Twenty-seven years ago, a group of local Jewish women was searching for a way to bring female perspectives into Jewish rituals. It was 1992, and even in some non-Orthodox congregations, women’s voices were often muted if not stifled. Not only were women rabbis still relatively rare, but siddurim were written mainly in patriarchal prose, and wearing tallithot and kippot was not yet normative among women.
The group began meeting once a month, at women’s homes, to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, sharing stories and prayers and rituals in their own voices.
Just one year later, the women decided to expand the scope of their group and form a nonprofit. Called the Jewish Women’s Center, the group set out to further the intentions of Jewish feminism.
After almost three decades of sharing holidays and insights, and creating new traditions, the JWC is dissolving. Its final event will be held on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 3 p.m. at the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, located in the Heinz History Center. The event will include a celebration of the JWC’s accomplishments, reflections on the progress of Jewish feminism, and a formal donation of the JWC records to the Rauh archives. The public is invited.
The time was right for the JWC to close, said Malke Frank, one of the organization’s founders, because it had accomplished its mission.
“We felt that we had fulfilled our vision in terms of the Jewish community locally, and the Jewish women’s movement was fulfilling the global vision of Jewish women being more involved in all aspects of Jewish life,” she said.
The JWC, which was independent and not affiliated with any other organization, eventually set down roots at the old Labor Zionist Center on Forbes Avenue, where it kept its records and maintained a library.
In 1993, the group held its first Jewish women’s seder during chol homoed Passover, an event that became a popular annual hallmark of the JWC, sometimes attracting up to 60 women.
Laura Horowitz created themed haggadahs each year for the seders, which has proved to be a very meaningful task.
“We have done everything from the matriarchs to intersectionality to ‘why does the seder plate look like that?’” said Horowitz, a longtime member of the JWC. “It has really shown me how comprehensive an observance Passover is. The possibilities for discussion are endless and it is really something that we have found we can use to reflect on our current situations wherever we are — whether that means personal, political, social, whatever it is — the seder gives us the framework to contextualize our lives within Judaism and it is so powerful.”
Providing meaningful context to Jewish women has been at the epicenter of most JWC events over the years.
“We made a really sincere effort of having programs that would enhance the life of a Jewish woman in the community, in her own family, maybe even the synagogue community and the general community,” said Frank.
The group held a monthly book group, focusing for most of the years it met on Jewish and Israeli authors. It held Shabbat retreats and distributed a monthly newsletter. Tashlich services were held each year and the group added a Tu B’Shevat seder to its roster of events.
The JWC also “created new rituals,” Frank said. “If a woman had a need, if someone died and she wanted to do something together with us in terms of mourning a beloved person or a friend, she created it and we worked with her. Or, several of the women decided to give themselves new Hebrew names, so we had a ritual around that.”
Together, the women learned about the mikvah, and the ways in which non-Orthodox women might want to use the ritual of immersion to mark life transitions, such as a divorce or a miscarriage.
Each year, the JWC sponsored a tzedakah project, alternating between domestic causes and causes focusing on women and children in Israel.
Since 2013, the JWC has been engaged in interfaith and intercultural programs with women from the Muslim community. In 2017, it was honored by the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh at its Humanity Day Award ceremony, and also received a citation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a proclamation from Allegheny County in recognition of its interfaith work.
For Horowitz, who joined the group early on and was an active member of its board for many years, the JWC provided a means to engage with Judaism in a way that made “a great deal of sense” to her, coming from a household focused on social justice and with “very little ritual.”
“It was way into Judaism that I had not experienced before,” she said. “It was a way to connect with women who I found interesting and inspiring.”
Having not found any other place where Jewish women were meeting on a regular basis, for Horowitz, the JWC provided “a whole different way of looking at things. It was something that we could shape ourselves, something that reflected what our concerns were and a way to for us to see Judaism within our own framework.”
One of the “most powerful experiences” Horowitz had with the group over time was “simply hearing women’s voices davening” at the Shabbat services they sometimes held.
“There was no reason for us to have ever heard that before,” she said. “Just hearing the beauty and the purity of those women’s voices was profoundly moving to me.”
Eventually, as women found their place in the wider Jewish world, the necessity for the JWC faded, and attendance at its events decreased, according to Frank, which led to the board’s decision to dissolve the organization.
“It was a consensus on the part of the board that we felt like we had done what we set out to do, and we are very happy with that,” Horowitz said. “A lot of what we brought to Pittsburgh is now normative. I mean, nobody ever saw a Miriam’s cup, nobody had a women’s seder. I don’t think there were any all-women led services before we did ours.”
Congregations began instituting their own Rosh Chodesh groups, according to Frank, which “was an indication of our success. That’s why they weren’t coming to ours any longer, they were doing their own, which was perfectly wonderful. A lot of the things we started doing because they weren’t in the general Jewish community came into existence, like the women’s seder, like egalitarian siddurim, so we fulfilled our mission in terms of the impact of the Jewish women’s movement on Jewish life. How many more women rabbis are there now? And you see more women wearing tallithot and kippot.”
The JWC “expanded the horizons for Jewish women in Pittsburgh,” said Horowitz. “And now I think we are in a different environment in terms of discussions about gender, and gender identity and race and Judaism and a lot of really complex questions that were not on our agenda when we started. We were trying to get our voices heard at all. We’ve done that. Now it’s time to go on to the next set of concerns. And we are very happy to hand those decisions and paths over to the people who will come next.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at