Sublime sisterhood

Tehilla and Elisheva Raskas make challah dough during the Great Big Challah Bake of St. Louis on Nov. 10 at the Clayton Plaza Hotel. The event drew close to 500 people. Photo: Kristi Foster

Ellen Futterman, Editor

Sublime sisterhood 

The Jewish sisterhood in St. Louis has been an elixir to me, comforting and reassuring in this last week when many of us have felt adrift. I am amazed by the power of these women, most of them strangers, to lift me up and make me feel as if I belong to something bigger and more important than myself, even though for so long I have circled the edges.

In the last few weeks, I have found myself in three very different situations, each of which was initiated by a local Jewish women’s organization. The first was the Couturier Sale sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section. The next came six days later, hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. And the third, the Great Big Challah Bake of St. Louis, a week after the philanthropy event.

The annual Couturier Sale, held at NCJW’s Resale Shop, is the biggest moneymaker for the organization. Proceeds go to fund many of its volunteer projects, including the Back to School! Store, which outfits hundreds of underserved children with clothes and school supplies, as they get ready to head back to school.

All year long, the best of designer donations to the Resale Shop are squirreled away for this sale, so names like Tory Birch, Valentino, Prada, Gucci, St. John, Oscar de la Renta, Eileen Fisher and many other high-end labels line the racks in the store. In some cases, these labels have their own rack — that’s how jam-packed this sale is.

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For bargainistas like myself, the sale is the shopping equivalent of must-see TV. The ladies at NCJW know this, and have structured a hierarchy to tickle our jones. A limited number of shoppers willing to pay 50 bucks (and they always sell out) can enter an hour before anyone else, ensuring they get access to the best of the best. Then comes the next tier — of which I am a part — who pay $10 to shop premium bargains before the sale opens the following day to the public free of charge.

Without fail, a long line will form before us $10 gals (and the rare paying gentleman) are allowed to enter. Sometimes the wait is miserable, like last year, when it was raining and a good 30 of us squeezed into the small covered vestibule in front of the store. But this year while a little chilly, the sun was shining, and we were able to line up and wait outside fairly comfortably. And that’s when the chatting began.

The line itself looked like an exercise in diversity with women (and that occasional man) of all ages, races and ethnicities joined together for the common goal of finding that dress or purse or shoes we could not live without. I was standing with several African-American and Jewish women, all strangers, though by the time we entered the store, it felt as if we knew one another for years. We first talked resale as we bemoaned the closing of the ScholarShop next year, but then the conversation quickly turned to health care, parenting, grandparenting, aging and politics. 

During our 30-minute wait, it felt as if we had solved the world’s problems, or at least the ones that were in our control. No matter our differences, we were women who had come together for a collective intention (OK, yes, it was shopping) and that connected us and felt like a powerful thing.

I felt that again at the Women’s Philanthropy “Love, Laugh, L’Chaim” event at the Ritz-Carlton, featuring Jewish comedian Cory Kahaney. More than 700 women (and the rare gentleman) paid $60 for drinks, dinner and to hear Kahaney deliver some pretty funny material, including a terrific video presentation on Jewish women comics through the ages. What also was included in the evening was again the chance to connect with a diverse group of women, even though most were Jewish. Young, middle-aged and older; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated; single, married and divorced, the room seemed to power itself by the collective energy and enthusiasm.

Some women I spoke with felt there were too many people; they couldn’t hear Kahaney or any of the speakers above the din. But most seemed happy to see old friends, make new ones and just be in the company of each other, knowing the money raised would go to support so many local Jewish communal programs and agencies as well as those in Israel and throughout the world. Frankly, there is something magical and inspiring in bringing so many Jewish women together to break bread and share time.

I felt that again to be true last week at the Great Big Challah Bake of St. Louis held at the Clayton Plaza Hotel, when close to 500 St. Louis Jewish women and girls of all backgrounds, streams of Judaism and ages — as young as 6 — came together to make challah. The event also ushered in the global Shabbat Project, which brings together Jews from all over the world to celebrate one Shabbat together. More than 100,000 women and girls, in more than 5,000 communities and 65 countries, were reported to have participated.

This night, however, the mood was different than the week before because the challah bake fell two days after the presidential election.  No one was there to talk politics, but clearly those conversations were going on. More than a few women told me that they felt it cathartic to knead the challah dough as a way of getting out their frustrations.

Dozens upon dozens of young women, ranging from third graders to seniors in high school, each clad in pink-and-white challah bake T-shirts, greeted participants with smiles and good cheer as they entered the hotel ballroom. Many were students at area Jewish schools or part of their school’s Jewish Student Union.

In brief interviews with more than a dozen women and girls, each told me how much she appreciated the opportunity to come together for a shared purpose and feel part of a community that seemed to unconditionally embrace and welcome her. 

Svetlana Kogan, 40, who had come to the United States from Russia 27 years ago, had participated in an earlier challah bake sponsored by Chabad and enjoyed it so much that she wanted to be part of this one. “There is such an amazing energy of women sharing this together and realizing this is happening all over the world,” she said, adding that she was using this opportunity to remember her late mother and grandmother. “This is my way of feeling close to them, and really all these women around me that I don’t know.”

I thought about what she said as I walked back to my station to start making my challah. As I looked out at the sea of women and girls surrounding me, my despair began to lift. Around me I saw so many possibilities, especially in the faces of the girls who were serving as greeters. Maybe even a future president. It was the first time in two days I had smiled.

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