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A Group for Women, by Women

September 10, 2009 By:
Gail Shister, JE Feature
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So what are nice Jewish girls doing in a group like Nice Jewish Girls?

They're expanding their knowledge of Judaism, for one thing. And they're meeting other Jewish women from the area like themselves -- single, over 50 and lesbian.

Brenda Goodis, who founded Philadelphia's NJG in November 2007, describes the organization as a lesbian chavurah. There are monthly potlucks, usually at members' homes, as well as field trips and holiday events.

At each get-together, the charismatic Goodis -- "I'm a Leo, very outgoing and extroverted" -- leads a discussion on a topic related to Judaism, such as what constitutes lashon hara, or "evil speech." The group recites the Shehecheyanu and sings Hebrew songs.

Judaism "is a very important part of me that I celebrate and revel in," says Goodis, 60, an active member of two synagogues, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington and Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City.

She started NJG because, she says: "I wanted to have a place to socialize with women who have the commonality of gay and of Jewish culture. I wanted to have a place we wouldn't be marginalized in any way."

Thanks to the Internet and word of mouth, NJG's membership, which is free, has grown from 16 to 85, according to Goodis. Most are suburban, single, professional and over 50. Some have children; Goodis, a two-time widow, is the only grandmother in the group.

NJG has fostered numerous close friendships, she says, as well as several romantic ties. Included is Goodis' own five-month relationship with a Philadelphia public-school teacher.

Like Goodis, Melrose Park's Debbie Isser met her partner, physical therapist Fran Leibowitz, through NJG, at its Purim spiel last year.

"She was Queen Esther, I was Haman," says Isser.

"I have a very strong Jewish connection, though I may not be the most observant person," adds Isser, 55, a longtime Goodis friend and member of Congregation Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue.

"The group is all Brenda, as far as I'm concerned. It takes a lot of time, energy and dedication."

Like Goodis, Isser was previously married to a man and has a grown 23-year-old son. After she was laid off as a mortgage banker in late 2007, Isser became a chauffeur for a limo company based in King of Prussia. (Her celebrity clients have included Jon and Kate Gosselin, Billy Ray Cyrus and Broadway star Idina Menzel.)

Goodis, who worked 20 years for the City of Philadelphia, says that she's surprised at how many members "have had no Jewish education whatsoever. They've never even had a menorah in their home. They're craving to learn about Judaism and to be with other Jewish women."

A semi-retired Northeast resident, Goodis has suffered more than her share of personal tragedy. She lost both her first husband (of 20 years) and second husband (nine years) to cancer. She has a daughter, Laura, 37, who is a local psychotherapist, and a 6-year-old granddaughter.

After the death of her first husband, an observant Jew, "I lost my feeling for Judaism," acknowledges the Conservative-raised Goodis. "I was so disappointed in God. Why did He let such a good person die?"

Her second husband was an atheist. After he passed, she received her first "spiritual massage," and it was a life-changing experience, she says. That led her to massage school, and to reconnecting to Judaism.

"We were taught to see the body as a holy vessel, and to honor all religions," explains Goodis. "It primed me to return to Judaism. I started to feel God's presence within me."

She began attending services, and became a spiritual massage therapist.

In 2001, Goodis came out when she fell in love with her straight girlfriend. The feeling was not mutual. Six months later, Goodis got involved in her first relationship.

'A Common Bond'

To former journalist Rhonda Hoffman of Northeast Philadelphia, NJG is about "Jewish sisterhood."

Explains Hoffman: "We share a common bond, being lesbians. I like the camaraderie. I feel very accepted, welcomed. The most important thing to me is the meeting of the minds and spirits."

Raised Reform in Mount Airy, Hoffman, 55, does not belong to any synagogue.

"I'm not observant, but I certainly identify myself as Jewish," she says. (Her partner of four years, an addictions counselor, is not Jewish.)

Marcia Coleman, a retired physician and mother of three, acknowledges that Judaism "is not a major part of my identity anymore," but she's made some good friends through NJG and has dated a few members.

She's even hosted a seder in her Merion Station home.

"It's a great group of women, with different backgrounds and interests," explains Coleman, 60. "I'm more comfortable with women my age. I'm looking to go out and do things. I've met women I go biking with, go to cultural events with, go bird-watching with."

Goodis hopes that more women decide to become Nice Jewish Girls.

"There are very few groups of this kind in the immediate area," she says. "We have to get the word out. The more women learn about us, the larger the turnout will be.

"That would be a dream."

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