Leading Seder for the First Time

This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.

sederMy mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.

I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.

In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.

Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”

Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.

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Posted on April 23, 2014

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Pesah— Hag HaHinukh: The Holiday of Education

Jewish tradition has four names for the Passover Holiday—Hag HaAviv (the Spring Festival), Hag HaMatsot (the Holiday of Unleavened Bread), Hag HaPesah (the Holiday of Passing Over), and Hag HaHerut (the Festival of Freedom). Each of these names represents a different aspect of the holiday.

shutterstock_181164680However, there seems to be an additional name that would be fitting for Passover — Hag HaHinukh — the Holiday of Education. Indeed, no other ceremony in Jewish life is as dedicated to educating the next generation of Jews as that of the Seder. The educational mission of Seder night begins in the Torah itself, in three different verses, which instruct us to educate our children about the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

The key verse in this educational paradigm can be found in Exodus 13:8:

וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:

And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

What this verse seems to be stating is that while you are eating matsah, you should explain to your child all that happened to you while you were leaving Egypt.

The same educational call is found in the Mishna, Tractate Pesahim 10:4:

מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו…. ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו.

A second cup of wine is poured out; and the son should then inquire of his father. If the son doesn’t have da’at (understanding) to do this, aviv melamdo—his father teaches him…. And according to the da’at of the child should the father teach him.

This Mishna describes the moment at the Seder when the child’s curiosity should be piqued. After all, why are we suddenly having a second cup of wine when we normally have only one? Here, the expected response of the child is depicted. However, in the event that the child does not ask, the parent is obligated to teach. The Mishna delineates an additional requirement: that the parent teach the child according to the child’s da’at — the child’s understanding, or intellectual capabilities. It is a remarkably modern approach, that of individualized education. The Mishna here is communicating that the one-size-fits-all educational model doesn’t work; education must be child-specific.
Continue reading Yaffa Epstein’s words of Torah in this spring’s Shema Bekolah.

Looking for help engaging the wide range of people at your seder? Check out the Many Ways To Tell Our Story, JOFA’s handbook of activities for people of all ages and styles.

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Posted on April 13, 2014

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The Widening Scope of Gender Expression and Traditional Judaism

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Orthodox feminism’s struggle for women’s leadership and ritual inclusion set a strong precedent for the recent consideration of the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. As JOFA supporter Dinah Mendes asserts in Moment Magazine, “LGBT traditional Jews share some similarities with traditional Jewish feminists; like them, they press against established gender boundaries and norms in their quest for more equal representation and involvement.”

She writes:

“There is no new thing under the sun,” declared King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the literary, somewhat world-weary distillate of his lifetime experience. But if the wise old king were catapulted into our new gender relaxed world, would he still opine thus? Would he stick to his guns if the Sunday Times landed on his breakfast table, the “Vows” section filled with the nuptial announcements of gay couples? Or if he were to glance at the cover article of a recent Atlantic Monthly entitled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples,” positing the higher level of fulfillment enjoyed in many homosexual unions?

Although legally sanctioned anti-Semitism ensured Jewish cultural separatism and prevented full participation in the larger world for much of Jewish history, Jews living today are, for the most part, free to design the parameters of their dual citizenship. This is not much of an issue for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are largely self-insulating, or for relatively assimilated Jews at the other end of the spectrum, who are unburdened by the yoke of religious Jewish authority. Ultimately, only traditional and Modern Orthodox Jews, who aspire to inhabit and integrate two worlds, confront serious challenges at points where the values of the two cultures clash with each other.

Continue reading “Is There a New Judaism for Gender Identity?” at Moment Magazine.

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Posted on April 10, 2014

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Three Ways to Engage Children and Adults at Your Seder

Our Family HaggadahThe Haggadah

When my family sits down to the seder table on April 14, we won’t be passing around the Maxwell House Hagaddahs. We don’t use the Sacks one, anything by Artscroll, or even something from JPS. We will be using “Our Family Haggadah.”

The brainchild of my mother and Savta in the mid-90’s, this DIY publication has been a work in progress that is currently in its fifth edition. While the first versions most likely contained dozens of copyright infringements, the current version is getting closer to an original family document.

We realized that the people around the table wanted something traditionally authentic, intellectually challenging, and unique to our family. As you can see, we have cut many portions of the traditional hagaddah, but have done our best to maintain the essential pieces while creating more opportunities for discussion and questions. Without the pressure to get through so much text, we have the comfort and opportunity to truly be open to any questions that might arise.

If you don’t want to use our haggadah, and don’t have the time to make your own, consider cutting out a few sections and replacing them with open discussion or guided Q&A. You will be surprised to see people refreshed by the change and the chance to make the seder experience more personal.

Seder Table Activities

The other way we’ve adapted our seder is by adding in new activities and games each year. We realized that there is often down-time during the meal (shulchan orech): as soup is being served, between courses, and during dessert. So we play games! We’ve tried a number of different activities over the years including our own versions of Cranium, Mad Gabs and most importantly Jewpardy. It’s not so simple to create your own games, so use the ones other people have already made. Pick a game, print it out, and you’re good to go!

An Activity for Every Family

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This last suggestion is more than a game – it’s an interactive reimagining of a 2,000+ year old tradition. Anyone can run this activity at their seder:

Whatever the true origin of the orange on the seder plate, the idea of placing symbolic items on the seder table feels as old as Passover itself. But in addition to the six symbols on the seder plate, the orange, and Cup of Miriam, we can add our own symbols.

Before the seder, send out a casting call to your participants asking them to bring their own Passover symbol to place on the table. They can bring anything they want, but must be ready to explain how it is symbolic of a Passover theme or concept. Before the seder begins, place each of the symbols on the table. As the seder progresses, take periodic breaks to allow the table to discuss one of the objects. Solicit suggestions from the group as to what the item might symbolize and then ask the person who brought it to explain what it means to them.

At the end of the seder, or once all of the symbols have been presented, vote on which item added the most to the seder experience. The winner gets a reserved space at the table next year!


I wish you the best of luck with a meaningful Passover seder. If you’re looking for divrei torah and other content for your seder, visit http://www.jofa.org/Education/Holidays/Holidays for some great articles and resources.

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Posted on April 7, 2014

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Preparing for Pesach My Way

book of ideasThe seder is my favorite Jewish ritual, and every year, I have the best of intentions. In line with the rabbinic notion of preparing for a holiday thirty days in advance, I begin preparing for Passover as soon as Purim is over. I buy the newest haggadot that seem like they’ll provide interesting material. I go to a class about the haggadah given by someone who I expect to say something insightful, meaningful, and thought-provoking. And then I tell myself, this year will be different. I will actually sit down with all my haggadot before the seder. I will study them and use them as a springboard to develop my thoughts about the Exodus, redemption, and its relevance to our lives.

Sometimes it really works out that way but mostly, I am still holding tightly to this goal right up until the afternoon of Erev Pesach, hours before the first seder, when I am forced to recognize that it will simply not happen. I will likely have to wing it, assuming that is, that we still want several tasty charoses variants (the family standard is to have at least two) and bug-free romaine.

It is certainly not the cleaning that keeps me from delving into the haggadah in advance. I take the rabbis very, VERY seriously when they say that this isn’t spring cleaning. We do what the halakhah requires, but the search for chametz in our house does not involve dry cleaning the drapes. So what’s my issue? What is holding me back from preparing new content for the seder? And does it matter?

bug napkin ringWe can start with the fact that I love to have a festive table — no, make that a festive room. I decorate the room with wild beasts on the chandelier, frogs on the walls, and bug rings on the napkins. Lording over everything are little naked Moshes in baby baskets (Party City in the baby shower aisle!). The baby baskets are set inside vases with water, nestled into bigger baskets of grass. How could I possibly read anything until I’ve plastered every bare space with Exodus ambience? This may be one reason my adult children and my young grandchildren love our seders. It is not only the rituals and “k’zayit“s that make this night different — it’s about the sights, the smells, the textures, even the silliness.

And although I haven’t been reading my new haggadot, I have been cogitating about the Exodus and redemption. Sometimes the discussions that come from this process are the most interesting. As beautiful, meaningful, and special as the seder is, its most important purpose may be to set a tone for the rest of the year. If we can feel our Judaism so dynamically on this one night and enjoy it so profoundly, I know we have it in us to try a little harder to engage with it throughout the year.

So will this night be different? I don’t know. Though there’s still time for book-based prep, I know that whether I download articles and divrei Torah from years past on JOFA’s online library (at 6:05pm Monday night) or have my own divrei Torah ready in advance, my bugs on the napkin rings will make me smile, at least one of the charoseses will be weird and I can hope the spirit of the seder will carry over to the rest of the year.

Chag sameach!

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Posted on April 4, 2014

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Prepping for Passover Amid Grief and Taxes

multiple yahrtzeit candlesIt is the day before Passover and everyone has a yahrtzeit but me.

My mother’s mother collapsed on seder night, ten days before her young grandson succumbed to cancer. “I don’t want to see my grandson die,” she told a relative. The shivas of grandmother and grandson tumbled one into the other. My brother’s wife died the first day of Passover, her son’s 13th birthday. The bar mitzvah was held in the shiva house on the Shabbat after Passover. My father’s mother lived almost a hundred years, surviving every Jewish calamity of the twentieth century. The night she died, my father was with us in America. Although he usually sat with her day and night, he did not perform the final duty as son; missing the funeral and sitting shiva alone, ten thousand miles away.

Where am I in this house of mourners the day of the seder? I am locked in a room next to the kitchen attending to the tax law. A tax regulation project is barreling through the Treasury Department, and I am the only one who can advise on the financial provisions. And woe is me if I do not help draft it, because then I’m going to have to interpret what they produce left to their own devices.

Fortunately, I do not have to come to the office. They have arranged a conference call so I can hear the discussions and make suggestions from afar. And when they break, I can skip into the kitchen and issue instructions there.

This is not the way I like it. Erev Passover, the day before the seder, is the liminal moment between the weeks of scrubbing and worrying, and the redemption of seder night. It is the fleeting transition when I survey the perfectly antiseptic aluminum foil spaceship I have built, and then sully it with preparations for the evening.

I prefer not to work on Erev Passover, but this time I don’t have a choice. I know the family will take care of everything, leaving only the romaine lettuce for me to check: I earned my insect-checking PhD in a religious kibbutz kitchen and delegate it to no one.

I call in to the tax drafting. As we argue and haggle, a Jewishly observant colleague chimes in. He does not have to cook or clean I muse; when he arrives home like a monarch at the appointed time, the table will be set and meal cooked. Yet I do not envy him: the preparation makes the holiday.

My daughter bangs at the door. I mute the phone. “You need to change the gasket in the oven,” she whispers. I roll my eyes. We self-clean our oven but I have a theory the gasket never gets hot enough for Passover cleanliness. Having conjured the problem, it’s my job to solve it. Hooking the phone to my shirt and adjusting the ear-phones, I remove the shelves from the oven and insert half my body. The gasket is attached with screws and requires some dexterity to remove.

While I’m deep in the cavity with the screws in my mouth, someone on the phone calls out, “Viva, what do you think about the language I’m suggesting?”

Viva in front of oven

Photo by Lydia Polimeni

The phone is still on mute. I lean forward to unmute it and the oven tips onto me. “Viva! Are you there?” I gasp, “Yes, I’m here.”

“It’s hard to hear you. Are you in an echo chamber?” I push the oven off me and slide onto the floor.

“Can you repeat the language?” I ask, panting.

From the floor, I watch the family’s shoes scuttling; peels and food parts land on my lap. The children are twittering and making provocative faces at me.

On the phone, they repeat the regulatory language, and I suggest a modification. We debate the merits of the variant forms. I am pontificating on the floor, waving my hands. The drafter comes up with a third mutation, and we all agree.

I mute the phone again and climb back into the oven.

When it’s done, I clamber out, rising slowly to the upright position. My father is peeling potatoes. “Let me do that,” I edge him away. “No, no,” he says. “This is my job. You go back to yours. My mother would have been so proud of you.”

And so would my mother’s mother, who never went to university but was always urging my mother to finish her degree. As for my sister-in-law, the breadwinner, may she rest in peace, she was scrubbing her house for Passover the week before she died. What secrets would she share now?

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Posted on March 31, 2014

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Prime-Time Drama

This post has been translated from Hebrew to English by Bracha Jaffe.

judge pounding malletShabbat afternoon between the afternoon and evening prayers is a prime time in the life of a community. Some people attend a halakha or daf yomi shiur (class) while others opt to take an afternoon walk, snooze in the pews, or read a chapter in their current novel of choice. Two weeks ago at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) – The Bayit — I introduced something completely new and different.

A week before the traditional Purim shpiel (play) was set to take the stage, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale turned the synagogue into a theater for a wholly other purpose… a mock trial!

During “prime time,” a group of congregants staged a mock trial to examine the efficacy of the halakhic prenuptial agreement in a court of law. John and Jane Doe had signed a prenup before their wedding, but unfortunately their relationship deteriorated after the wedding. Jane requested an end to the marriage, and that is how they found themselves in court. Jane’s lawyer presented the arguments in favor of using the prenuptial agreement to honor Jane’s request, showing why it should be upheld — that both parties signed of sound mind and understanding the implications of the agreement, and that the financial responsibility assessed therein did not constitute a coercion to give the get. On the other side, John’s lawyer argued against upholding the prenuptial agreement, suggesting that the couple did not truly understand what they were signing, and that they were not really given a choice.  John’s lawyer also argued that the financial assessment constituted a fine and a pressure that created a “forced get,” making the prenup halakhically problematic.

The court’s verdict — by a ruling of two judges against one — was that the prenuptial agreement is actionable and binding upon both parties. Thus, the court ordered that John begin to pay Jane $150 per day retroactive to their time of their separation a few months earlier. The judge who objected to the prenup taught us about another solution which has yet to be applied in the Orthodox world, conditional kiddushin, which automatically cancels the marriage if and when the necessary conditions of marriage are no longer being met.

Today’s world is not what it once was. Women vote. Women learn Torah. Women are even ordained to be rabbis. But there are still women who are chained to their husbands and victims of “get refusal.” The Orthodox world has yet to find a solution to the asymmetry in the giving and receiving of the get between husband and wife. There are still those in the Orthodox world who see the get as a bargaining chip and use it as a bullying tactic against the other side.

One approach to eradicating this very painful phenomenon of agunot is signing halakhic prenuptial agreements. The couple signs the prenup before, or on, the wedding day, when their feelings of love are very strong. The prenup capitalizes on this prime moment when positive, cooperative feelings are strongest, and introduces and makes explicit the understanding that if (God forbid) this love should end, the recorded memory of good intentions will allow the couple to separate in an honorable and respectful manner.

HIR has planned a post-nup party to be held on Sunday, March 30. Every married member of the congregation has received an invitation and the goal is for all married members of the synagogue to participate. Anyone who did not sign a prenup before their wedding will be able to sign a reciprocal postnup in its place. Single congregants and married couples who have signed a prenup are encouraged to attend to partake in the celebration and show their support for this practice. By seeking one hundred percent participation, we aim to make prenuptial agreements an accepted part of the Jewish marriage ceremony in our synagogue and beyond.

My fervent hope is that the upcoming postnup party will allow all synagogue members to play an active role in this movement to end the use of the get as an aggressive and combative halakhic tool. Further, I hope that other synagogues will (as some around the country already have) host such events to encourage the signing of the postnup, and will take steps to educate and empower all of their members to sign either a prenup or a postnup.  May we see the day where this critical action step joins with others to bring an end to the problem of agunot in our community.

I want to especially thank Rabanit Michal Tickotchinski who was part of a mock trial in Israel and encouraged us to try this at The Bayit, and of course, all of the actors, members of HIR, who performed with passion and brilliance:

-       James Lapin (John Doe)
-       Ann Lapin (Jane Doe)
-       Mia Padwa (Jane’s lawyer)
-       Elliot Rabin (John’s lawyer)
-       Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rabbi Jeff Fox, Ariel Freidenberg JD (the judges)

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Posted on March 26, 2014

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Double Booked: If It’s Good Enough for the Matriarchs

This post originally appeared on the Religious Action Center’s blog and has been reprinted here with permission.

Daphne Price picIn a recent conversation about raising families, I recounted the numerous times that I have been asked, often in an accusatory tone, why I have “only” two children. I guess because I am an Orthodox woman, people think this is an area into which they are allowed to pry. It is a question that I find incredibly personal, and deeply offensive – especially when it is followed with an admonishment that I am falling down on my religious duties by not abiding by the Biblical imperative “to be fruitful and multiply.” Yet one has to look no further than the Four Matriarchs – who no doubt did not have access to any modern birth control techniques – to see that the notion of large families (certainly not from one mother) is not always reflected in our history, even before hormone-based pills, patches or IUDs.

Indeed, our Scripture describes to us that Sarah struggled with infertility until the age of 90, when she birthed Isaac. Rebecca had a pair of twin boys, Esau and Jacob – and then no more. Leah, the most fecund, had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, and then after a number of years, had Benjamin, whose birth caused her death.

Beyond informing us of the number and names of children of various Biblical personalities, the Bible does not go into any detail about other related issues – miscarriage, still birth, babies who died shortly after birth, or even the number of infants and children who died from disease and malnourishment. So why was there a dearth of very large families? Did the matriarchs exercise other forms of birth control? The Bible doesn’t say, but of course, anything is possible. What is clear is that though there was angst on the part of the matriarchs who wanted to plan out their families, there is no judgment about them having “only” one or two or seven children. None of us questions whether or not our ancestral mothers fulfilled their duty to “be fruitful and multiply.” (A side note: Maimonides clarifies that this commandment applies only to men because a person cannot be commanded to do something that would jeopardize his/her life.)

The fact is that in so many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox circles, you will find countless Sarahs, Rebeccas, Rachels and Leahs – there can be no doubt that none of these women could be considered disappointments. I’m not advocating for people to model their own families after those in the Bible; polygamy and concubines, among other Biblical traditions, are dated to say the least. I am suggesting that those who use religion as a basis to critique families that are smaller for any reason should look no further than the Bible as a rebuke to their argument.

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Posted on March 24, 2014

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An Old Shul Still Paving the Way

Bais Abe Sisterhood, 1989

Bais Abe Sisterhood preparing for monthly Sisterhood luncheon, 1989

It is funny to celebrate the 120th anniversary of our synagogue when Judaism tells us that 120 years should mark the completion of a lifetime. Yet, at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, as we embark upon the celebration of our 120th year, we are not only far from completion, but rather, find ourselves at the cutting edge of issues facing women and Judaism.

It surprises people to learn that a 120-year-old synagogue in the Midwest is on the forefront of Orthodox feminism.

Bais Abraham Congregation hosted one of the first women’s tefillah (prayer) groups in the country, a group that still continues to this day, nearly forty years later. The tefillah (prayer) group has been a venue for countless Bat Mitzvahs across the community – including welcoming young women who were not permitted to speak from the bimah (stage) in their own synagogues. Moreover, for as long as I can remember, Bat Mitzvah girls have been invited to give the sermon before the entire congregation.

Many of the programs that we organize at “Bais Abe,” as we affectionately call our synagogue, integrate women into the community in innovative and comprehensive ways. In 2010, when a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis decided to scribe a Megillat Esther, it was Bais Abe’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner who encouraged the women to pursue the project. He created a series of classes to teach the women the halakhot (Jewish laws) of writing megillot and served as a rabbinic advisor and champion throughout the process. In 2013, Bais Abe took on the cause of agunot at its major fundraising event. From that campaign emerged a community-wide post-nup signing event, spearheaded by Bais Abe and co-sponsored by all the Modern Orthodox congregations in St. Louis. Nearly forty couples signed the RCA post-nup agreement, raising awareness of the plight of agunot. The national publicity from this event created a spark and we now see dozens of other synagogues planning similar events.

Phyllis Shapiro

Phyllis Shapiro

I was proud to serve as president of Bais Abe (2010-2012), the first female president of an Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis, and possibly even across the Midwest. Most striking to me about the experience is that the election was not seen as part of a feminist agenda or viewed as controversial; it was simply finding the right person for the job, and at the time, the right person was female.

Even more revolutionary is that our little synagogue in St. Louis – we boast less than one hundred families as members – is one of only a handful across the globe that has hired a woman to join its Orthodox clergy team. In 2013 we hired Rori Picker Neiss, soon to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, to serve as our Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement, a clergy-level position. Rori delivers drashot (sermons) from the pulpit, teaches in the religious schools, answers questions on halakhic (Jewish legal) matters, and offers pastoral counsel. She is changing the face of Orthodox Judaism in St. Louis.

Bais Abe has been a partner with JOFA on many programs over the years. The next time you find yourself in the Midwest, please come and visit. You will find yourself right at home at Bais Abe!

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Posted on March 21, 2014

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From Isolation to Community: Opening the Conversation on Mikvah

longingTwo weeks each month, I refrain from physical intimacy with my husband because of Jewish law. It is not only difficult because I miss his touch. I feel overwhelmed that my body’s natural rhythms have placed a distance in our marriage. For me, the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha is an emotionally draining and frustrating experience.

According to traditional interpretations, taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity) requires a couple to abstain from all physical intimacy and touch, and imposes various other restrictions including not sharing a bed. This period of abstinence lasts twelve or more days: while the woman is menstruating (a minimum of five days) and for seven additional days. It concludes when the woman fully cleanses herself, and immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). A woman is called a niddah while in this state of separation.

I got married six months ago and was so excited to observe this mitzvah. Every inspirational book I read told me that taharat ha-mishpacha is the key to maintaining a happy relationship. They explained that niddah is not meant to imply that I am dirty while menstruating; rather, the separation should build intimacy in our relationship through improved communication and non-physical expressions of affection. “Taharat HaMishpacha is the secret to Jewish femininity….showing them [husband and wife] how to relate to each other and express and build their happiness and devotion.”[1]

an angel is bornAnd yet, I feel cheated. I struggle to find the magic in performing a bedikah (the internal examination to check for blood). The woman who taught me the laws said “an angel is born every time a woman does a bedikah.” But when I do it, I am always anxious that, God forbid, at the end of our separation, I’ll find a blood spot that will prolong it yet another day. I feel ashamed and stressed that my body’s natural cycle often does not cooperate with Jewish law and I have to wait yet another day to be with my husband.

I was taught that going to the mikvah is the best private retreat a busy woman could have – time away from the world to focus only on myself.  But frankly, I find it inconvenient that I need to change my plans to take a bath. Recently, I was so sick that I could not get out of bed yet I was supposed to go to the mikvah. Delaying mikvah night is considered a terrible sin but I had no physical energy to go. I felt guilt-ridden that I was delaying our limited time available for intimacy. While my husband insisted I stay home, my emotions about my relationship have become so intimately tied with this mitzvah that I felt depressed nonetheless. I count the days when we can be together and I count them when we are apart. Every moment feels precious and the opportunity for intimacy must be a priority even when we are exhausted after a long day.

mivkeh

We are told that mikvah is a private matter. One should not discuss her niddah practice or mikvah night. Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern, students at Yeshivat Maharat and Hebrew College respectively, facilitated a session at the JOFA Conference dedicated to opening up the conversation about mikvah. The discussion was aided by an anonymous live-polling tool. Prompted by quotes and pictures, we submitted, via text message, our reflections on all things mikvah. There, I realized I am not alone in my anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Participants were both deeply committed to halacha and tremendously dissatisfied with the practice.

For now I am starting to find solace in the shared experiences of my friends. I am not alone in my feelings. I know many people may wonder why I do not just give up on niddah. But ending my practice of taharat mishpacha would fundamentally shift my sense of self. I am an Orthodox Jewish woman and that means I take the good with the less than pleasant. I believe in the halakahic system, and niddah is a central aspect of my observance.

Judaism is based in communal experience and not meant to be practiced in isolation. Our prayer services require community, our food is certified as kosher by other Jews, and Shabbat is best experienced with large, joyous meals. We are not just a religion; we are a community. And yet the mitzvah that dictates one of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior is meant to be kept a secret. There is no community experience in the practice of niddah.

let's talkSo here is my appeal: let’s talk about it. We are a religion of partnership, so let’s bring community back into the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha. The laws may not change but at least we can experience the joys and sorrows together through conversation and community.


[1] Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity, pg. 36

 

Posted on March 18, 2014

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