally and didn’t know anybody. I recalled that sisterhood had been my mother’s way into the congregation we belonged to when I was a child and I wanted to feel more connected here at Beth Am. Sisterhood seemed like the right way to start making those connections, so I volunteered for something.
When I was asked to be president of Beth Am Women, I remember thinking about having seen my mother serve as president of an organization before I left home for college. Our daughter was on her way to college at that point and I thought I’d better do this now while I can be a role model for my daughter, just as my mother was a role model for me, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.
What was going on in the world and at Beth Am during your tenure as president?
Beth Am had been very active, and was still active, in the resettlement of émigrés from the former Soviet Union and I remember us trying hard to bring women from that community into Beth Am Women and help them feel welcome. There were several women who would come to activities and begin to make connections. Beyond that, as to what else was going on in the world, I was probably too immersed in work and kids and Beth Am Women at the time.
What were some of the things that BAW contributed to the congregation during your tenure as president?
The copies of the Plaut Torah that sit in the Sanctuary for people to look at during services—Beth Am Women contributed the funds for all of those a long time ago, so that copies of the Torah could be available in the Sanctuary at every service. And certainly during the Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, everybody had access to a Torah in Hebrew and English in front of them in order to be able to follow along.
When our grandchildren come to services now, the first thing our older grandson does is pull out that Plaut Torah and start looking through it. He may not be focusing on the service, but he’s thumbing through the Torah. To think of sisterhood having provided that resource so that a 12-year-old could plop himself down in his seat and engage with the Torah in that way is something I never anticipated at the time.
What’s the purpose of Beth Am Women and how has it changed over the years?
I think of it as another avenue for women in particular to connect into the congregation. Beth Am is a collective of communities in some ways and it’s important to have a path through which women can approach the congregation. Women who don’t want to connect or can’t connect or aren’t in a position to connect through some of the other communities, can connect through Beth Am Women. BAW provides support for the Beth Am community in many ways, so it’s also a way for women to help the community with some specific activities.
I think Beth Am Women is a critical part of the Beth Am community. I can’t imagine there being a Beth Am without there being a Beth Am Women—a place in which women at any age can find a connection through one or another of the activities that Beth Am Women sponsors and nurtures and builds.
In my mother’s era, Beth Am Women—or sisterhood, as it was called at that time—served as a way for women to become leaders in the congregation. The temple board and temple leadership and certainly clergy—that was not an arena in which women were much involved, at least when I was a kid. So at that time, sisterhood was an avenue for women to build and engage in leadership roles for themselves, whether they had kids or not. Now with all those avenues open to women as well, I guess I would see sisterhood as an important path for women of any age for whom being with other women is a way into the congregation, a way to build community.
When I was growing up, there wasn’t much of a role for women on the bimah, either as clergy or as congregational leadership, so sisterhood was really the only setting in which women had a leadership role. Over the last twenty years or longer, that’s not the case anymore. And in a very literal sense, women have a tremendous presence on our bimah and in our congregational leadership, so that broadens the choices women have for connecting with the congregation. That said, I still think there’s a role for a group of women coming together to work together for the congregation and on their own Jewish identities.
What were some of the challenges BAW faced when you were president?
A challenge for BAW was, and probably still is, that women have many more avenues for leadership now, where in the not so distant past, 30 to 40 years ago, sisterhood was much more “it.” Also a challenge, which we certainly did not resolve during my presidency, was the increasing participation of women in the workforce and the extent to which that changed the amount of time women have for BAW and other volunteer roles. Matching the amount of time available to volunteer with expectations of prior generations was a challenge.
What was your hope when you were president?
Honestly I think I was hoping I would get through it without complete failure and still have an intact family and a job! I don’t think I was thinking much beyond that, I’m afraid!