At this writing in early 2021, B’nai Jehudah’s current and incoming President are both women, but it wasn’t always this way.
Reflecting the times, B’nai Jehudah’s founders and early leaders were men. The suffrage movement wasn’t successful in Missouri until 1919, and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution wasn’t passed until the following year. For decades, congregational memberships for couples were held in the names of male members.
Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg successfully sponsored a Temple by-laws amendment in 1929 that reserved two board trustee positions for women. The first two to serve were Mrs. Alvin Lorie and Mrs. Meyer Shane. It took nearly another 50 years until Lorraine Stiffelman was elected as our first female President in 1978. She was followed by Louise Garfinkle and Donna Thalblum.
Despite this societal bias, the women of the congregation had the ability and desire to lead and serve in a meaningful capacity from the very beginning. The Hebrew Ladies Relief Society was founded as a B’nai Jehudah auxiliary in 1870, and supported both the congregation and the less fortunate of Kansas City. It was the first Jewish charity in the community. In 1895, the Kansas City Section, National Council of Jewish Women was founded and did much of the work of the earlier Relief Society. Most of the early local NCJW members were affiliated with B’nai Jehudah.
The Temple Sisterhood was organized in 1906, with 75 charter members and Anna Lyon as its first President. Within two years, its membership reached 260 and included most women of the congregation. Much of Sisterhood’s initial success and its sustained progress during its first 20 years are credited to Cornelia Mayer, the wife of B’nai Jehudah’s Rabbi Harry Mayer. Mrs. Mayer led Sisterhood from 1907-1922, and was its honorary President for another five years after that.
Sisterhood’s early activities included organizing and sponsoring Seder and Chanukah festivals for children. In 1908, B’nai Jehudah moved into its new Linwood Boulevard Temple and Sisterhood completely furnished the Religious School rooms. This support helped make it possible for the congregation to commission the Lafarge stained glass windows, several of which are still in use in our present building.
During World War I, Sisterhood directed nearly half of its income to support French wounded, soldier’s welfare and Jewish relief.
Profits from the Judaica Shop (also known as the Gift Shop), operated for decades by Sisterhood, support B’nai Jehudah activities and programming to this day. From its inception, Sisterhood has provided its members with opportunities for social connection and leadership roles as well as crucial financial support to the Congregation.
Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler, z”l
January 8, 2021