Any room full of Covenant Guild members is, in many ways, a family reunion — they talk at great length about other (family) members, they bicker and tease, they reminisce about years gone by, and they laugh heartily at each other’s jokes and stories (likely being told for the hundredth time). But the overarching feeling is always one of warmth and happiness.
But really, when you put a bunch of Jewish mothers and grandmothers together, what else would you expect?
Covenant Guild is a Jewish women’s philanthropic organization celebrating seven decades of helping the community. In that time, it has raised around $4 million (by 2003, the group was just under $2 million) for hospice chapels, hospital rooms, ambulances, children with special needs and computers for veterans, among many other areas and issues within the community.
“Most of the money that we raise stays locally because we really support many philanthropies and organizations that are in the Baltimore area,” said Lois Balser, current (and soon to be outgoing) president of the group.
Covenant Guild traces its roots to 1947 when 13 women on or near Lakeview Drive in Baltimore (between Druid Hill Park and Bolton Hill, the latter of which has housed other Jewish luminaries such as the Cone Sisters) got together to form a club that was originally going to be a B’nai B’rith organization. However, when they weren’t able to charter it as a separate entity, they decided to go their own way.
“So, these 13 women said, ‘We’re going to do this on our own’ and called the organization Covenant Guild,” Balser said. “And the mission hasn’t changed over the years — to provide funds and volunteer activities for agencies and individuals that need help. And we’ve certainly done a lot of that over the 70 years.”
From its 1947 founding, the group grew exponentially, attracting numerous women, especially in those early years, who were looking for something to do in the evenings when their husbands came home. The organization still boasts an impressive 250 members or so, although, at its peak, it probably had closer to 700. And eventually, members were encouraged to bring in their daughters and daughters-in-law as members. There are nearly 30 legacy members in the group now, and there have been three legacy presidents (presidents who are daughters of past presidents).
And sometimes, the attraction to the group had (and has) less to do with altruism or family and more to do with recreation. Like, say, bowling. Or mahjong.
“A lot of women at that time [early on in the organization] joined because we had a big bowling league, and they wanted to bowl,” said Sydell Gould, a past president. “But those women who wanted to bowl became very, very active. [And now] some of the members join because they like to play mahjong. And even though they do that, they become active and do other things. But mahjong brought them into the organization.”
This year, the group is giving to six different organizations, including the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company (the eighth ambulance Covenant Guild has helped fund), Gilchrist Hospice Care and the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, among others.
Receiving organizations are brought to Covenant Guild a variety of ways, but all go through the same vetting process. In some cases, an organization or project is recommended by a Covenant member herself, like a member who had a child in the neo-natal unit inspired the group to work with the University of Maryland Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit. In other cases, organizations are familiar with Covenant Guild already and make requests. In the case of MCVET, Balser actually read about the nonprofit’s work in the newspaper and reached out.
“A lot of organizations just have one cause, but we don’t,” said Ellen Gottfried, a past president (twice) and legacy member as the daughter of Shirley Gambel, who is also a past president and longtime member. “We give to wherever the need is. And a lot of our needs come from members, like they have something in their families. So those are the first requests we try to honor.”
But the requests have to be specific. Covenant Guild will fund a project or initiative or equipment need but will not raise money just to be put in an organization’s coffers.
A committee of past presidents, chosen by the current president, will look into all the requests — talking with the organization, visiting the facilities — and make recommendations to the full group, which will then decide where the money will go.
One of this year’s recipients, MCVET, will receive $11,500 over two years for building computer workstations for its female veterans. MCVET is a nonprofit that provides resources such as housing, career development and a Veterans Affairs representative all under one roof for homeless veterans.
“This is an opportunity for the women to market themselves as far as jobs are concerned and find resources out there for veterans,” said Cereta Spencer, director of development for MCVET. “It’s just a way for them to connect to the world.”
Spencer said MCVET loves partnering with other community organizations not only for the resources that provides, but also because it gives the veterans a chance to engage with the community and become more involved.
“It’s about uplifting, community involvement, looking better, feeling better and just getting ready for the outside world,” she said.
MCVET is a first-time recipient, but there are several other organizations or facilities that have a longstanding relationship with Covenant Guild, like the University of Maryland Medical Center. It has been working with Covenant Guild for almost 20 years, with the group funding five projects, either as onetime donations or multiyear commitments, said Nichole Komninos, director of donor relations for the hospital. Covenant Guild has contributed to the Cancer Center, Shock Trauma and Children’s Hospital.
“We can’t stress enough through the years what an impact Covenant Guild has made here,” said Suzanne Boyle, senior director of development for the Children’s Hospital. “We couldn’t do what we do without the philanhropic resources of groups like Covenant Guild.”
“They make it possible,” Komninos added.
Another longtime partner has been the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company, which is a recipient again this year. PVFC will receive $5,000 each year for five years towards a new ambulance — one of many the group has helped fund over the near 35-year relationship.
“We couldn’t survive without them,” said PVFC president John W. Berryman, who was particularly effusive about Covenant Guild. “Not only from the view of the donations, but the contact with the people and community. The ladies of Covenant Guild have always been there for us.”
Money for these organizations is raised through a number of different activities, such as selling discount cards, lottery calendars and greeting cards and hosting holiday bazaars and other events. Back in the day, the group would host big shows and dances and even had a choral group that would perform around the community. Perhaps the most memorable of these was the “Tropicana” show (featuring jazz greats Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey) of 1956 held, paradoxically, in the middle of what turned out to be a huge blizzard that shut down the city. But that didn’t deter the Covenant community, who all showed up in their evening gowns and winter boots.
The group’s big annual event is the Pot of Gold fundraiser, happening this year May 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Temple Oheb Shalom. It includes a chance to win $5,000 by the spin of a wheel (along with other prizes), desserts, other activities and, special to this year, Covenant Guild trivia. Tickets go for $100 each (although each ticket can include more than one person), and the group usually sells at least 100.
(The first Pot of Gold event 47 years ago actually originated as the Cadillac Bowl, because, instead of $5,000, the prize was a bare-bones Cadillac — then worth about $5,000. Members quickly realized they couldn’t give away a Cadillac every year, so the event became Pot of Gold.)
Although rich in history, civic groups, including women’s groups such as Covenant Guild, have faced declining membership in recent years as demands on people’s (especially women’s) time grows. According to a 2010 study, 77 percent of college-educated Americans were part of a nonreligious community group in the 2000s compared with 86 percent in the 1970s. Covenant Guild is, of course, Jewish, but the general takeaway is that community groups are becoming less of a priority for many.
Though she doesn’t have a specific number to quote, Helene Waranch, current president of the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations of Maryland and longtime member of other community groups, said she has seen a decline in organizations that are members with the federation. The current count stands at about 23.
In fact, this topic — whether women’s organizations are still relevant in today’s society — was the keynote of the federation’s recent convention May 11. There are no easy answers, Waranch said, but she still thinks these organizations have value.
“I personally have been part of these organizations for almost 50 years, and there’s something special about working with women, worshipping with women, exchanging ideas,” she said.
One thing Waranch added was that she felt people needed to be asked and to feel like they could contribute meaningfully.
“I do think in many ways, people need to be asked,” she said. “They need to feel wanted, appreciated and accepted for who they are and what they have to offer.”
This is the part Covenant Guild members would say they have excelled at. They are naturally very proud of the work they’ve done in the community over the years, but it isn’t the reason they all keep coming back. When asked about what their organization does to keep itself vibrant and attracting new members, one aspect in particular came up more than once: the involvement of the past presidents.
“I want to say something about these ladies,” said Bea Yoffe, current recording secretary and longtime member, when the JT posed this question to the six members gathered at Balser’s apartment.
“Uh-oh,” Gottfried cracked before Yoffe shot her a look. “I love you, Bea.”
“Oh, I know you do,” Yoffe said, then moving on to her original point. “Our presidents, when their terms are finished, they never leave the group. There are some organizations when their presidency is over, they disappear. Not these ladies. They’re here forever. That’s why we’re so successful, there’s always support for each other. That’s impressed me more than anything about Covenant — the solidarity.”
Sharon Stadd, first vice president and incoming president, is a more recent Covenant member, coming up on her sixth year. She remembers feeling totally embraced by the group, even as a new member.
“When I first joined, the ladies who are more seasoned were so warm and loving,” she said. “They just open up their hearts, and they want you to be a part of the organization and get involved. It’s special. I always thought, before I joined Covenant Guild, ‘Oh, that’s so neat, to be a part of them.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m part of them now.’”
How they all feel about the group comes down to one word: family.
“We’ve built a large family and we consider ourselves sisters,” said Gould. “And I personally, as a past president, I would have never met any of these women in my life because our paths just never crossed. And it’s just so rewarding to know they’ve become sisters — we’ve all become sisters.”
That embrace was especially felt by Gambel, who was widowed at a young age.
“The girls were so wonderful to me and made me feel right at home,” she said. “Of course, there was always a void, but, generally speaking, they just filled in. And my kids became like their kids.
“And none of us knew each other,” she went on to say. “None of us in this room knew each other.”
“Well, you and me,” Gottfried, her daughter, looked over.
“I thought you looked familiar.”
Seventy years in and these women are already looking forward to the next 70.
“I just feel good every time I go into a meeting,” said Yoffe. “I feel like I’ve come home.”