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“Sisters of Light” Gather to Reclaim Judaism for Women

Twenty-five women dance in a circle, late in the afternoon before Shabbat, beside a secluded natural pool in the woods. Chanting fills the air: “Thank you Mother Earth; thank you Sister Water; thank you for my birth; thank you from your daughter.”

This was the mikvah (ritual immersion) ceremony at the Achyot Or (Sisters of Light) weekend gathering of 40 Jewish feminists from several East Coast cities at a retreat center near Philadelphia last summer.

Achyot Or grew out of the experience of several women who are members of a related group called B’not Eysh, Daughters of Fire. B’not Eysh’s 24 women have met annually since 1981 for an intimate weekend focusing on issues of feminist theology: the connection between spiritually and sexuality; images of God/ess; and the impact of ritual practice on women.

The Achyot Or gathering was organized by six Philadelphia women to reach out to the many women who had heard of B’not Eysh gatherings and wished to participate in such events.

The gathering was built around three theme groups. The artists’ group focused on each woman’s struggle to affirm herself as both an artist and a woman, two marginalized identities in this society. Participants in the theme group on “Living our lives as Jewish Feminists” talked about the impact of class and ethnic background on women’s aspirations.

The spirituality group, in discussing the relationship between spirituality and Jewish ritual, created a new name for the God/ess: Rachamema, a blend of the Hebrew words meaning womb (rechem), compassion {rachamim) and mother {Ema). At one afternoon workshop, artist Deborah Krueger taught women how to make plaster breast-plates. For much of the weekend nine beautiful casts of women’s breasts proudly adorned the mantle of the main meeting room. One woman said, “It was so affirming to see huge Jewish women’s breasts as art. It gave me a whole new acceptance of my own body.”

Participants, who came from diverse backgrounds, included feminists who live according to halacha (Jewish law), women just beginning to explore their Jewish identity and others whose commitment to Judaism is based on radical feminist re-interpretation.

Joanna Katz had originally envisioned the gathering “to bring together peers who are creating Jewish feminism … all equally creative, responsible and empowered to make this movement happen.” Katz and Julie Greenberg—both rabbinical students and active organizers in the Philadelphia Jewish feminist community can be reached at 117 W. Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia PA 19119, for information on next Memorial Day’s gathering, which a planning committee has undertaken to organize.