When Shelly Freedman divorced many years ago, she found it so painful being alone among the couples at Shabbat services, she stopped going to synagogue.
“They’d all be sitting in twos, and going home together,” she said.
Freedman remarried, and her second husband died 12 years ago. Two years later, she started a group at Temple Sholom in Fanwood whose aim is to ensure that while she and women like her may be single, they won’t be alone.
The group, called Women on Their Own, now has around 20 members, whose ages range from 60s to 80s and who are divorced, widowed, or never married. Members meet once a month to have a nosh, take part in informational programs, and socialize. There’s a lot of laughter.
“There are so many of us,” Freedman said, “we’re like birds sitting on a wire.”
Freedman, who lives in Scotch Plains, remembers then congregation president Susan Weiseman suggesting that she start such a group.
A decade after its founding, Freedman still runs it. “I’m happy to do it,” she said. “I tell people, ‘I’m not doing anyone a favor; I’m doing it for me.’”
Other congregations have women’s groups of various kinds; some have bereavement groups for the recently widowed, and some have programs for singles. But no other in the Central area seems to have a support group quite like this, specifically for older single women. Freedman said people from other synagogues have asked to join, but they have turned them away, to keep numbers manageable and maintain the intimacy.
“But,” she said, “I would be happy to talk to other people about how we went about starting our group, so they could start one for themselves.”
During the school year, the women meet once a month on a Sunday morning for a couple of hours at Union Catholic High School, where the temple’s religious school meets. In the summer, they meet at a member’s home. And once a month, they meet at a restaurant for lunch.
“At the school we talk over bagels and coffee. If it’s at someone’s home, they serve whatever they like. It’s very informal,” Freedman said. “Occasionally, we’ll have an expert come — like an investment counselor, but usually we just talk about whatever issues come up.”
Though many of the members had marriages, Freedman said, “where we left a lot to our husbands,” most have had careers — many of them as teachers — and they’re fiercely independent. But they still value the practical support provided by the group — like a lift to the doctor, or a visit when someone’s sick, or advice like finding a good painter or electrician, or just a call when a sympathetic ear is needed.
A retired librarian and the mother of two, now with six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, Freedman said she hadn’t organized anything like this before, but it wasn’t difficult. “I invited everyone I knew of to just come to discuss the idea,” she recalled. “About eight or 10 came. Some people didn’t want to because they thought they’d be forced to reveal deep, dark secrets, but it wasn’t that way at all.”
A social worker from Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey attended the first few meetings, to help facilitate the interaction. Participants talked about living alone and the adjustments required for those who had never been alone before, and from there they gathered steam.
“There’s never a problem with not having something to talk about,” Freedman said with a laugh. “The challenge is to make sure that everyone who wants to speak gets a chance to be heard. We like each other, and everyone is very supportive.”
Rabbi Joel Abraham, who leads the congregation, said, “At Temple Sholom, we want to ensure that all our members feel welcome and get the support they need in their daily lives. The ladies of Women on Their Own are a very special part of our community.”
Anyone who would like to find out more can contact the temple at 908-889-4900 or firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be put in touch with Freedman.