Nancy Rosenthal, Suzanne Gollin, Phyllis Klein and Caroline Liston sat before six Singer sewing machines in the Rodef Shalom Sisterhood Room last Tuesday. While the gathering was a bit smaller than what it was prior to the pandemic, Rosenthal said, it was wonderful being together in person.
For much of the past year, members of the Rodef Shalom Sisterhood Sewing Group met over Zoom. Participants still sewed pieces for various charities, chatted and helped each other with difficult stitches, but the digital get-togethers just weren’t the same. Rather than their usual two-hour in-person sessions, the virtual meetups lasted just 60 minutes. And it wasn’t so easy to set up a sewing machine and concentrate on the work while operating Zoom, said Rosenthal.
“To really be able to be with one another is a totally different experience,” she said. Now that the group has been back together in person for almost a month, “we’re able to help each other a little more.”
During last week’s session, Rosenthal and her peers cut fabric, stitched pieces and affixed buttons to make dish towels. Some members also made colorful stuffed clowns.
The types of items created depends on needs, explained Rosenthal. Sometimes the group makes blankets, sometimes it’s hats, other times it’s children’s rompers. There were periods when the group was even making head coverings for cancer patients.
The congregation’s sewing group dates back 115 years and “was one of the original committees established at the first organizing meeting of the Sisterhood in 1906,” according to Rodef Shalom’s archivist Martha Berg.
Early records indicate the Sewing Committee — it later was renamed the Rodef Shalom Sisterhood Sewing Group — purchased its first sewing machine in June, 1906. Berg assumes that was a foot-operated machine because in 1908 the head of the Sewing Committee reported the purchase of an electric motor for her machine.
Caroline Liston, of Penn Hills, remembers joining the group more than 40 years ago.
“I was really young and it was a wonderful way to plan my week away from two children,” she said. “It was relaxing.”
Liston, 74, said that when she and a friend first started attending the weekly meetings, they added some diversity to the longstanding cohort.
“We lowered the average age by half,” she said, adding that she enjoyed being around the older women because they had lived through interesting times and were able to offer unique perspectives and insights.
Phyllis Klein’s family has been connected to Rodef Shalom for more than seven decades. Klein, a Swiss Elm Park resident, remembers her mother’s neighbors coming to the sewing group years ago.
“After some time, I decided as a member to find out what it was about,” Klein said.
What she discovered, almost eight years ago, was a friendly group of women who also enjoyed making things for others, she said.
That commitment to charity has been at the heart of the group’s mission for more than a century, said Berg.
In 1920, the Sewing Committee made 699 garments that were dispersed between the Gusky Orphanage, Jewish Home for Babies, Temporary Home for Children, Zoar Home, Pittsburgh Home for Babies, the Red Cross, Hadassah, Erie Orphanage, Irene Kaufmann Settlement, United Hebrew Relief, Montefiore Hospital, Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor, and individuals. A few years later, a subcommittee of the Sewing Committee established what was called “cutting for the Blind,” where members cut out materials towels, aprons and other items, and delivered them to the Workshop for the Blind for completion, added Berg.
Throughout the years, the sewing group has received countless donations of yarn, fabric, thread, pins, needles and scissors, said Susanne Gollin, 67, of Highland Park Gollin.
Members of Rodef Shalom’s sewing group keep busy each week with an abundance of supplies and a firm commitment to helping those in need. There are enough supplies, organized across shelves and in cubbies throughout Rodef Shalom’s Sisterhood Room, to enable the group to continue to make a host of donatable items for the foreseeable future.
Elaine Rybski, manager of Rodef Shalom Gift Corner, credited members of the sewing group with providing many of the items currently in the store, including baby blankets, aprons and knit hats.
It’s an impressive collection, said Rybski, and the sale of the items generates thousands of dollars for Rodef Shalom projects, including congregational picnics, educational endeavors and social justice initiatives.
Rosenthal said she’s proud of what the group has accomplished, both recently and throughout its history, but hopes it will make an even larger impact.
“We need more people to volunteer and to come and give their skills,” she said. “There’s a lot of need for people who don’t have anything.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.