One October weekend in 1992, a remarkable conference took place in Seattle, Washington. More than 350 Jewish women—mental health practitioners, academics and community activists—gathered from all over North America to create a “Shelter in the Wilderness,” and to explore the intersection of Judaism, feminism and psychology. Little did we know that our little convoy from Vancouver would be the only “offspring” of the conference still to be meeting and talking together after all these years. (Unlike some American groups which disbanded after failing to agree on a focus, we tend to joke that, being Canadian, we are so “nice” and “accommodating” that it didn’t occur to us to disagree.)
We have met monthly for 14 years in the same home, and continue to grow, often challenged by friends and each other about the legitimacy of having an all-Jewish women’s group. Though Jewish, we are otherwise diverse—graduate students and retired psychology professors, religious and secular; psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and clinical counselors. We have managed to continue to enjoy and learn from each other—always in a challenging, noisy, supportive environment. We still focus on women’s issues, and most of our conversations have a feminist perspective, but the fact that we are all Jewish women in the discussion is what tends to create the intersection. Unexpectedly, we’ve created a sense of a Jewish “home” for many of the women not involved with the local Jewish community.
The question of how our Jewishness affects our work takes us to two very different places: the not-very-controversial subject of how we are influenced individually by Jewish teachings, and the more difficult subject of anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment in the workplace. Do we say anything when events are scheduled for Friday nights or Jewish holidays? Is it important to identify your religion to a client? What happens when you call someone on an anti-Semitic comment? Responses tend to vary by community. with Israelis, as a visible group, facing the most confrontational interactions. We have had professional workshops on everything from schizophrenia, trauma and attachment theory to surrogacy, self-care for therapists, psychopharmacology and transgender issues. We have learned about the impact of terrorism on the police force in Israel from recent immigrants, about the impact of lashon hara from local rebbetzins, and we’ve even considered the kabbalistic view of psychological problems.
Our group functions both as a support system and a clearinghouse of local information. I act as group coordinator, and I’m as surprised as anyone that we have lasted this long. But new women turn up, new ideas for conversations are brought forward, someone tells me how much the group has meant to her, and I just keep the wheels turning, keeping the conversation alive and fulfilling the vision begun those many years ago.