New Rosh Chodesh Women's Group Attracts Diverse Participation
By Rebecca S. Cohen
On the afternoon of October 18, 2015, the Sunday following the beginning of the month of Cheshvan, a rounded bowl with tealight candles floating in water cast a lunar-like glow into the modest multipurpose chapel at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI).
Although it was midday, the flickering candles were intended to evoke the bonfire light that spread word to Jews in the ancient world that Rosh Chodesh had arrived. Our tradition teaches that the appearance of the new moon (Rosh Chodesh literally means the head of the new [month]) signified the arrival of a special festival to honor the women of Israel for not surrendering their jewelry to build the golden calf after the exodus from Egypt. In Austin, Jewish women ranging in age from their 30s to 80s and representing a broad spectrum of the community gathered to explore this tradition.
Louisa Hoberman and pediatrician, Dr. Lauren Kacir, led the group, through a series of opening prayers and the reading of a brit (covenant) the writing of which was facilitated by Rabbi Gail Swedroe of Congregation Agudas Achim (CAA) to highlight the importance of the sacred space being created by the 35 attendees. “We honor this unique sacred space as being a moment precious in time.”
Hoberman saw to it that the prayers and brit were offered as handouts and projected onto a screen positioned in front of rows of chairs arranged in concentric semi-circles. Kacir says Hobeman is the more organized of the two and that she herself prefers to “riff” extemporaneously, although it was Kacir’s longstanding interest in the study of midrash that determined the session’s content. The two women together led a Rosh Chodesh group at CBI until a year ago.
In fact more than half of the women present had attended prior Rosh Chodesh celebrations. They contributed eagerly to a lively dialogue led by CBI’s Rabbi Rebecca Epstein which included the reading of midrashim based on the Torah passage Lech L’cha and the opportunity to create a personal exegesis based on the text. When asked if the energetic level of participation surprised her, Kacir said, “I have a high opinion of the women in our Jewish community. I expected them to be bold.” Her job, she said, was simply to create an environment where they could feel comfortable expressing themselves.
“This was such a gratifying occasion,” added Hoberman.
Ilene Gray, who identifies herself as the “coordinator” rather than “leader” of this new community-wide program also addressed the group. This summer Gray, recently retired from a series of jobs working with and on behalf of people with disabilities, approached Rabbi Amy Cohen at Congregation Beth Shalom with the notion of “bringing diverse groups [of women] together around something important.” From June through August she facilitated multiple planning sessions and e-mail exchanges in preparation for the first gathering. The planning committee she assembled includes four of Austin’s six female rabbis, including Rabbi Anna Gray Beroll, chaplain at Seton Medical Center, as well as lay leaders from diverse segments of the community. As might be expected, they offered differing points of view. “People came with a very clear idea of what Rosh Chodesh meant to them…and not just to them, but what it should be to everyone.” Suggestions ranged from text study to sacred dance, from providing babysitting to just wanting to nosh and socialize. They reflected, as well, on the approach of different branches of Judaism.
Eventually general guidelines were agreed upon. Each lay leader who is asked or volunteers to lead a session will select a rabbi or other authority as a partner to help inform her approach to the material she wishes to explore. The brit will be read each time. Sessions will be held from 2-3:30 p.m. on the Sunday of or following the new moon, and light refreshments might follow. While the calendar indicates the new month of Kislev begins the evening of November 12, 2015 Rosh Chodesh Kislev will be celebrated on Sunday, November 15, which, appropriately enough, corresponds with this year’s Global Day of Jewish Learning whose theme is “fostering Jewish unity, empowering individuals through increased Jewish knowledge, and creating meaningful shared experiences.”
The location will shift each month to physically represent the inclusive nature of the program. The decision to appoint or solicit different lay leaders for each Rosh Chodesh pretty much guarantees that in the months to come there will be something for everyone.
Lisa Pavati, who was present for Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, will lead the next celebration. The long bright blue-green print skirt and brilliant green shirt and shawl she wore seemed to set her apart from the more conservatively attired women around her and wordlessly hinted that change was forthcoming. Pavati will include meditation, movement, singing and dancing as part of her program. And there may be drumming. She collects percussion instruments and will bring some of them with her. “We’ll be very experiential in our senses and in our bodies, not just cerebral, but integrating bodies, mind and spirit and our connection with ourselves and each other. …For me, I’d like to see us in a full circle rather than a crescent facing a screen.” There should be more than enough room in the JCC’s Early Childhood Program Multipurpose Room on the Dell Jewish Community Campus where the next Rosh Chodesh ceremony will be held.
Pavati’s thoughtful, even mystical approach comes from leading transformational workshops for 25 years and her current interest in sustainability, holistic wellness and community. She is involved in Austin’s Jewish Community through Selah, the south Austin outreach project that is part of CAA. “For me, one of the things I love about Rosh Chodesh is that we’re incubating Jewish traditions and teachings and culture with our own unique experiences as individuals, as women, bringing forth the wisdom we’re holding individually and culturally, and discussing it in a Jewish context.”
Gray’s assumptions are that the next Rosh Chodesh ceremony will attract both returnees as well as newcomers. Pavati hopes for more ethnic diversity and anticipates she will reach out to even younger women while stressing her intention to include and accommodate all attendees, even those who may prefer to sit and listen rather than dance. “In Jewish events we get to much cerebral stimulation. It’s great. I love my intellect. But there’s so much more richness to dive into than just talking about text.” At the same time she has begun to study the specific ideas that surround Kislev which she describes as “a time of darkness and dreams.”
For her part, Ilene Gray is hoping that the connections among the demographically diverse population of women in Austin will be deepened. That people will grow. When asked if would be participants need to study or to bring a particular skill or mindset to future Rosh Chodesh ceremonies, she says, “I don’t think they do. I think they just need to bring their authentic selves and a willingness to be open and care and listen and learn.”