It 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?”
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?
This post has been translated from Hebrew to English by Bracha Jaffe.
Shabbat 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)
This post originally appeared on the Religious Action Center’s blog and has been reprinted here with permission.
In 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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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.
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!
Two 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.”
And 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.
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.
So 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.
 Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity, pg. 36
The story of Esther teaches us many things, amongst them, that timing is everything.
This year, the women’s Megillat Esther reading in Sydney, Australia marks its fifteenth year! We began in a private home with about thirty women. As the years went on and our numbers grew, we read the Megillah each year in various communal halls in Sydney. In 2013, for the very first time, we held our women’s Megillah reading in the main sanctuary of a Modern Orthodox synagogue! Over 25 women read from the Megillah for a total of 110 women in attendance.
This year we will have more women reading than ever before and, please God, a record number of women attending in celebration.
What can we, a group of women who have been gathering to read the Megillah for fifteen years, learn from the story of Esther? When we are looking for Hashem’s hand in Jewish history, we must take a long-term perspective.
The story of Esther seems like an unlikely, outrageous chain of events that follow one after another. During the course of the hour-long reading, the Jews go from the verge of annihilation to miraculous redemption. The events seem to occur in immediate succession, but actually Achashverosh ascended the throne a full twelve years before Mordechai and Esther step up and consolidate their political power.
In our twelfth year of reading Megillah – our “Bat Mitzvah” year – we gathered in a hall at the oldest and largest Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Sydney. It took some discussion, but we successfully gained permission from the rabbi of the school to hold the reading on the premises.
A young woman’s Bat Mitzvah is the point in her life when she enters adulthood and assumes responsibility for her own spirituality. As a consequence, the community takes her seriously. And so it was with our women’s Megillah reading. Our Bat Mitzvah year was a turning point – it was the year that the mainstream Orthodox community began to “take us seriously.”
We were excited to be in this new phase. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength. In year thirteen, we held two readings: The first was in the Jewish Day School, at which some of the readers were students of the school and the attendees included female students and teachers. For many women, this was the first time they had even heard of a women’s Megillah reading. The second reading that morning was held in the hall of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Last year, we read the Megillah inside the sanctuary of that same synagogue. We are grateful to be meeting in the main sanctuary again this year.
We have followed the example of Queen Esther in working with some of the Modern Orthodox rabbis in our city: we ask for what we want, respectfully, assertively, and persistently. In this way, we have been able to grow and inspire more women to become involved.
A women’s Megillah reading celebrates Jewish women as the source of redemption and continuity. We hope that through our reading we can pass on to our daughters and to the next generation, our passion and enthusiasm for the story of Esther, our enhanced connection with the festival of Purim and the text of the Megillah and our love for and commitment to Judaism.
This year on Purim, several minyanim in the U.S. and in Israel will be reading the Megillah with a twist. The congregations will recite aloud communally, not only the traditional sentences about Mordechai, but an additional sentence about Esther as well. If that doesn’t sound radical to you, you haven’t been around an Orthodox synagogue lately.
Carol Newman, JOFA’s past president, has long been amazed and frustrated at how women have been taken out of everything in Orthodox Judaism. When she talks about the absence of mothers’ names in ketubot, on gravestones, and during aliyot, she can get pretty “fahitzed” (worked up). But until this year, she couldn’t figure out how to put Esther back in the Book of Esther (waving fabric flags with Esther’s likeness on them when Esther’s name was mentioned didn’t really do it for her). Until she saw a source sheet identifying verses about Esther that are parallel to those we read aloud about Mordecai. And so a personal campaign was born.
After many passionate phone calls and email chains over the past few weeks, two partnership minyanim have decided to recite a verse about Esther aloud during their megillah reading this year. According to Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, “There is absolutely no halakhic problem for the congregation to pre-read a verse which will then be repeated by the megillah reader. Therefore all the verses about Esther can be read in that way.”
Darkhei Noam, a partnership minyan in New York, will repeat the verse introducing Esther, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordechai adopted her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7).
Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan in Jerusalem, will repeat the verse where Esther establishes Purim as a holiday for the Jewish people, “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (Esther 9:32).
Mordy Hurwich-Kehat, a member of Shira Hadasha who was instrumental in creating this change, says, “I like Darkhei Noam’s practice, as it parallels Mordechai’s dramatic introduction, and Shira Hadasha’s too–as we learn in the Talmud tractate Megillah that Esther pushed for ‘her’ megillah’s inclusion within the Biblical Canon. Maybe, next year each of the two congregations will adopt the other’s practice.”
You might think it would be easy to convince people to repeat these little sentences but most rabbis and most synagogues, no matter how well intentioned, are not comfortable with change even when, as in this case, there is good support for it.
After all, who wouldn’t want to viscerally celebrate with Esther when she finally takes matters into her own hands and musters up her courage to save her people? So, this year, we take one small step for womankind… Next Sukkot maybe Miriam will show up in the prayer for rain!
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This Thursday (March 13) many Jews will fast from sunrise to sunset in commemoration of Esther’s fast before she approached the king, unbidden, to ask for compassion on her people. The Fast of Esther is one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. At the JOFA conference in December, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold presented a session called Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call? in which she contributed a much-needed woman’s voice to the conversation.
For centuries, halakhic questions around pregnant and nursing women fasting have been asked by women and answered by men. This session will explore the sources surrounding fasting from the female perspective. What does it mean to study these sources with a woman who is a halakhically knowledgeable member of the clergy who has actually experienced pregnancy and nursing? The answers may surprise you.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold recently joined Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment. Previously, she served for six years as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”) is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and was recognized as one of Chicago JUF ‘s “36 Under 36.” Rachel received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. She recently graduated as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three young daughters.
Session handout available here.
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Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim with the MWTG is truly a happening here in Montreal. The Montreal Women’s Tefillah Group (MWTG) was founded in 1982 under the direction and leadership of Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph and our halakhic advisor, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph of Canada’s oldest congregation (1768), the Spanish and Portuguese. At the time our mandate was to provide a venue wherein women, citywide, could gather in prayer, complete with Torah service on Rosh Chodesh. Years later we were able to realize Norma’s goal of conducting our very own reading of Megillat Esther by and for women. I believe we may now claim to be another of the treasured fixtures on the Montreal Jewish scene.
Montreal is also home to the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a body created to advocate on behalf of the agunot in our midst. The Coalition deals with agunot, rabbis, and government. In 1990, the Coalition succeeded in having Bill 21.1 amended to the Canadian Divorce Act, which removed any barriers to religious remarriage.
The Coalition had held its first Vigil for Agunot on the evening before Ta’anit Esther. After another year with a small turnout, the vigil was moved to Purim day, just before Megillah reading. It was quite a success! As Purim is our most well-attended event of the year, averaging one hundred participants, it is our best opportunity to inform and update our community on this most shameful and deplorable status.
We have led workshops on agunot, held art displays, watched Israel’s Savta Bikorta videos followed by group discussion, and listened to a
very moving address and plea from a local agunah of six years now. Last year seven women scattered and seated throughout the chapel read brief, scripted accounts of local agunot. This action had quite an impact on attendees, as a voice was suddenly heard from one side of the room, followed by another from the opposite side and so on. These added activities have fostered much creativity in our community and I heartily suggest that other groups follow suit.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
Click here to read more about International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther (March 13, 2014).
There’s a serious side to Purim costumes and masquerades: Who do we want to be? Who do we want our children to be? With these questions in mind we’ve assembled some of our choices for costumes and other Purim fun. Hope you enjoy!
Purim is the perfect holiday to encourage girls to dress up as (and grow up to be) something other than a princess. Why not an engineer? Get them started early with this Goldie Blox game.
Girls might get so excited by creating and building, that they’ll want to dress up in a construction worker costume! It’s definitely a nice break from all the fairy princesses.
Send your friends some delicious treats this holiday with a “Mini Megillah” Purim box, with all the necessities for a Purim celebration. (Use code AFPUR14 for 10% off orders over $50, before 3/16.)
But Purim’s not just costumes and games! Learn to leyn (chant) Megillat Esther by using JOFA’s Megillah leyning app. And find out where women’s and mixed Megillah readings are happening around the globe with the Project Esther Megillah Reading Directory!
P.S.: Check out Goldie Block’s awesome video for more inspiration.