Ronit Sherwin, 39, Executive Director, Hillel

Her feminist-Jewish-Orthodox-single motherhood

At 19, I started working in the Jewish community in Columbus, Ohio, and it changed my life. I just found that Jewish women were everywhere, they were the majority of the people on committees, they loved to learn, they were doing everything. Okay, maybe not in leadership roles. I come from a Conservative Jewish home with an Israeli mother. Jewish women are just really interesting.

So I founded Nishmah, in St. Louis, an independent non-profit with the mission of enriching and empowering the lives of Jewish girls and women. We did gendered programming: leadership development, a track for teens, spiritual exploration, resource consulting, women’s philanthropy. We brought in Judy Chicago, Marge Piercy, two artist-entrepreneurs from Israel. It just grew. We had 80 women standing in bare feet for this program about healing with the Earth. It was selfish, really; women’s programs just became a passion of mine.

I belonged to the Modern Orthodox community, and I was approaching 35 and I was single — this was a big surprise, to be single at 35! I said to the rabbi, “This is what I want to do. Get pregnant through artificial insemination. Do you see any halachic concerns?” It was simple halachically. The elderly wife of the community’s Orthodox ex-chief rabbi, a very very unusual woman — I used to meet her for ice cream and take her to Woody Allen movies — she said, “Bringing Jewish children into this world. It’s beautiful what Ronit’s doing.” My grandparents’ families were almost all in the camps; not a single woman in the shul didn’t understand when I said, “I couldn’t ever imagine not having children.”

I went to the mikveh before my first insemination, on Rosh Hodesh, a Friday morning, for a ceremony with a Reform female rabbi and two close friends; one was my labor coach. Later, the Reform female rabbi and the Orthodox male rabbi did the bris together.
My shul’s outpouring of love and support was extraordinary. One older woman at shul, she loved me, she just said, “Starting this week, I’m doing all your grocery shopping!” When the twins were born, for 10 weeks, there was somebody sleeping on my couch every night. For many months I had meals, someone came to the house every evening, 6 to 10 p.m. My accountant came with her boyfriend on Christmas day. My fertility specialist…I ended up tutoring her daughter for her bat mitzvah while I was pregnant.

But then, well, I was a single mother who works in the Jewish world — there wasn’t anything with equity of pay; there are a lot of good ol’ boys running Jewish boards. To support my family, I had to move to a different community. It’s hard some days. We need to seriously enable quality of life for women working in Jewish non-profits; if we don’t, Judaism will lose us, and our impact on Jewish life and the Jewish future is so critical.
About Jewish men to date? Ummm, I like to be an optimist. I feel Jewish men are out there. I’ve dated some wonderful ones, but it’s hard to find one who’s committed to the Jewish community. It’s like finding a job, you have tell everyone you’re looking.

As told to S.S.