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Sisterhood of the Red Tent

Midway through preparing a chocolate-filled babka, pastry chef Paula Shoyer pauses to raise her freshly kneaded sweet bread toward the heavens with outstretched arms.

“It’s like in ‘The Lion King,’ ” she tells her audience of 75 women, setting off a ripple of laughter as the dough shines brightly under a spotlight. “You can almost hear the music in the background.”

The chef chats about her life and philosophy as she works onstage in Monteabaro Recital Hall at Howard Community College, where the Red Tent Club of the Jewish Federation of Howard County sponsors four women’s events from September to May. Her presentation followed a light fare dinner with red wine.

Shoyer, author of “The Kosher Baker” and owner-operator of a Chevy Chase cooking school, was introduced by federation president Pearl Laufer as someone who “embodies making your passion your profession.”

Trained in France after working as an attorney, Shoyer is a mother of four and has led a somewhat atypical life. Yet she is typical of the caliber of speaker the Red Tent Club seeks out.

“We try to appeal to women of all ages who have a broad range of interests,” says Sophie Novinsky, the federation’s adult life director. “And (the concept) has absolutely been a hit.”

The club, which is concluding its fourth season, is named after the 1997 best-seller “The Red Tent,” by Anita Diamant. It is a story of mutual support between biblical women as they take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, as required by ancient law.

The club’s premise is to bring Jewish women of all ages from across the county together to “eat food and schmooze” before learning about an intriguing topic, according to Leslie Windman. She co-founded the group in 2008 with a former executive director, Deborah Adler, after a casual conversation about community life in Howard County.

“We had all been reading the book (which was reissued in 2007 to mark its 10th anniversary), and we thought it was a great model,” says Windman, a chiropractor who lives in Clarksville. “The club provides a really warm environment. You become just a Jewish woman (for the evening) and nurture that.”

About 120 women have signed up, and 60 to 70 attend each event, which is marketed on the federation website as a social and professional club for “hip, spirited and intrigued minds,” according to Novinsky.

“The club has grown so fast because there was a real need,” she says. “Busy women tend to lose touch, and it’s interesting to see how they reconnect at these events.”

With topics ranging from meditation to the afterlife, the Red Tent Club has “a pulse on what programs women want to see,” and that’s why it has grown so quickly, Novinsky says. Iman Awad, administrator for the Governor’s Commission on Middle East/American Affairs, is slated for May 14.

Sweat, salad and Spanx

During her presentation in March, Shoyer noted that it was her first time lecturing in a performing arts center, and that the live audience and bright lights made the setting feel like the studio of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

In chatting animatedly with her audience, the chef hit on the shared premise that made Winfrey’s chat fest an afternoon staple with women for 25 years and the Red Tent Club so successful: Women want to spend time together.

She offered such tongue-in-cheek words of nutritional advice as, “If you give your family enough chocolate, nobody misses pasta or bread.”

She also suggested women follow the three S’s in maintaining their figures while baking calorie-laden pastry, especially during Passover, “when you have to become a baker.” They are: sweat, as in regular exercise; salad, as in not subsisting on pastry alone; and Spanx, a popular undergarment that “works in conjunction with the first two, or if the first two fail,” the chef says.

Being reminded occasionally that it’s possible to succeed in a demanding career while still placing a priority on family is of paramount importance to the county’s Jewish women, who are highly educated and successful, Windman adds.

Ann Goldscher, an assistant to west Columbia’s Del. Elizabeth Bobo, says some speakers are better than others and the topic is not necessarily why she attends, though she is a regular.

“I go for the camaraderie and to see people in the community,” Goldscher says, calling the evenings “thoroughly enjoyable.”

Plus, the all-female audience elicits information from speakers that they otherwise tend to withhold in mixed company, such as when a Holocaust survivor shared an intimate perspective on her experience that she’d never before disclosed, she adds.

The Red Tent Club is continuing to evolve. Windman says that “new, brilliant ideas are percolating” and the group intends to expand in coming years under the guidance of Michelle Ostroff, the group’s new executive director who came aboard in February.

The programming “is stimulating you intellectually while filling your need to be social,” she says. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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