2016-03-16 / Voice at the Shore

Jewish women celebrate Purim, Rosh Chodesh and their new place at the Kotel

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore correspondent


From left: Marcia Fiedler, Sherrie Greenfield, and Barbara Harvis make challah during a Rosh Chodesh gathering at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor. The monthly gatherings are open to all women in the community. From left: Marcia Fiedler, Sherrie Greenfield, and Barbara Harvis make challah during a Rosh Chodesh gathering at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor. The monthly gatherings are open to all women in the community. This month, Jewish women have cause to celebrate.

That was the consensus among women in the Beth Judah Rosh Chodesh group, a Jewish women’s group that meets monthly at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor. Led by Ellie Kremer, wife of Rabbi Jonathan Kremer, the group recently held a lively discussion to celebrate the start of the Jewish month of Adar.

“Adar is a special month for Jewish women because of Purim and the special role of Esther,” said Ellie Kremer. Rosh Chodesh, which literally means “head month,” is a Jewish holiday for women that occurs on the first day of the Jewish month, at the birth of the new moon. Beth Judah’s Rosh Chodesh gatherings, which are open to women throughout the community, typically draw anywhere from eight to 20 people each month. The Rosh Chodesh group celebrates the holiday with a variety of programs, including several that have involved making food for homebound congregants as well as hats and scarves for children with cancer.

Although the Adar discussion group didn’t involve traditional “women’s activities,” it did focus on many topics of primary concern to women. One of those was the Israeli government’s recent decision to create an official egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel in Israel, which the group saw as yet another cause for celebration this Adar.

“It was a historic week in Israel,” said group member Deborah Stern, referring to the Israeli government’s landmark decision to sanction an expanded egalitarian worship area that will include government-funded Torah scrolls, which are currently not allowed in the Orthodox-controlled women’s section of the Kotel. Stern, a retired cantor, has long been a member of Women of the Wall, a group that has taken the lead in fighting for women’s right to read Torah and wear tallit in the women’s section of the Kotel.

But even aside from current events, said Kremer, women have reason to be happy this month because, traditionally, “Adar is a month for merrymaking.” Moreover, because this year includes the Jewish leap month of Adar II, the merrymaking carries on for an additional month, which means more time for making hamantaschen as well as an additional Rosh Chodesh celebration.

According to Midrash, Jewish women were given the holiday of Rosh Chodesh—a monthly holiday when they did not have to work—as a reward for not allowing the men to use their jewelry in the creation of the Golden Calf, said Kremer.

This women’s holiday took on renewed significance—and became especially popular—in the 1970s. “Rosh Chodesh started becoming popular in the 1970s because of the women’s movement. I was there!” said Cantor Stern. “At that time, women weren’t counted in a minyan in the Conservative movement—that took a good 10 years longer—so we started a Rosh Chodesh minyan for women.”

Purim’s Queen Esther—the quintessential Jewish heroine— actually helped to pave the way for egalitarian prayer in modern times. Because Esther, a woman, is so central to the story of Purim, women have long had an obligation to hear the Megillah read. Building upon this, Conservative congregations nudged open the door to egalitarian-led prayer by allowing women to read the Megillah. “This was the first step into egalitarianism for many congregations,” noted Stern.

While it may be hard for young Jewish women today to imagine a world without Bat Mitzvah, both Stern and Kremer vividly recalled when a Bat Mitzvah was radical. In 1949, when Stern reached the age of Bat Mitzvah, her rabbi would not allow it. In 1965, Kremer was allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue in Omaha, NE, reading only “what was allowed” for a woman to read at the time. Still, the fact that the Bat Mitzvah took place during the Saturday morning service, the same time when Bar Mitzvahs normally occurred, was considered progressive at the time, she noted. “I think the rabbi knew that the Conservative movement would eventually become egalitarian,” said Kremer.

In addition to discussing how women’s participation in Judaism had changed over time, the group also talked about the biblical origins of monogamy, the laws of kashrut, the reasons behind which prayers are said during services, and how Jewish rituals enhance one’s life.

Kremer also gave the group yet another reason to celebrate Adar: It is the month in which the first dated Hebrew book, Rashi’s commentary on the Chumash, was published in 1475 (Adar 5235). “Imagine what it must have been like before books, when you could only listen!” Kremer exclaimed.

Beth Judah’s next Rosh Chodesh (Nisan) gathering, is 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. April 7. .

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