The 2017 women’s forum opened in style on March 23 at the Courtyard Marriott-Monrovia. Jewish leaders, congregants and city officials from the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys gathered to celebrate the contributions of nine quietly extraordinary women.
Sondra Dreshner of PJTC welcomed guests to the packed ballroom and introduced the Women’s Forum with a bit of history. She noted that the Women’s Forum, now in its 32nd year, got its start in parallel with the first national and international celebrations recognizing women’s history and achievements.
“This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Be Bold for Change,’” she said, “and these women are.”
Unlike other awards programs, she explained, the Women’s Forum Planning Committee does not choose the Women of Valor each year from a pool of nominees. Instead, each congregation, school or volunteer organization in the Jewish community names its own honoree.
The morning’s keynote speech, “The Sacred Mission of Women,” was delivered by Reverend Dr. Donna Byrns, who retired in January as Director of Friends In Deed, a Pasadena-area food pantry and homeless services organization that was also the focus of this year’s Women’s Forum tzedakah project.
Byrns, the daughter of Ohio sharecroppers, said that one of her strongest influences was her mother’s conviction that “Whatever you have, you have enough to share.”
She was a successful church minister when her interest in poverty and women’s issues pushed her to do more. She took over as director for Friends In Deed and founded The Women’s Room, now in its 10th year of providing homeless women with a safe place to go during the day. With shower and laundry facilities, meals, classes and counseling, she said, “these women get to feel normal.”
Byrns said she believes service is the “sacred mission of women” not because of traditional stereotypes but because the ability to cooperate and seek peace “seems to be hardwired in us. It’s something we tend to do well.” She said new social research on cooperation shows those skills are more needed than ever.
“That is the power of one,” she concluded. “Doing together what we cannot do alone.”
Jason Moss, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation, expanded on this theme as he thanked the honorees. He briefed the audience on what their combined support of the Jewish Federation has achieved in the past year—everything from expanding youth programs and family social services to fighting anti-Semitism in local schools.
After lunch, the honorees were introduced and presented with Proclamations from Los Angeles County for their service in addition to the Jewish Federation’s Woman of Valor award. It soon became clear that they had a lot in common.
Laura Sympson of Weizmann Day School teaches middle school, coordinates technology and the MakerLab program, and coaches the annual Shakespeare play. Doris Robin of Temple Beth David and Tamar Melocoton of Temple Sholom of Ontario are elementary school teachers, and both have lent their talents to their synagogues’ religious schools and family programs, as has Hope Greenwood of Temple Beth Shalom of Whittier. Judy Ellis of PJTC worked as library coordinator in the Pasadena schools, and she and Marlena Pfeifer of San Marino-ORT have both served as reading volunteers.
Pfeifer and Diane Harris of Temple Ami Shalom are both seasoned business owners. Pfeifer, who organizes San Marino ORT’s June fashion show and its book group, operated a tour company for more than 30 years and was awarded by the City of Los Angeles for service as a docent for Los Angeles del Pueblo. Diane Harris, who was CEO of her own company, used her acumen to revitalize the languishing gift shop at Temple Ami Shalom.
“The sisterhood president and I decided to straighten it out and look for new merchandise that would bring people in,” she says. “The challenge is to find items people really want and don’t already have.”
Another gifted gift shop chairwoman is Temple Sinai of Glendale’s Suzy Lenkowsky. Beyond organizing an attractive display of Judaica for the now-thriving gift shop, she’s a talented quilter and textile artist, and in 2007 made two new Torah mantles for the ark.
This year’s honorees also serve on the bimah. Judy Ellis, who assists members as an office volunteer, regularly leads services at both PJTC’s Sunday morning minyan and at The Highlands retirement home. Doris Robin serves on Temple Beth David’s ritual committee, but is especially known for her Haftarah drashes. Renay Marcus of Temple Beth Israel in Pomona compiles the memorial book for Yom Kippur and spearheaded the TBI Archive Project.
All of these remarkable women reach out to make Jewish life more inclusive and welcoming.
Two years ago, Tamar Melocoton expanded Temple Sholom’s monthly children’s Shabbat service with dinners and a variety of activities, and it’s become very popular. “It’s interesting,” she says. “A lot of parents are on the fence when they come for the first time, but when my children play with theirs and they see their kids participating, it helps guide their decision to get involved.” Melocoton’s energy is infectious, adds Temple Sholom’s secretary, Stefanie Beckos. “If we could clone her, I would love it.”
Hope Greenwood says the achievement that most touches her heart was convincing her synagogue to stop charging for High Holiday tickets.
“When I was young we never belonged to a synagogue and I couldn’t go to High Holiday services because you had to pay. When I got on the board the argument was, ‘People will take advantage.’ I said, ‘What’s the difference? We still have to pay for the clergy and the space, so let’s fill up the synagogue.’ And people didn’t take advantage of us. Many of them made donations.”
The honorees say encouraging younger participants as the next challenge. “That’s critical,” says Judy Ellis. “One of the reasons I offered to present the Sim Shalom siddur for bar and bat mitzvahs was to get to know families I otherwise wouldn’t have. We need more of them.” She understands the time pressure younger people feel. “While I was working I was always a borderline member. But the more I became involved, the happier I was.”
Greenwood agrees. “Be involved, however much time you can devote, until you find the place where you have the most passion and can take over leadership. The more you do even little things, the more you’ll see something else you can do or might enjoy.”
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.