Jewish Women: Keeping the Faith

Jewish Women: Keeping the Faith

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Jewish Women: Keeping the Faith

Jewish women in Tucson and Nogales played an enormous role in keeping the Jewish community intact in these areas. Women in these communities did this through their involvement in the religious institutions, including synagogues and other places of worship. The pioneer Jewish women and the Jewish women of today in the southwest had and still have dominant roles in keeping their religion alive in Arizona. To understand the breadth of women’s involvement in the development and maintenance of the religious structure in southern Arizona, specifically Tucson and Nogales I talked to a few individuals who discussed their experiences. Esther Capin and Bette Cooper are Jewish women from Nogales who grew up there during the time when Jews were first coming to that area. Theodore (Ted) Bloom’s family has played a significant role in the history of the Jewish community in Tucson. His grandmother, mother, aunt, and now his wife have truly led the way in keeping the Jewish religious tradition alive in Tucson. Finally, Alma Bongarten lives in Tucson and shared with me information about her own role and other women’s roles in the Jewish synagogues. These people together helped me piece together a very clear vision of women’s involvement in the religious aspect of the Jewish community in southern Arizona. Their involvement includes keeping the religion alive without the presence of a temple, building the first synagogue in Arizona, generally being active members of the temples, bringing the lost traditions back, and by being more present in the synagogues as religious leaders and figures.

Jewish women in early Tucson and presently in Nogales have kept their religion alive without the presence of a synagogue. When Terese Marx Ferrin, Ted Bloom’s grandmother, first came to Tucson there was no temple or any place of worship for the Jews of the community. Regardless of this setback, the Jewish tradition was still present. Terese took it upon herself to keep the Torah, the religious book of Hebrew laws, in her own home. It was considered a great honor to house this sacred book. Not only did she house the Torah, but Terese would also host services at her house because of the absence of a synagogue in Tucson.

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She would have the entire Jewish community, though very small at the time, to her house for the Friday night services and holy days. Although she really did not perform the services she did take the initiative to lead her community to keep its religious practices by organizing these gatherings. This was the closest thing that this community had in the way of a place of worship, and Terese was responsible for its existence.

The absence of a temple is presently a problem in the city of Nogales. Nogales never had and still does not have a synagogue, yet the Jewish community has been held together by the same kind of strong Jewish women. Esther Capin and Bette Cooper, Jewish women who lived in Nogales, talked to our group about the religious conditions in Nogales for Jews. These women noted that the Jews of this community’s closest synagogues were and still are in Tucson, however, Esther told us that in Nogales, the religious base was in and among the families. The families, especially the wives, would host services and high holy days in their homes. She stated that the women played a large role in the religious rituals and that their participation kept these rituals alive. This active participation by the women of the community was especially important being that there was no synagogue or formal place of worship. Regardless of the lack of a temple, the female Jews in early Tucson and present-day Nogales led the way in preserving their culture and creating community ties. Although it is unfortunate that there is still presently no temple in Nogales it is extraordinary to see that the women of these communities keep the Jewish culture existent and strong.

The pioneer Jewish women of Tucson took the initiative to build the first synagogue and start a Sunday school in the territory of Arizona after years of having religious services in their homes. Terese Marx Ferrin, on a trip back from San Francisco, brought to the Tucson community the idea to start a branch of the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1890. Although the Jewish community still had no synagogue, this was the next best thing. The establishment of this society brought the Jews of Tucson together as a synagogue would have, and Terese was named president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Tucson.

Terese immediately moved to accomplish the Society's main goal: to build a synagogue in the town of Tucson. This would be the first synagogue in the entire Arizona Territory. Terese immediately took her daughter Clara (Ted’s mother) out into the town to try to collect money for the new temple. Clara and Terese wrote letters and spoke to the townspeople about monetary donations. Terese convinced the wealthiest man in town, Albert Steinfeld, to donate a large sum of money. Steinfeld, who was Jewish as well, donated five thousand dollars which covered just about two thirds of the cost of building the temple. Terese and Clara had collected enough to get the synagogue built. Terese witnessed the laying of the cornerstone of the temple by the Masonic order on March 10, 1910. She died shortly after that, and was buried by the temple in an honorary place. Terese never did get to see any services held in the synagogue that she had made possible. But it is thanks to Terese that Temple Emanu-El was built and still survives as one of the largest Jewish congregations in Tucson.

Soon after the synagogue was built, Sunday school classes were initiated. Clara and her sister Hattie, both being University of Arizona graduates, were the teachers in these classes. Clara by this time was married to Dave Bloom and soon had three boys and two girls. All the Bloom children attended the Sunday school, as did most of the Jewish children in Tucson at this time. This group of Sunday school attendees consisted of twelve students, all of whom Ted’s Aunt Hattie had to pick up for class every Sunday. The Sunday school was important to this small Jewish community to keep the traditions and values alive throughout the generations.

As time went on Clara Bloom remained very active in the synagogue and with the Jewish community. The services in the synagogue were held on Friday night with fifty to eighty people attending. Eighty people was considered a huge crowd. As the number of Jew increased in Tucson so did the number that attended services, this made Clara’s work tougher and more time consuming. She continued to do fund raising for Temple Emanu-El and kept the Sunday school going in full force. Clara was an asset to the success of this still existing synagogue. Clara Ferrin Bloom died in 1973 as the oldest living charter member of Temple Emanu-El.

The importance of women in the synagogue did not end with get the building built, women in Tucson have stayed very active in the day to day activities of their synagogues to help keep the institutions strong. Sandy Bloom, Ted Bloom’s wife, is very active in the Tucson community and especially the Jewish community. Sandy was involved in many charitable groups and her husband, Ted, cannot say enough good things about her and her generous work. Sandy was at one time the President of the Sisterhood Organization for Temple Emanu-El, which is an organization of women that support the temple morally and financially through fundraisers. Sandy also was the President of the Tucson branch of the National Council of Jewish Women which in an organization that not only deals with particular temples but the Jewish society as a whole and as a part of a greater community.

Temple Emanu-El referred Alma Bongarten, another active temple member, to me as someone who plays a major part in the daily activities of the temple. Because Alma was raised with almost no religious guidance, Alma longed for religious direction and that is why when she had children she made them attend religious education classes and temple every week. Alma became involved in her religion through her children. All of her children went through Bar and Bat Mitzvahs (religious ceremonies for young men and women, respectively) and her three boys were confirmed, which represents the end of a person’s religious education. Alma then decided to receive religious education herself after her children had completed theirs. Alma attended B’Nai Mitzvah (ceremonies for both boys and girls) classes and learned an extensive amount about the religion that she was apart of yet never knew very much about. She served on the religious school board that dealt with making sure that the religious education classes were beneficial to the students. Alma also got involved in the Sisterhood Organization of the temple and even helped out in the synagogue’s gift shop.

When Alma moved to Tucson, eleven years ago, she immediately became involved in her synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. Alma described her feelings about the synagogue by saying, “The synagogue is basically the center of my life" (2). She is presently the editor of the temple’s bulletin, which keeps the congregation up to date on the happenings of the temple and its community. Alma writes a column for the bulletin that explores different aspects of the Jewish community today. Currently she is writing an article on the return of rituals to the reformed congregations, like her own. She also includes in the bulletin interviews she engages in with members of the Jewish community. Although she is not on the Board of Directors of the temple she sits in on the meetings and takes the minutes. She says she enjoys this because it keeps her informed on what is happening internally with Temple Emanu-El.

One of Alma’s most significant contributions to the temple was being on the search committee to find a new rabbi for the congregations. This was a five-month process that required a lot of dedication, research and patience. Alma described the search team as a “committee dedicated to the task” (2). The process was so extensive because the committee had to find a rabbi that would be the right match for the people of the synagogue. Alma explained that the rabbi holds the temple community together and “the congregation wanted a rabbi they could like... and that would be able to take it (the temple community) places” (2). This search put the future of the temple on the shoulders of a few people. Alma obviously is influential and respected enough by her synagogue to warrant being a part of this committee. The committee's search was successful and Rabbi Samuel Cohon will take office in June of 1999. Sandy and Alma are just two examples of the many women who actively participate in maintaining the strength of the temple.

Women have very different roles traditionally in synagogues depending on which sector they belong to and now it is the women in the reformed temples who are trying to bring the rituals and traditions back to the temples. Alma Bongarten explained that there are three branches of Judaism: reformed, conservative, and orthodox. The temple that Alma belongs to, Temple Emanu-El, is reformed. Reformed temples tend to give the most power, respect, and duties to the women of the Jewish community out of all three of the sectors of Judaism. In both reformed and conservative temples young girls can have Bat Mitzvahs and can read from the Torah and stand on the Bima (holy stage-like place) in the temple. Orthodox girls have a ceremony they call Bat Mitzvah but the girls are not allowed to read from the holy Torah and allowed nowhere near the Bima. In fact when women and men are both in an orthodox temple they are separated by a curtain and not allowed to intermingle, praying on their respective sides. Alma mused that the men pray to God and thank Him for making them males. Between the different sectors there is quite a difference in opinions and roles of women in the Jewish community.

As a whole the reformed synagogues are taking a strong initiative to bring back the rituals in the services. According to Alma women in these temples are playing the lead role. The tradition of wearing a Talis and Yarmulke in temple is being brought back into fashion mainly by the women in the reformed synagogues. A Talis is a shawl that one wears during prayer and a Yarmulke is a religious headpiece one wears during temple services. Many women feel that wearing these traditional garment bring them closer to the religion, culture, and history. In Orthodox temples women cannot wear these garments but in reformed and even in some conservative temples women are starting to wear them. Many of the men have stopped the practice of wearing these garments but now the females of the congregation are trying to have them be a strong part of the ritual once again. The young girls of the temple communities are the main initiators of this practice. They are taking advantage of the right to partake in these ritualistic fashions. Most likely it is the young girls that are initiating this because they have been raised in a much more pro-feminine society, as opposed to their older counterparts. Young people today, especially females feel much more freedom to break the trends set by their elders. The roles of women in orthodox, conservative, and reformed divisions are very different yet the important aspect to note is how the women in the reformed sectors are making a change to bring back some of the traditions of the orthodox division to make their ritual more meaningful.

Not only are women bringing back traditions in the temple but also they are taking on leadership roles and figurehead positions in the synagogues. I asked Alma Bongarten about the roles of women in powerful positions in the synagogues of today. In Alma’s reformed synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, there is a female temporary rabbi that they share with Temple Chaverin. Rabbi Stephanie Aaron spends half the time at each temple. She is ordained, but not by any of the major schools that ordain most rabbis this most likely being because it is still harder for a women, even in within the reformed sector, to become a rabbi than it is for a man. Rabbi Aaron definitely helped out Temple Emanu-El in their time of need when they had no rabbi, but women rabbis still find it very hard to find a congregation that will take them as their leader. Another ordained reformed rabbi is Janis Marder who is the head of all the congregations in the Southwest region. This is quite an accomplishment, even among the reformed temples. She is soon leaving her post to head a congregation near Los Angeles. In reformed congregations women can also be cantors, which are the people who lead the prayers and chants at services. This is also the case in conservative temples, although there are many female cantors and very few women rabbis. This would be absolutely unacceptable in an orthodox synagogue. The fact that women are coming into power in synagogues often draws Jews, especially the young people and women, out of the orthodox and conservative temples and into the reformed temples. Even so, many people, even in reformed and conservative sectors, still think women should not be allowed to have such powerful positions in the synagogues, which make these women's struggles even harder. Women emerging as figureheads and leaders in the Jewish religion really show how the roles of women in this once strictly patriarchal culture is changing for the better. Although some things are favorably changing, women will still have to fight to show that they can do an equally proficient job at leading a congregation, but are fortunately proving themselves worthy to their skeptics.

Jewish women in Tucson and Nogales did a lot to keep the religious backbone of their communities strong and able to withstand the test of time. Whether it be through hosting the religious services in the absence of a temple, developing a temple in Tucson, actively participating in the temple's events and proceedings, helping to reinstate traditions, or acting as the leaders and figureheads of the religion, these women have really helped their people remain faithful to each other and their beliefs. The idea of the women being the dominant influences in history is very peculiar, especially in Judaism, for Judaism is traditionally a very patriarchal culture. Yet, in these instances it was the women who fought strongly for the survival of the Jewish community. The Jewish society in Tucson and Nogales has many thanks to be given to the women discussed and the many others that have helped and are still presently helping to preserve their Jewish community.

Works Cited

(1) Bloom, Theodore. Personal Interview. 22 Mar. 1999.

(2) Bongarten, Alma. Personal Interview. 24 Mar. 1999.

(3) Capin, Esther and Bette Cooper. Personal Interview. 19 Feb. 1999.
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