Torah for One. Torah for All.

Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.

Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.

women and girls reading torah at a shulchan

Reading from the Torah scroll at the inauguration.
Pam Greenwood, far right.

The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.

In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!

I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?

TLP torah on table, BW photo

The Torah scroll that could be at your next simcha!

Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.

If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.

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Posted on May 20, 2014

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Facts from the Field

photo of carol newmanSome big issues for orthodox feminism have come up in the news lately. Did you see that women will soon be allowed to monitor kashrut in institutional kitchens in Israel? JOFA Board member Carol Newman wonders how new this actually is.

I wonder who the rabbis thought was in the kitchen all these years. I have been married for over fifty years and have made more meals than I could possibly count. I’ve cooked for my family, for extended family, for guests, and even for organizations that asked me to host events. No one ever came into my kitchen asking to see the mashgiach.

So what is this all about? My brother-in-law, Marcel Lindenbaum, says the rabbis are afraid of change and therefore what we are seeing in so many instances is a rabbinate that wants to keep things exactly as they are. I maintain that change has already happened. The rabbis simply fear change that has to do with empowering women in Judaism.

In her new book, “The Kind Mama,” Alicia Silverstone explains her refusal to give her son a brit milah. Her rationale suggests a lack of God’s omnipotence: “my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

picture of BeldaJOFA Board member Belda Lindenbaum responds with a popular midrash.

I believe that we were not born “perfect” for a reason, sometimes difficult to understand. I do believe that there are instances, and this is one of them, where we are asked to complete the work of “perfecting.” It began with Adam naming the animals and culminates in the act of procreation where men and women create new life. Bread, a staple of life, is given to us in the form of wheat, but it is humans who harvest, grind, knead, and bake the wheat flour to make the bread. We are partners and perfectors in the act of creation.

Sounds like there’s more than one way to be a “kind mama.”

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Posted on May 15, 2014

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Confronting Mikveh with Honesty

sad woman sitting alone, b&wThere have been numerous conversations recently about mikveh, tzniut, niddah, and sexual relationships within the Orthodox community. They have spanned the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about time that we’re having these conversations, because these are really important and central issues that have an enormous impact on our lives. And when issues of personal status, ritual, and belief systems are hard to talk about, they tend to get swept under the rug or ignored. And when people feel ambivalent about halakha, they often feel a terrible sense of shame.

Two years ago, Mayyim Hayyim asked me to write a blog about sex and the mikveh. Now might be a good time to revisit the issue of when halakha becomes a smoke screen to hide sexual problems. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.

Continue reading “When the Mikveh Feels Overwhelming” at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building.

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Posted on May 13, 2014

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A Young Woman’s Passion for Feminism

statue of libertyHer name can be found in most American history books, and her accomplishments are part of every U.S. history curriculum. This recognition is not undeserved, as she revived interest in feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique and facilitated change in women’s roles by establishing the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although most high school students treat Betty Friedan as another name to memorize for a history test, she is so much more than a removed figure in a textbook for me. She is the reason that I am a feminist.

My middle school history teacher developed my interest in First Wave Feminism, encouraging me to write papers for class and National History Day (NHD) about the suffrage movement. I loved learning about these long-ago crusaders for women’s equality, people who battled for rights I took for granted. My interest in the history of feminist activism led me to learn about Second Wave Feminism on my own during the summer before ninth grade. While researching this era, I read most of the major feminist classics, all of which really resonated with me. I identified most with 1960s and 70s feminism largely because the issues relevant then, from LGBT rights to equal pay, are still pertinent today.

However, it was not until I read The Feminine Mystique that I had my “feminist click moment.” I was shocked by the blatant sexism that society had condoned and the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards women, all in such a recent time period. Friedan’s exposé was so powerful that it rallied me to action and made me want to battle for women’s rights. It was official: I became a feminist.

Ever since reading The Feminine Mystique, I have gotten involved in numerous feminist activities. I am particularly proud of my work with Star of Davida, the Orthodox Jewish feminist blog where I have posted biweekly articles on women’s issues since summer 2010. As someone who enjoys writing and believes strongly in feminism, blogging has allowed me to combine these passions and engage with both of them on a deeper level. It has also compelled me to follow other bloggers and read their thoughts on the issues, which has broadened my horizons, introduced me to new ideas, and given me the opportunity to examine my own opinions in order to change them or reaffirm them.

statue of justiceBetty Friedan influenced my current actions as well as my future aspirations: I hope to pursue gender studies in college and become a labor lawyer specializing in women’s issues. These goals were solidified when I attended the 2012 NOW conference as part of the NOW Young Feminist Task Force, an exclusive group that unites young feminists and gives them a greater voice. Hearing motivating speeches and meeting dedicated feminists showed me that this is what I want to do with my life. Although I never met Friedan, who died in 2006, I know that she would be proud to have inspired me to carry on the torch of feminism.

This was Talia’s college admissions essay for Harvard University, where she is now finishing her first year. If you discussed your Orthodox feminism in your college application, or in an essay for high school, college, or graduate school, tell us about it! Send your essay to thetorch@jofa.org.

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Posted on May 8, 2014

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Take Back the Night (and the Day)

men in conference roomRushing into a conference midway through a speech, I scanned the room for a seat then stopped, startled. Had I entered the Gentlemen’s Gallery of an Orthodox synagogue? But this wasn’t a synagogue – it was a colloquium on derivatives at an Ivy League university! Why was I the lone woman?

I sat down. My mind wandered from derivatives back to another era. It was my first year at Sydney University in Australia and upon entering my maiden Economics tutorial I was confronted with a boys’ football huddle in formation. Prying apart the interlaced arms to make a place for myself, I asked the female tutor, “Where are our money-minded sisters?”

“You’ll get used to it,” the tutor comforted me. But she was wrong. I entered university as women were flooding the disciplines and quickly taking up half the medical and law schools and I usually had plenty of female company in class. Those football physiques provided no advantage in competing for academic awards, which in my year were swept up by women.

Today, responsibility for the tax policy of the United States of America rests with my team. It is the highest honor to be invited to join and log the grueling hours expected of us. Work has a sacred quality: the more you do, the holier you are. Leaving before 7pm is like sneaking out of synagogue midway through the sermon. Extracurriculars such as family or aiding the poor are commendable in small doses; but the core of an American’s identity and the bulk of her or his time must be devoted to paid labor.

kids and computer

Photo copyright Lydia Polimeni

Kim and I are the only women on the team with young children. Whenever we catch a moment to chat, Kim dwells on how deficient she feels. “I only come in three days a week, and I just can’t give it my all,” she moans. “If I’m battling the mess at home, I’m thinking about the pile on my desk; and when I sit behind the pile, I’m imagining the volcano smoldering at home.” She laments that she cannot throw herself into the job with enough gusto to command respect from our colleagues.

Kim is wrong. She is a Harvard Law graduate with elite law firm experience and we all vie for the excellent judgment she rations out to our office. But because suffering servitude is the sanctified life, an employee who gives obeisance to a god other than work feels dismissed to the B League.

At a recent staff meeting, our boss announced that superstar Eva will not be returning to work after maternity leave. “Poor thing, she couldn’t bear to leave her baby,” the boss said. Kim and I made eyes. Neither she nor I could bear to leave our babies either, but it happens I am a single mom and she is married to a man who toils for the poor and underrepresented. This means that we must work for the rich and overrepresented. Eva’s husband is so fabulously busy at his place of business that he didn’t make it quite in time for the birth of his first child.

So Eva defects to the other side and Kim and I walk into rooms full of men like Eva’s husband.

But why did I feel so awkward at the conference on derivatives? How exalted was my position there, a peer amongst the most august thinkers in my field! Because I’m a lawmaker, all were deferential to me and there was only one dirty joke the whole day! Altogether, I was welcomed into the boys’ club.

On Shabbat morning, I skipped the conference and attended Orthodox services with my brother, where an opaque curtain separates men and women. Surrounded by flowing skirts, I was anonymous, blessedly shut out from the men. This community of women is my community; here I am invisible. And when I go out to play in the working world, the world of men, I must leave behind the fields of flowing skirts and the dividing screen. Even in games I practice every day, the rules remain unnatural, unfamiliar. Even when invited to join the A League, I remain an outlier.

As Shabbat was ending, my brother and I joined the campus gathering of “Take Back the Night,” an international movement to end violence against women. As the speeches began, my brother pointed out the simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. For him, a hearing-impaired social worker battling for those discarded into the Z League, this was a profound symbol of inclusion.

As we walked through the darkening streets and the ASL signs were lost, I mused, “How many and varied are the hierarchies of man and how glorious must be the view from the top.”

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Posted on May 5, 2014

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Let’s Spread Some GOOD News

Dr. Monique Katz, a member of JOFA’s Board of Directors, once shared a d’var Torah that has stuck with me for many years since.

praise vs condemn signsShe pointed out that we spend most of our time trying to initiate changes in our Orthodox community where we see injustice to women vis-à-vis the agunah issue, leadership roles in synagogues and on boards of Jewish institutions, and women’s participation in Jewish rituals. Human nature causes people to dwell on the bad things that happen rather than the good, so our news is just like the newspaperswhen something good happens, we forget to include it in our report. But, Nicky said, when a rabbi makes a change that has a positive effect on women, we must remember to practice hakarat ha’tov—recognizing the good.

I was recently reminded of Nicky’s charge shortly before Passover when I was at Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue for my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. To my great surprise, a woman carried the Torah scroll through the women’s section. It was very moving to watch women kiss the Torah—some for the very first time, and to see their reactions. Once the Torah had been put away, Rabbi Lookstein announced that the woman who had carried the Torah was the vice president of the synagogue and had petitioned him to permit the women to bring this ritual, and kavod (honor), to the women’s section.

I saw Rabbi Lookstein that evening and made a point of going over to him and thanking him for making this change. He told me I was the only one to offer him praise, though he had received numerous negative comments from others.

I think it would make a huge difference if we all remembered to give thanks where and when it is due.

Thank you, Nicky.

We encourage you to give public recognition for good that has been done in your community. Please share your stories here, on JOFA’s Facebook page, or submit a blog entry to thetorch@jofa.org. Most importantly, be sure to thank the change-maker directly. 

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Posted on May 2, 2014

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Like Mother, Like Daughter

gone viralMichal Dicker shares her compelling story of growing into her Orthodox feminist identity. She originally submitted this essay to gain admissions to Barnard College, where she is now a senior, about to submit her senior thesis on the agunah crisis.

“Like mother, like daughter.” This comment often embarrassed me, as I tried to fit in with the girls in my Jewish Orthodox community. I strove to be anything but different—a futile endeavor. Despite my gregariousness, and social graces, my trendy outfits and popular rank, I was branded with an “F”—feminist—thanks to my progressive mom. As I grew older, I thought that I could remain impervious to her convictions but, fortunately for me, I failed. The vast majority of my mom’s opinions began to seem logical. To my own surprise, I found myself advocating her beliefs—specifically in my middle school Judaic classes, where the concept of equal opportunity barely existed. The stirrings of my feminist notions were conceived in a rather convoluted and unconventional manner.

shutterstock_159079187In a class of twelve rambunctious girls who loved to get riled up, I became the resident feminist advocate. Initially, because of my expertise in the field of modern Orthodoxy, and being full of “leftist ideas,” I was the logical choice to play devil’s advocate with our ultra-Orthodox teachers who often stressed male superiority. To the astonishment of my classmates, I grew into the role; what were once strictly my mom’s thoughts and teachings, became my own. The debate with my teachers became a personal crusade to communicate the perspective of my centrist world. Most important to me was advocating the study of Talmud by girls and women, because the Talmud is the foundation for the development of Jewish law (halakha), to which both men and women are subject. I publicly confirmed my feminist beliefs when I took the plunge and read from the Torah to mark my bat mitzvah, a ritual recently revived by some Orthodox women. Although eager to advocate my beliefs, I was unprepared for the social ramifications. Much to my chagrin, I officially became known as “radical”, and I feared ostracism from my peers. I had not yet read The Scarlet Letter, and did not appreciate the concept of a modern-day “Hester.” Despite my display of independence, my good friends did not abandon me.

As I reflect upon this time, I now recognize the crucial role that it played in my personal development. I learned the importance of being psychologically independent; after voicing my “liberal” views, I could not assume that I would be supported. Like my former self, my friends aimed to blend in; many quickly deemed what they did not understand as “erroneous,” a fallacious mindset that still prevails in Jewish Orthodox communities. My indifference to peer pressure proved to be one of my most powerful tools. Both in the classroom and socially, I did not give in to my teachers and peers who did not want to understand. Those who stood by me taught me the importance of genuine friendship.

During this tumultuous time, I also discovered my passion for the pursuit of knowledge—and my adamant refusal to accept anything as fact without research. I attended feminist conferences, joined the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and became dedicated to educating myself and my peers on topics that related to women’s ritual participation and leadership opportunities in Orthodox Judaism. As I entered high school and gained equal access to Judaic texts, I was further inspired to continue on a feminist path. Armed with this power of knowledge and the support of my true friends and family, I have learned to feel comfortable with myself, and confident about my convictions. Now the phrase–“like mother, like daughter”– is the highest form of praise and a badge I wear with pride.

Michal submitted this in response to our call on Facebook for college application essays about Orthodox feminism. If you’ve got an essay sitting somewhere in your files that you’d like to share, send it on over to thetorch@jofa.org.

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Posted on April 29, 2014

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JOFA: Including Men

shocked expressionMy mother-in-law likes to use the expression “you could have knocked me down with a feather.” I can’t quite imagine that happening, but if it’s supposed to mean “shocked beyond words,” then that would have been an apt description of me five years ago, had I known there would soon be a move to nominate men to JOFA‘s Board of Directors. During the first ten years of JOFA’s existence, I don’t think any of us thought twice about the value of an all-female Board. In those days, we felt that the Orthodox establishment was generally so negative towards women, that we needed our own organization to call home. Yes, we had husbands, male friends and a few male supporters who were feminists but this was our space to be the main actors; they were the helpmates.

Well, speed up ten years and a lot has changed. Women are no longer the token members of synagogue and school boards that we once were. Women are officers and even presidents, though there are still too few women leading “name brand” Orthodox organizations. The main reasons JOFA had kept men off the Board of Directors are simply no longer relevant now that there are so many men who are engaged and effective feminists and community activists. What we have learned in the past ten years is that building communities with deep-seated modern Orthodox feminist values requires both women and men who have shared visions of equality, spiritual openness, and intellectual curiosity. Whether a leader lives those values and inspires others to do the same is much more important than that leader’s gender.

So how are we doing it?

First, we’ve decided, at least at this stage, that all members of the Executive Committee and the
majority of the Board will remain women. It is not easy to break down cultural barriers and we want to do it in an organized, intentional manner. We want this to work!

Second, this year, we don’t want to nominate only one man to our Board of Directors, we want at least two, and possibly several men. We do not deal in tokenism and we want that to be clear both from the inside and the outside. Will the conversations remain as spirited, the disagreements as collegial, and the compromises as satisfying? I sure hope so. It’ll depend on whether feminist men have a sense of humor too.

So, if this were even five years ago, you could have knocked me down with a feather, but today, we are an organization that talks the talk and walks the walk. I don’t know if it will guarantee our future but I do know that JOFA now speaks with one voice about our vision of the future. Wouldn’t it be great if other Orthodox organizations did the same and included women as full members of their leadership teams?

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Posted on April 25, 2014

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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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