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Spirituality Conclave in L.A.

A variety of grass-roots women’s groups have sprouted up in Los Angeles—including groups to observe Rosh Chodesh (the New-Moon), Passover, Tashlich (Rosh hashanah repentance ceremony), and Shavuot—given impetus by the landmark November 1984 conference, “Illuminating the Unwritten Scroll: Women’s Spirituality and Jewish Tradition.”

The conference, which drew more than 500 people, “addressed questions relating to the ‘second stage’ of Jewish feminism, not halacha (Jewish law) or equal access, but what is the nature of women’s religious experience, and what will Jewish life, institutions, community, theology, image of God and ritual become as women’s experience is taken seriously, “according to Rabbi Laura Geller, Director of Hillel-USC, who organized it with Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Associate Director of Hillel-UCLA.

The conference was enriched by the diverse viewpoints of broad range of planners, presenters and participants, including Esther Broner, feminist writer; Rachel Adler, Jewish feminist thinker and psychotherapist; Judith Plaskow, theologian; Lawrence Hoffman, liturgy scholar, HUC; Marcia Falk, poet and Associate Professor of Literature, University of Judaism; Blu Greenberg, author; Deena Metzger, poet; Naomi Pollack, director of the Travelling Jewish Theater; and the late anthropolgist Barbara Myerhoff.

Janet Bieber, Cantor of Temple Beth Ami in West Covina CA and the first woman to officiate at Sabbath services at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, shares these impressions of the conference:

We gathered from all walks of spirituality to hear our mothers speak, in person, through others, and in our own voices. From Blu Greenberg, a woman born and raised in the Orthodox tradition, to Deena Metzger, who has come back to her Judaism through her own search, we are creating a past through shreds of collected memory, and envisioning a future that redefines our roles in our culture, religion and life-paths.

For some of the women, it took this gathering to awaken the desire to find new places in our culture. For others, who have already blazed a trail for themselves, this conference was a place to find com-raderie and the nurturing that comes from knowing that one is not alone. Yes, there are others who feel excluded because God is largely referred to in the masculine, because our protagonists are mostly men, and because all our tefilot (prayers) are written from a male point of view.

Where is our story? Between the lines.

We spent two days together, exploring such diverse subjects as “Mechitza: A View from the Other Side,” and “The Goddess as Symbol of a New Feminist Holistic Consciousness: Explorations and Meditations.” We told stories of our mothers, grandmothers, maiden aunts and legendary ancestors. Nearly everyone remembered a bubbe (grandmother) lighting Shabbos candles. The silence of the moment just before she struck the match. The torch-like brightness of the flame.

“Blessed is the match, consumed in the kindling flame.”

Her dark face, mostly covered with a scarf, illuminated by the tiny fire.

“Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret places of the heart.”

Baruch atah Adonai, Blessed are you. Source of the Universe.

At the closing session, we made symbolic Torah scrolls, inscribed with names of women important in our lives, and significant spiritual moments from our own experiences. Esther Broner, author and creator of ritual relevant to women’s lives, helped us create a new Havdalah (Post-Shabbat ceremony), as we left our spiritual togetherness and dispersed to our private destinations.

There is a momentum building in California. It isn’t an easy time. Change, evolution, never is. Women are searching for their rightful place in the context of our religion, culture and heritage.

We want to carry out our callings., We want to sing with our God-given voices, hearts, bodies and souls. Horizontal exactitudes, such as rabbinic law, must be balanced by vertical, timeless truths, such as the equality of each living soul before God. Without this, we as a people are in danger of being cut off from our roots, the very wellspring of our life.

May God grant us the power and vision to achieve the balance. Amen.

The conference, made possible by grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, and the Max and Anna Levinson Foundation, generated intense excitement among Jewish women in the Los Angeles area, evidenced by the many programs and activities relating to women’s spirituality that have been launched in recent months. “We clearly touched a nerve,” observed Rabbi Geller.

A four-day “Jewish Women’s Spiritual Convocation: Nishmat Kol Chai (Spirit of Life)” was held last June 19-23 in Dorena, Oregon, sponsored by women throughout the Pacific Northwest. Participants joined in celebrating Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat, and workshops focused on such topics as Jewish family and community, Jewish women’s life cycle ceremonies, Torah study and creative prayer, and egalitarianism and Judaism.

“There’s a hunger to deal with the question of the spirituality of women and men that I don’t think we really understood earlier,” said Geller.