The Power of Women’s Well Circles


Women's well circleAs the sun began to set on a Friday night in June, 15 professional women in their 20s & 30s gathered in a gazebo to sing and welcome in Shabbat. The gazebo was next to an organic vegetable garden and overlooked a beautiful field that was surrounded by the woods. Most of us traveled about an hour to get to the Am Kollel Sanctuary Retreat Center in Beallsville, Maryland. Others came from San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and New York. We gathered for the At the Well East Coast retreat.

Women's well circle yogaThis was a retreat in its truest sense of the word: out of the city, , fresh air, a respite in nature from our hectic lives, delicious Shabbat meals cooked by DC chef and baker Julia Kann, morning yoga, small group conversations and a hike. On Shabbat, we had an opportunity to both study a Torah text about the spring holiday of Shavuot in which ancient Israelites offered the first fruits of their labors at the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as learn about women’s cycles as they connect to the phases of the moon and the seasons.

It was also what At the Well’s founder and chief momma Sarah Waxman called a “Meeting of Minds and Hearts.” After Shabbat, we turned our attention to the organization, hearing Sarah’s mission and vision for supporting groups of women (called Well Circles) who gather monthly to learn about Jewish spirituality and health and wellness. These Well Circles meet all over the country. Sarah sends out a monthly resource packet that is gorgeously designed with teachings about each Hebrew month, poetry, suggestions for discussions and activities to do in one’s Well Circle, ancient wisdom and modern day intentions. The idea of the Well Circle is part ancient gathering in celebration of Rosh Chodesh, the holiday of the new moon/first of each Hebrew month, and part modern Lean In circle.

Having been part of Rosh Chodesh circles on and off for the better part of a decade and having led my own Rosh Chodesh group in New Haven for two years, I was thrilled to connect with the At The Well project just as Sarah was launching it. Over the past eight months, I’ve been a rabbinic adviser to the project—writing for some of its monthly resources, supporting the cause and co-sponsoring the retreat with IFF/DC. While I love this project for what it is, I also love it for what it can be—and that the mission is expansive enough to support Jewish women and those female-identified in their 20s and 30s, as well as women from interfaith homes or in interfaith relationships, those who are exploring Judaism or conversion and even women of other faiths or no religion at all who are interested in what Jewish wisdom has to teach us about reconnecting with our bodies and our souls.

Well Circle b&wThe ample time for one-on-one and small group conversations allowed participants to share their own stories. One woman who grew up in an interfaith household and did not have as much Jewish education as a child as she wanted, told me how much more comfortable she felt at the retreat just because I was there, knowing IFF/DC was part of it. She is moving to New York for graduate school in the fall and going to reach out to a former friend and mentor to explore Jewish learning.

Another woman I met who grew up in a more traditional Jewish household recently married a man of another faith. I told her more about IFF/DC, our Love and Religion workshops and Interfaith Shabbat dinner meet-ups. I also spoke with a woman who is exploring what Judaism means to her; having been very involved with Jewish life on campus she is no longer interested in institutional Judaism. She is in the process of figuring out her own connection to Judaism in her life now and how to share that with her boyfriend who is not Jewish. I look forward to continuing this and many other conversations.

As I listened to each participant speak about her journey, I realized over and over how important it is that our Jewish spaces be open enough to have these kinds of conversations. I am so glad that the At the Well project can be one of those spaces.

I know there are more women who are looking for intentional community, looking for peers to discuss and learn with, who may want to become part of a Well Circle. If you are, please get in touch with me at or reach out to Sarah Waxman for more info and to receive the monthly teachings at

The At the Well East Coast Retreat was co-sponsored by the Schusterman Family Foundation, InterfaithFamily/DC and Jewish Food Experience. Learn more at

8 Reasons to Tune in Shaboom!


I have had the pleasure of watching Shaboom!, the new video series that BimBam Productions has created. InterfaithFamily/Chicago recently helped launch the video series at a few viewing parties around town. In all cases, the kids enjoyed the debut eight-minute video and the parents did as well. It’s catchy, colorful and has a great message. Everyone learns how to say one value in Hebrew and experiences how to apply it to our lives with realistic scenarios.

This is the first of the video series (you can see more below).

Here are my eight thoughts about this eight-minute video:

1. It’s important to learn Jewish values in Hebrew. The first video teaches the mitzvah (mitzvah literally means commandment, and is also thought about as ritual and ethical sacred deeds) of hachnast orchim—welcoming guests. Do other religions and cultures teach this same value? Absolutely. However, Judaism has our own texts about this value, quotes on it and vocabulary for it. We could teach our children to be good hosts. And, we can teach them to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. I do believe there is a difference. When we talk about the latter, we feel connected, grounded, deeper, more spiritual, perhaps, and urged to do it in a different way than talking about a more universal idea of graciousness.

By knowing the Jewish approach to a value, the Jewish sensibility around it and the Hebrew words for it, it helps us live a life where we can point to the positive things we do that are specifically and particularly Jewish. Sometimes as a liberal Jew, it is hard to know what I “do” that is Jewish and this is one way in.

2. The show depicts racial diversity in the Jewish world. One spark is brown and one is pale. They are both Jewish and teaching about Judaism. This normalizes and makes visible people in Jewish communities and in Jewish families who have different color skin and different racial make-ups. It isn’t the point of the show and it isn’t talked about or an issue. This is simply Judaism. Children growing up today with Judaism in their lives know that you can’t “look” Jewish in terms of physical appearance.

3. Jews believe in angels. The main characters are invisible sparks (we’ll get to that next) but they also have wings. The word angel in Hebrew is translated as messenger and there are many messengers throughout the Bible.

As Rabbi Elliot Dorff reminds us, “the existence of angels is a Jewish notion,” and “if we do not make …angels idols, or pray to them as if they can replace God, then talk of angels is a helpful personification of the workings of God in our lives.” (My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 7, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, pp. 69-70).

The angels in these videos are named Rafael and Gabi from Gabriel or Gabriella. There is a special prayer for protection in Jewish tradition that is said at night and includes the words:

In the name of Adonai the God of Israel:
May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael…
and above my head the Sh’khinah (Divine Presence).

4. Jewish Mysticism Teaches That Sparks Are Invisible: These cute little characters who have wings are known as invisible sparks in this show. This hearkens to the mystical notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) which teaches that when God created the world, God’s light shattered into millions and billions of sparks or vessels that are spread all over. When we do mitzvot (good deeds), we free the sparks and send them back to a broken God who gets unified in the process. You never know if your good deed is the last one needed to bring complete healing and redemption to God and the world. I actually love the idea that God is fundamentally broken like we are and that we are partners in the task of repair. We yearn for God and God yearns for us.

5. We Are Attached to Screens: In the video, one spark teaches the other about welcoming guests by showing her to turn off her television when a friend comes over. Similarly, the mom and son in the Ploney family has to turn off the video games they are playing to hear the doorbell. Children as young as toddlers are staring at a screen for much of their day. We have to be taught to put it down or turn it off for human interaction. I am attached to my phone and I do see the toll it takes on my eyes, my posture and my level of distraction. Being aware is the first step to change, right?

6. Ploney is Used on Purpose: Ploney is used in the Talmud as a kind of John Doe. By calling the family the Ploneys, it is a clear reference to Talmud study.

7. Shabbat is Important: The family is coming together to welcome a relative from Israel to their Shabbat table. Shababt is about family, screen-free time and being connected. The reason the Jewish world spends so much money and resources on getting people together over Shabbat for dinners and services is because we still believe one hundred years later as Ahad Ha’am the Israeli poet wrote, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.”

8. There are Layers to Jewish Learning: When I first watched the video, I was upset because I got the references I have mentioned here but figured many parents and kids who watch this won’t. I felt it reinforced the secret hand-shake of Judaism with insiders and outsiders. I worry that Judaism is hard to get into and that learning is often presented in such a pediatric way with coloring sheets that adults with little Jewish literacy or current connections to Jewish institutions don’t have many opportunities for real study to get to the good stuff.

But I realize that good family programming touches the viewers on different levels based on their age and life experiences. And I realized that the show is perfect because it shows the way Judaism approaches study. “Pardes” refers to different approaches to biblical understanding in rabbinic Judaism or to interpretation of text in Torah study. The term, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the same initials of the following four approaches:

  • Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “surface” (“straight”) or the literal (direct) meaning.[1]
  • Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
  • Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
  • Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘sore’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the esoteric/mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.


So, this eight-minute video can be taken on any of these levels. Now that you’ve read this, how do you watch it? What will you say to your children?

Here are Shaboom videos 2-5. Stay tuned for 6-11!

Thank You, Source of Stuff: A Gratitude Practice for Kids


Boy eating chicken legWhen my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.

My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.

As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.

Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:

A toast to those who made this wine!
¡Un saludo a los que hicieron este vino!

Wine bottle with glassTo the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
Al unidad-sagrado-de-todo quien hizo una creacion que nos da frutas dulces para gozar la boca, los ojos, y el nariz

To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
A los quienes invertieron su passion, sus suenos, y sus fondos al negocio del vino

To those who plowed the fields
A los quienes araron la tierra

To those who planted the vines
A los sembradores de los vides

To those who tended the vines
A los cultivadores de vides

To those who picked the grapes
Alos quienes sacaron las uvas

To those who fermented the fruit
A los que hicieron el vino

To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
A los limpiadores y cuidadores de la fabrica

To those who bottled the wine
A los que lo pusieron en botellas

To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
A los que metieron a las botellas en las trocas y que las cargaron

To those who sold the wine
A los que lo vendieron

And to those who served the wine here this evening!
¡Y a los que sirvieron el vino esta noche!

We give you our thanks!
¡Les agradecemos!

This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.

Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)

Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”

These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.

Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.

Time to Junk Jewish Jargon?


You’re at a social or family gathering when someone starts throwing around a bunch of Jewish gobblygook you don’t understand. One guy is talking about a cool, new “minyan” in town and you’re picturing this guy.


Someone else is talking about her “boobie” and you wonder if this is really too intimate a conversation for a party (Bubbie = Yiddish for Grandmother). Has this ever happened to you? A few minutes into a conversation among people who are Jewishly identified, and you’re likely to hear a little Yiddish, maybe bits of Hebrew or references to things that would be obscure outside of a Jewish context. Jews love Jewish jargon. Even some who aren’t Jewish love it (Check out Ed Begley Jr. turning on the Yiddish in the film, A Mighty Wind).

Some throw around Jewish jargon without realizing it and assume everyone understands. It is just part and parcel of being immersed in a civilization with a particular set of texts, languages, history and cultural terminology. They might feel that a Jewish context—a Jewish Community Center, synagogue or Jewish home—is a place where they can let their pent-up inner Jew run free. Jewish jargon can signal in-group solidarity as well. To be honest, though, I think others use it so they sound “in the know” or to purposely alienate someone else—which is unfortunate.

Whether intended or not, the result of Jewish insider-speak is that it can alienate people who aren’t Jewish and often even those who are. Judaism often seems like a club for the initiated. But we are becoming so diverse that one can’t expect even in Jewish places that everyone shares a common knowledge base anymore. And with the growing numbers of intermarried couples involved in Jewish life, there are bound to be a significant portion of people at any given Jewish happening who weren’t raised with Judaism.

I am hearing more and more often that if the Jewish community wants to be truly welcoming of interfaith couples, we need to make sure people don’t feel alienated by insider-speak, and that we should eliminate or curb some of our Jewish particularisms. Some even think that since we don’t want to create situations that make people stand out as unknowledgeable, we might want to tone down Hebrew in services to make them more universal. I remember speaking with one interfaith couple in which the partner who isn’t Jewish felt this way, remarking that he’ll never feel comfortable in a space where there is so much Hebrew because it’s not welcoming to him.

To become a truly welcoming Jewish community, do we need to become, well, a little less Jewish? Is it time to junk Jewish jargon?

Absolutely not. Judaism can be both welcoming and uniquely Jewish. My grandparents and parents grew up in the American melting pot era. Anyone “different,” including Jews, tried to play down their uniqueness and blend in. But we live in a very different time. We wouldn’t dream of asking any other minority, ethnic or religious group to abandon the very particulars that make it unique. In fact, most of us find these differences among us to be the interesting byproducts of living in a multi-cultural society (and maybe even what attracted us to our partners who come from a different background!).

So why would we rob Judaism of what makes it Jewish? Contemporary Judaism is more and more open to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and we are enriched by the diversity of people who are being drawn to Jewish life. That may mean that we can no longer assume we are all in on the jargon. But it doesn’t mean we have to dilute it. Instead, here are a few suggestions to make Judaism more welcoming while retaining its unique flavor, and some others that might help those less knowledgeable about Jewish life navigate Jewish jargon moments.


Translate. Does your mother-in-law talk about the machatenem (the other set of parents-in-law)? Whether you’re speaking at a party or speaking from the bima, take a page from our InterfaithFamily website. We always hyperlink words that might not be known (point in case: bima).  What if we all talked this way, offering subtle explanations just in case someone needs it? The worst that can happen is that everyone nods as if to say, “We already know.” Far better than the alternative: making someone feel that he or she is the only one who doesn’t.

Explain. You never know if people have the same cultural or religious contexts you do, so it’s always a good idea to explain what you mean when talking about ideas particular to a certain field or group of people.

Transliterate. Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish and Ladino are hallmarks of our rich, Jewish cultures. Let’s not abandon them. Instead, transliterate as a regular practice—whether it is a synagogue handout or a wedding booklet.


Ask for help. If you are in need of more contextual information to make sense of something that was said, don’t be scared to ask for an explanation. You will be reminding the speaker that not everyone shares her or his knowledge and you may be saving the next listener from the same situation. Don’t just continue to nod as if you know—Judaism is a tradition with thousands of years of history, text and language. No one knows it all—even the person who’s speaking.

Don’t apologize. You have vast areas of knowledge that others don’t possess. There is nothing wrong, embarrassing or shameful about not knowing something!

Be open to learning. Judaism is a rich and complex tradition. Don’t assume that something within it isn’t meant for you. Delve in and learn something new or try to follow along in the transliterated Hebrew. Give it a try rather than expecting Judaism to cut out the pieces you don’t yet understand.

As our society and our families become more diverse, we are in the wonderful position of celebrating rather than diminishing our differences. So go ahead…embrace what is yours and learn about what isn’t. It’s a mechiah! (A great relief or blessing.)

The Importance of Jewish Education


I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:

Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”

Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.

I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.

Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!

It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.

On Different Hebrew Pronunciation…


A friend of mine, Amanda, is writing some articles for, explaining the different ways different people pronounce, translate and transliterate (write with English letters) Hebrew. The first article just went up: The Case of the Missing Sav, and other mysteries in the transition of American Hebrew. But in addition to that, I wanted to share an article that didn’t make it into her final draft.

Wait. Let me back up. One of the sources cited in her article was Alan Mintz’s Hebrew in America: perspectives and prospects. In it he writes,

I am not convinced that the American teaching agenda [of Hebrew] must be set by a dependence on Israeli teachers.

I agree! And I suspect that many parents who have or had children try to learn Hebrew in a synagogue’s religious or Hebrew school would also agree. Fluency in a language does not necessarily a teacher make.

But his argument goes on to explain, as Amanda’s article paraphrases, that in America:

Camps, schools and other infrastructure existed to teach children Ashkenazi Hebrew, in addition to it being the language of synagogues’ prayers. The transition to Sephardi pronunciation was gradual, and was aided by growing feelings of Zionism, the availability of Hebrew courses on college campuses taught in Sephardi Hebrew, sometimes by Israeli instructors, and other factors.

So what does that mean? The majority of Jews in the U.S. are of German and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi). Many of them spoke Hebrew with their community’s pronunciation, which included pronouncing some “t” sounds (the Hebrew letter tav) as “s” (sav), “o” sometimes became “oy”, and “a” sometimes was “o.” There were many other differences too. (Which we’ll be sharing a resource on shortly!)

Sometimes, because of the push to standardize Hebrew in the U.S., fuelled, in part, by Zionism and a desire to align our Diaspora Jewish communities with Israel, the “old school,” Ashkenazi pronunciations are seen as backwards, stupid, and sloppy. I strongly diagree. In fact, I call that bullshis. (See what I did there?)

And here we return to the article that didn’t make the cut. Because she, and I, found it offensive. It’s archived from a URJ email discussion list, and we don’t know much about it. But the author, Burt, says in part:

Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of “pleasure principle”, but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.

If you want to read his rant, by all means. But I’ll stop quoting there. In essence, he argues that this historical, cultural, familial Hebrew pronunciation system should be squashed once and for all. He wants to see all Americans using the Hebrew pronunciation of Israel.

Would that simplify things, help folks learn? Perhaps. Perhaps it would be less confusing if we all referred to the 25 hours of Friday evening through Saturday night as “Shabbat” instead of some people saying “Shabbos.” But then, doesn’t learning about our multitude of cultures and histories make us a stronger, deeper, more enriched community as a whole? When we recognize that there is more than one way to speak or pronounce Hebrew, just as there is more than one way to be or do Jewish, just as there is more than one way to claim Judaism as our own… the whole community benefits.