It had been an unusually stressful week, so I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I checked into the Hilton Hotel in Woodland Hills, California on a recent Friday afternoon. Normally, there's no place I'd rather be on Friday afternoons than my own home, as I count the minutes until I light my Shabbat candles and bask in the glow of a sanctified oasis in time. Those last hours before Shabbat are a mixture of stress (How is it possible I still have two vegetables to cook but only 45 minutes left?) and joyful anticipation.
Shabbat means to "stop" or "cease." These days, who doesn't need to cease and desist from the incessant barrage of workweek demands? What a gift to be able to just say no to 25 hours worth of phone calls, texts, emails, assignments, bills and other demands. On Shabbat, to borrow from a phrase, we "let go and let God."
The Jewish world is too-often segregated into enclaves.
My Hilton stay was no random act of getting away from it all. I went to join an innovative gathering called the Shabbat of Unity, organized by the Jewish Women’s Initiative (JWI), an eclectic coalition of more than 100 Jewish women representing all flavors of observance, including the marginally-affiliated and members of Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues. The Jewish world is too segregated into its own little enclaves. As someone who lives in a bit of an orthodox bubble, I was excited to meet other Jewish women whose paths might not otherwise cross my own.
I felt the excitement and energy all around me from the moment I arrived and was handed my name tag and "welcome" bag. Many of the women had already met one another, having gone on one of the TAG (Transform and Grow) Israel trips sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (www.jwrp.org), spearheaded by Aish.com’s phenomenal Lori Palatnik. To date, more than 2,000 women from 40 cities and 7 different countries have gone on these life-changing trips.
Based on the women I met at this Shabbaton, the impact of these trips has been profound. Even those whose Israel trips had been two years earlier were still highly charged about their personal spiritual journeys, and eager to continue nurturing the friendships that first blossomed in Jerusalem. Many of the women have embraced new-to-them Jewish values and traditions such as baking challah, lighting candles, and some regular form of Torah study. They introduce Jewish practice into their lives according to what their intuitive feminine wisdom tells them is right for their families. To stay connected, they formed the JWI, a new women’s division of Aish HaTorah Los Angeles, under the leadership of two wonderful teachers I am proud to know: Chana Heller and Sharon Shenker.
While the TAG Israel trips are the rocket that launches this energy and motivation for Jewish involvement, in Los Angeles, the JWI and its programs keeps it flying. Under Chana’s and Sharon’s leadership, the JWI offers a monthly "growth group" and weekly classes. Sharon explained, "Jewish moms are the ones who are stoking the fires. If you inspire a woman you inspire a family, and if you inspire enough families you inspire a community. Judaism’s primary base is in the home, not the synagogue."
The Shabbat of Unity was also conceived and run by the women of the JWI as a way to connect with other orthodox women in addition to the teachers they had met in Israel and through their local classes. As I lit my little tea lights in the hotel dining room that Friday night amid a sparkling array of flickering flames, I heard one woman softly help another with the blessing over the candles. During our Shabbat service, we sang together, welcoming the "Sabbath queen." At dinner, I spoke with a woman who has been touched deeply by the new Jewish ideas she has learned, but isn't optimistic that her husband, who works seven days a week, will soon share her inspiration. Yet she perseveres, knowing that she needs to nurture herself. She hopes the rest will follow.
Throughout ice-breaker getting-to-know-you exercises, and listening to the stories and enthusiasm of the women who took turns speaking about their experiences, I learned that what we have in common as Jewish women is far greater than what might set us apart. That was a message I heard over and over again from other women, too.
Phyllis Shinbane echoed these thoughts. "I came to the weekend with expectations of how many differences there would be between us, and came to realize quickly how similar we all are in so many ways. I love experiencing that."
For Amy Somers, the Israel experience was just the beginning. She attends the monthly growth group and occasionally a weekly class about various Jewish topics, such as the meaning of dreams in the Torah, and the meaning behind the prayers. She also attends a Shabbat service called "Nashuva" run by a conservative rabbi, which she refers to as "Judaism from the heart.”
Amy began lighting Shabbat candles and baking challah – special mitzvahs associated with Jewish women. "I drive the Jewish train in my house," she said. "Sometimes my family is on the train, sometimes they get off at some station and then get on again. But as long as I stay on the train I believe it will have impact."
The feeling of unity in the room was palpable.
Like many of the other weekend participants, Amy loved the guest speaker, Toronto-based Adrienne Gold, who comes from a secular background and spoke movingly about her transition from a career in television and the fashion industry to observant Judaism. "Adrienne was such a wonderful surprise," Amy said. "I grew to really appreciate her and found her incredibly relatable, like an inspiring girlfriend." I smiled as Amy confessed, "I used to be a casting director, and I wondered if some of the religious women had been professionally cast. They had phenomenal personalities, and they were open to being asked questions."
The observant contingent, myself included, was thrilled to make new connections, to discover some of our stereotypes about others were wrong, and to gain inspiration from the enthusiasm and energy of our new friends. Beth Firestone remarked, "This was an unexpectedly emotional weekend for me. Many times I found myself choked up or teary-eyed. There is something bigger than all of us going on here with Jewish women. These women have so much energy and spirit. They truly inspire me, and hopefully they felt inspired by some of us. Bringing the communities together was a win-win for both groups. The feeling of unity in the room was palpable."
Sarah Weintraub added, "Shabbat with the JWI women was magical. I was so impressed with everyone’s passion for bringing values into their homes. I encouraged my daughter to come from New York for this event. She was blown away. There is so much power in creating a community of women devoted to learning, laughing and growing. Wow."
The energized members of the JWI are so driven to offer the JWRP Israel experience to other women (the trips are heavily subsidized), that they are doing what Jews have successfully done through the ages: fundraising. Their current project is a cookbook called "Try It, You'll Like It," whose recipes have come from the members of the JWI and which will be out in time for Mother's Day. The cookbook committee, spearheaded by the exuberant Sheri Levy, who I am guessing was a motivational speaker in a previous life, has already pre-sold more than 500 copies. (Note to self: Get these women to help me publicize my next book!)
The weekend also worked because it was a blend of meaningful discussions, classes, relaxed meals and fun. Saturday night we broke out the games, and I had no idea that Mah jong had so many ardent fans. I laughed my head off playing Scattegories, and commandeered the mic during Karaoke, doing my best Springsteen imitation of "Born in the U.S.A." It could be the first time in history that a woman did that in a skirt and kerchief. But hey, the Boss used to wear a bandana in the old days, too.
Just because a woman may not keep kosher doesn't mean she isn't deeply committed to spiritual growth.
I left the weekend feeling energized and refreshed. I know from my own journey that the path to spiritual growth takes much time, effort and patience. But if you keep at it, you can mine a spiritual reservoir that may have lain dormant for years and build a deeper, richer and more meaningful life. I was reminded that just as many less-observant women may have had preconceived notions about what I might be like (would I be judgmental? A fuddy duddy?), I had forgotten that just because a woman may not light candles or keep kosher doesn't mean she isn't deeply committed to spiritual growth. I was happy to be reminded of that. I think it was no coincidence that the Shabbaton took place so close to Purim, a holiday where we remember that in some sense, we all wear masks, and what appears on the surface hides the true person within.
For me, the weekend’s main message was driven home by Carolyn Ormond, who had gone to Israel with JWRP in 2011. She said her Jewish growth was "about becoming a better person in relationship to your parents, your spouse, your children, your everyday activities, and how you see yourself. It changed me in a big way. For example, I now call my parents every day just to check in with them, and when I got together with friends recently, I was careful to avoid saying anything gossipy." Her connection with her JWRP friends also extends to a Sunday walking group, a book club, Mah Jong games, girls' nights out and couples' nights out. "We have a special bond."
Carolyn remembers that on her Israel trip, she once referred to herself as a Reform Jew. "You're not a Reform Jew,” the group leader said. “We're all Jews, period."
It was amazing and uplifting to share a weekend with other Jewish women where all the labels fell away and we were all “just Jews.”