Rosh Hodesh–It’s for Everyone

By Diana Zankowsky


Standing outside in a large circle, surrounded by majestic redwood trees, 22 women have linked arms and are swaying companionably while singing Debbie Friedman’s “Lechi Lach” (the Journey Song). A few are sniffling, one is playing the guitar and many are smiling. This is Sunday afternoon, the end of a successful weekend retreat. Women from three synagogue communities, and a few who are unaffiliated, have joined together for a weekend of worship, study, connecting, laughing, crying, singing, hiking, arts and crafts, creative dramatics and discussions. The environment is rustic and all of the activities are self-led. How have we managed to make this event work for more than a dozen years?

The secret to our success lies in our willingness to include everyone regardless of faith and affiliation. The continuity comes from a core group of women who meet regularly during the year and form the heart of this annual Jewish retreat.

Rosh Hodesh quilt
One corner of Diana’s Rosh Hodesh group’s calendar quilt.

Rosh Hodesh is the Hebrew name for the holiday on the first (the head) of each month, according to the Jewish calendar. Historically, it was determined by observation, the appearance of the new moon as just the faintest of slivers, and the sighting was celebrated with a festival. The rabbis in the Talmud determined that women were exempt from work on Rosh Hodesh because they had refused to contribute their jewelry to the making of the biblical Golden Calf.

Once the rabbis developed a formula for determining the Hebrew calendar mathematically, the importance of Rosh Hodesh diminished. By the 20th century, only the most observant Jews kept track of Rosh Hodesh’s additional liturgy and other minor customs. With the development of women’s spirituality, however, some women began to reclaim this holiday as their own, creating interesting rituals and activities.

The careful reader will notice that I said “some women.” I didn’t say, “some Jewish women.” That omission is intentional. In my community our Rosh Hodesh group is an interfaith group.

My community, Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, Calif., started a Rosh Hodesh group more than 15 years ago. The Rosh Hodesh group established a focus that included ritual celebrations, Jewish learning (about holidays, food, observance, Jewish women) and telling our personal stories. We meet monthly in our homes or at the synagogue, taking turns at leading the program and, of course, providing refreshments.

Congregation Shir Ami is such a small Reform congregation that we were reluctant to exclude anyone. So we didn’t. We welcomed women who weren’t members of our synagogue. It turned out that our group became an avenue for some to eventually join the congregation. We have welcomed women in their 30s and women in their 80s. We’ve welcomed women who aren’t Jewish to our group. And most of us, Jews and non-Jews, have increased our Jewish knowledge and practice as we have taught ourselves what we wanted to know and what we wanted to teach one another.

An example might show how our group works. Rosh Hodesh is a monthly holiday that celebrates the new moon. Easy enough, so we thought in the beginning, until we tried to understand the Jewish calendar, which can be quite confusing. One woman researched the calendar and presented her findings to the group. We had fun in another month playing with Jewish astrology, in a session led by a second woman, looking at symbols and how they align with the Jewish months. Later in the year, we looked at the biblical text that described the original Rosh Hodesh festival.

Then, during one of our annual retreat weekends, we created a calendar quilt. Each month had its own square and we filled out the quilt with squares for the major holidays. Eighteen women were involved in the creation and more than a third of the squares were created by women in interfaith partnerships. The quilt is a permanent decoration in the synagogue.

Each monthly meeting is only two hours long and fairly structured, since we always have a topical program, monthly rituals and refreshments. Our annual retreat provides us with a way to connect in a more extended and intensive manner. It gives us time and opportunity to build friendships and we make a special effort to be as inclusive and as welcoming as we can.

But why do the women return to the retreat? According to Harriet, “I return to the retreat each year because it is the one weekend a year that I can dedicate to myself–my well-being–and to challenging me. I look forward to spending quality time with my women friends and learning more about them and myself through the activities that are planned.” Ruth adds, “It offers a rare opportunity to focus on ourselves … most of us are committed to service to our families and communities, but we don’t often get the chance to spend an entire weekend looking at our own intellectual and spiritual development, our relationships, or our goals and dreams.”

Another person who came on the retreat, Angie, said, “As a non-Jewish woman, there were several reasons I attended the retreat. First was the warm inviting nature of the Shir Ami women, who encouraged me to join the inspirational experience. Second, I was at a time in my life, after raising my children as Jewish, I was looking to define my Jewish identity. I wanted to explore my feelings on whether to pursue a more formal Jewish education. Third, and very importantly, were the casual friendships that developed into deeper fuller relationships. The women of Shir Ami have become one of my best support systems. Now as I study for my conversion, I look forward to this year’s retreat and connecting with the other women of Shir Ami.”

On many levels, the retreat serves to bring women into our community. We’ve consciously addressed the potential barriers imposed by age, affiliation, faith, knowledge and our busy 21st century lives to create Jewish connections for many women. Our next opportunity to come together will be our retreat on the weekend of Feb. 20-22, 2009. And we are eagerly anticipating that time together.


About Diana Zankowsky

Diana Zankowsky (nee Jacobson) was raised in New Jersey, went to college in Massachusetts and California, and now lives in the Bay Area of northern California. She is married (31 years) with two grown children, runs her own consulting business and is on the board of her synagogue.