JoAnn Kukulus: Beth Am Women President 2007-10
JoAnn Kukulus: Beth Am Women President 2007-10
Watch JoAnn's video interview or read the edited highlights from her interview below:
What brought you to BAW?
I joined Beth Am Women because it seemed like the right thing to do, even though a friend who was already a member of Beth Am told me sisterhood is just for older ladies!
My connection to Judaism is more of a community thing. I think that’s why Beth Am Women was so attractive to me. It was a way I could be very involved in the congregation and the community here without being as religious as some other people. I didn’t grow up in a religious household, so even though I enjoy going to services, it wasn’t going to happen for me every week. But with Beth Am Women, I could be a very active participant in the congregation without having to be so religious.
How have the times changed?
Now we have more women in clergy leadership positions. BAW worked hard to “modernize” the idea of sisterhood. For a while we used the phrase “not your mother’s sisterhood” to try to attract some of the younger women.
We worked hard to change our image from a group of women or moms or older women who just did baking things. If there was a B’nei Mitzvah, you bake. We were under the impression that that was our image, so we worked hard to get ourselves out of the kitchen. Some of the publicity that I created when I was on the board listed all the things we did: contributing to the various groups that exist here at Beth Am, and some out in the community—the programs that we supported. The last line was, “...and sometimes we bake.” So, definitely trying to change our image—to expand what people thought our image was—because we were doing those things anyway. We weren’t just baking, but I think that’s what people thought we were doing.
What were some of the issues you faced during your tenure as President of BAW?
Around the time of my presidency, it was challenging to develop the next president and new board and general membership. It seemed that BAW could be in danger of dying out. My predecessor, Jane Marcus, and I collaborated to change the way we developed successive leadership positions.
We collaborated the first year of my presidency to really try and figure out how we could develop leadership within the sisterhood board because until then it had just been that we’d find a president to serve for two years and then we’d have to find someone else. We thought that if we could cultivate more of a presidency and vice-presidency, where the vice-president would then move into the presidency, instead of scrambling every two years to find a new president, we would already have that person. We would have been cultivating a vice-president, so it wouldn’t seem so imminent or last-minute. We were also trying to restructure the board to give board members more ownership of how the board ran.
We were concerned about how to increase our membership. Prior to my presidency, we were very low in numbers… maybe between 100 and 200 women, I think, out of a very large congregation, so we were always looking for ways to increase our membership. That was very important to us.
I don’t remember exactly when—it might have been the year before I was president—we worked with the temple administration to insert a line-item into the whole package with the annual dues form that everyone got and that’s how we increased our membership to maybe something like 585. It was an amazing increase, and we were proud of that. Having more members meant we had more money to give to the congregation.
What BAW activities did you enjoy most?
I always loved the kick off event. That was the event where we usually got a huge turnout and it “kicked off” our year of programming. We had a speaker or did something special, which was usually fun. Every year it’s been something different. We’ve had comedians come; we’ve had authors come—things like that. I think one year we might have just done some skits ourselves when we were trying to let people know what exactly we do.
I think the Beth Am Women’s Dessert Seder is always a really excellent event. It usually happens the fifth or sixth night of Passover and it’s all women. One of our rabbis or the cantor come and officiate. There’s a Haggadah that we use that was specifically written here at this temple for it. It’s a multi-generational thing and I think that’s why it can be so beautiful. You have young girls come with their grandmothers and it’s a really nice event.
What kind of impact did Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) have on you?
It was at those conferences for WRJ that I finally came to understand what our sisterhood actually was doing: that we were a small part of a larger organization and that our primary purpose was to be a philanthropic organization. The money we raised through dues supported not only our congregation, but also the Jewish community at large through WRJ. So that was one thing that I learned, getting the bigger picture, which I thought was great. And at those conferences, I also discovered that Congregation Beth Am had an enormous reputation as being creative and innovative and on the cutting edge of Reform Jewry. Even though I thought those things already, to hear that from outside of our little community was great. It made me feel very proud to be part of the congregation.
I think it’s important to join, whether you intend to participate in any of the activities or not. Membership provides funding for the congregation, so for that reason it’s really important. I think a lot of women don’t join because they think they’re not going to attend any of the events, or that it’s too much of a time commitment, but we do so much more than just attend events. It’s about our philanthropic arm.
What did you learn from being president of BAW?
We were always striving to get more women to attend. I learned that each thing we offer, each activity, will attract a certain niche of people and that the whole can’t necessarily satisfy everyone. It’s okay if you only get a small turnout for this kind of activity and a bigger one for that. It’s okay not to meet everyone’s needs. Through the variety of programs we offer at both Beth Am Women and the congregation as a whole, you meet the needs of the entire congregation, but any one thing cannot meet all of the needs at the same time.
I think that being Beth Am Women president did more for me than it did for the congregation. I can’t claim any great legacy or anything, but it was a huge part of my life. I never dreamed that I could be the leader of a group. The things I did as president were things that I never imagined doing as a younger person, so I think it helped me grow in great ways.
Just actually being the face of Beth Am Women brought me out of myself, being a community leader. There was a newsletter that the president always wrote and since it was online, there was a picture that went with it. So I would be out in my neighborhood and women I didn’t even know would come up and say, “Oh, I read your newsletter and I’m so glad you’re president.” Or, “I’m going to try to get to that event.” It was amazing to realize what an impact sisterhood was having on people and how having someone recognizable as a leader was important to the organization. And the idea that you’re just a normal person in your neighborhood, but that people know who you are was a little bit awing.