By Hailey Persinger
Killeen Daily Herald
In the Hebrew language, a "mitzvah" is a blessing, an act of kindness, a nurturing of all people. For the women of the Sisterhood of the Simcha Sinai, it is what they live for.
As part of the reform Jewish Congregation Simcha Sinai, the group of women gathers regularly for craft workshops, cooking lessons, discussions about deepening their faith and to take newcomers to Central Texas from every religion, race and nationality under its collective wing.
Though Killeen is rife with various cultures and religions, Phil Sutherland, a member of Congregation Simcha Sinai, said the Jewish community is not as widespread as in larger cities.
"There isn't the availability for people who are Jewish," he said. "Most of us have centralized in Austin. As we say in Yiddish, that's quite a schlep."
So for women like Shayna Nash, who arrived in Killeen in March of 2007 with few social connections and no obvious place to worship, her first instinct was to join a synagogue in Austin. But the distance from a support system began to wear her down and though hesitant to leave her Austin congregation, Nash joined Congregation Simcha Sinai and the Sisterhood.
She said joining the close-knit group revitalized her Jewish faith after a difficult year of saying prayers and going through traditions on her own.
"I was dying spiritually and lonely and alone," she said. "I was devastated."
As her involvement with the congregation and the sisterhood became more frequent, Nash gained a sense of confidence and a feeling of belonging she said all people should feel.
"I felt that I had something to give back," she said. "We just have fun and we celebrate life."
The number of women who turn out for cooking classes and craft days always varies but Caren Cohen, who helped get the congregation started, said the goal of welcoming all people never gets left behind.
"We're trying to build a sense of community," she said. "We know people are going to come and go but while they're there we welcome them."
While Nash did not move to Killeen for the military, Sutherland said the Sisterhood is especially helpful for women – Jewish or not – who find themselves alone when their husbands are deployed. Despite its name, Cohen added that the group is not limited to just women and that men seem to be particularly drawn to certain events.
"It's open to anyone who wants to join," she said. "We've even had some guys come to our cooking class because we do eat afterward."
She said the next event, though a date has not yet been set, will teach group members to make their own shofar, a horn used during some Jewish ceremonies.
The shofar is traditionally fashioned from a ram's horn and, when blown, emits a resonant sound that signals the start of a holy time or a celebration.
Classes like these, however lighthearted they seem from the outside, are built on a main tenet of the Jewish belief that all people deserve to be loved, respected and cared for during difficult times.
"That sense of 'I'm home,'" Sutherland said, "we all need that feeling."
Contact Hailey Persinger at email@example.com or (254) 501-7568.