His story/her story: Carrie Simon, founder of Temple Sisterhoods 100 years ago

In January 1913 Carrie Obendorfer utilized her husband’s temple sisterhood as a springboard for establishing a National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods.

Carrie Simon, founder of Temple Sisterhood (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Carrie Simon, founder of Temple Sisterhood
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 19th-century America, Protestant women were busy doing religious and philanthropic-benevolent work and had organized their own national women’s organizations. American Jewish women initiated similar efforts on a local level, but by the 1890s had founded the National Council of Jewish Women. This organization, as told by Pamela Nadell in “’The Synagogue shall hear the Call of the Sister’: Carrie Simon and the Founding of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods” (in Sisterhood: A History of the Women of Reform Judaism, 2013) began to put a greater emphasis on activities that dealt with immigrants and less with religious issues.
Carrie Obendorfer (1872-1961) was born in Alabama, raised in Cincinnati and in 1896, married Abram Simon, a Hebrew Union College ordained rabbi whose career led them to Sacramento, Omaha and eventually to the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington DC. Carrie was active in the NCJW section founded by her mother in Cincinnati, and in her new home in Washington, served as its vice president in 1904. She established a Ladies Auxiliary Society there as well.
Her interests lay in fostering religious lives in the synagogue and she strove to establish a national group along these lines. In January 1913 she utilized her husband’s temple sisterhood as a springboard for establishing a National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. The founding meeting was in Cincinnati, where officers were elected and a constitution was approved in the presence of 52 delegates. This led to the formation of sisterhood groups in many other temples as well. Needless to say, the president of the NFTS was none other than Carrie Simon. As Nadell points out, this was occurring during the heyday of the women’s suffrage movement; the “modern Jewess” was interested in having more power too.
Simon had a broad definition of religious work, as she did not limit it solely to homes, synagogues and schools. She had many objectives on the federation agenda: promoting the cause of the Jewish people, creating committees for cooperation, sharing information, providing scholarships, supporting the temple schools, involvement in public worship, and more. She and other rabbis’ wives were often well-connected and had access to resources that helped their federation succeed. Simon herself became a seasoned sermonizer from the pulpit and promoted women’s emancipation.
By 1915, she discussed the tasks that she considered to be the responsibility of the women to pursue; they included fighting assimilation and providing social services. She was an advocate of congregational singing (versus professional musicians) and saw the home as a “religious altar.” The sisterhoods had the support of their synagogues, which was logical since they were essentially their home base. Simon urged sisterhoods nationwide to adopt the ideas, programs and activities of the federation. She became well-known and in 1917 represented the NFTS in the National Executive Committee at the American Jewish Congress. During World War I, she worked with relief agencies, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Red Cross and the Jewish Welfare Board.
This trailblazer sought equality for women in the synagogue and saw no reason why they could not sit and serve on the temple board. She joined the board of directors of her own temple and served three terms as president of the federation that had grown to include some 200 sisterhoods. Some of her innovations included producing Jewish-art calendars, building dorms at Hebrew Union College and procuring funds for 24 full scholarships for HUC students. The article about Simon and the aforementioned book are to be debuting this coming week in San Diego at the Union of Reform Judaism Convention.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and the academic editor of the gender and Jewish women’s studies journal Nashim.