Sarah Waxman - Founder and Chief Momma
Many young women feel disconnected to their bodies, communities, and spiritual traditions. While Judaism has much to offer, targeted resources are difficult to access, and Jewish institutions struggle to engage young people.Drawing upon the ancient tradition of Rosh Chodesh, At The Well fosters community learning and support about Jewish spirituality and women’s health — principally through “Well Circles,” where women in their 20s/30s gather monthly to learn from and support each other. Grounded in Jewish teachings and health information provided monthly by At The Well’s curriculum team, Well Circles empower women to enhance their wellness and spiritual growth.
The Rosh Chodesh practice, attributed to Miriam and praised by Rashi as an important ritual, engaged women to gather at the New Moon, learn together and create a mutually supportive community. Today, with the exception of small pockets of the Orthodox community, that tradition has been abandoned and forgotten. At The Well believes that revitalization of the Rosh Chodesh tradition can effectively address the isolation and spiritual disconnectedness mentioned above and aims to re-inspire this practice in a modern context.
There is a dearth of reliable information and resources to support the ritual of Rosh Chodesh. Only a small handful of books have been written in English, all are outdated, and most are out of print. Each Jewish month, At The Well creates and provides to its members a brochure that provides content related to the month — its significance, notable female figures associated with Torah readings and holidays occurring during the month, and spiritual lessons that relate to the above.
Our curriculum team draws on Torah, Midrash, Kabbalah and other mystical texts, and rabbinic commentaries. Our brochure for the month of Adar, for example, drew on the story of Queen Esther from the Purim Megillah, teachings of respected rabbis, kabbalistic texts, and talmudic thought to present the themes of “increasing joy and laughter”, “uncovering what we keep hidden”, and “giving gifts.” At The Well is the only organization specifically devoted to young Jewish women’s wellness and spirituality.
Judaism teaches that our bodies are on “loan” to us while on Earth. Each soul is unique, housed in a borrowed body for the length of an individual’s life. It is our duty—our Jewish duty—to take care of ourselves, body and soul. At The Well believes that physical health is connected to spiritual strength. As Jewish women, we draw from our traditions to help our souls and we learn what 21st-century science has to teach us about our physical health. When we integrate the two, we will live in alignment with our power.
The world ‘Israel’ means to wrestle with, and at the core of our tradition is a history of wrestling with everything: texts, traditions, rituals, teachings, even each other. We wrestle to uncover what’s good and what’s true for us and to figure out how we want to live. Our people have always asked “why,” debated, and thought critically in order to discover for ourselves and our community what it means to be Jewish. At The Well aims to bring this energy and history into each Well Circle as its participants learn from and with each other.
In Pirkei Avot, we learn that in every generation Jews “turn [the Torah], and turn it, for everything is in it.” By creating this community at the intersection of health, spirituality, and Jewish text, At The Well will “turn” the Torah in a way that opens the full expression of Jewish teaching and tradition to 21st- century young women.
At The Well believes that individuals are best supported when they are within a community, and it is a central Jewish tenet that inner work should be done in a communal setting. Participants form a community of concentric circles through local gatherings, city-wide events, and national leadership retreats, and are able to share resources and inspiration through our online platform. We strive to serve as a constantly growing and evolving hub for Jewish women’s wellness dialogue and resources by supporting peer-led Jewish learning and discovery of our bodies and souls.
At The Well is committed to forming wider and deeper levels of community through meaningful Jewish content. Here’s how we’re doing it:
At The Well reinvents the biblical ritual of “Rosh Chodesh” through the creation of “Well Circles”—monthly peer-led home-based gatherings of 6-15 women. Each Hebrew month, At The Well provides written materials to support Well Circle discussions, written by At the Well Staff, rabbi advisors, and Well Circle participants.
In cities across America, At the Well convenes young women for powerful dialogues, lectures, and opportunities to learn from their peers in Well Circles across the country. At the Well city-wide events and regional retreats provide spaces for the larger At The Well community to connect face-to-face, share best practices, and develop immersive experiences with diverse experts.
Retreats are a chance to escape normal, everyday life and spend the weekend engaged in Jewish learning with like-minded At The Well women from a particular region. In this context, women rediscover and modernize Jewish wisdom and traditions, while learning together about spirituality and women’s health in a deeper manner than monthly meetings can offer.
This website is a living and constantly evolving platform for women to be social and exchange ideas and information with other Well Circle participants across the globe. At the Well strives to meet modern day women where they are --the website allows women to access diverse and relevant Jewish educational resources at their convenience.
* A mobile app to access the website on-the-go is under development. Check back soon for updates!
Each month, At The Well provides its Well Circles with resource materials to foster peer-led discussions relating to Jewish spirituality, the Hebrew month, and women’s physical and emotional health. Our educational materials are grounded in rich Jewish content, helping our audience view women’s health and spirituality through a Jewish lens, and include vibrantly creative activities as well as customizable facilitator guides for participants of varied Jewish backgrounds.
Although the concept of Well Circles dates back to the Rosh Chodesh ritual started by Miriam, Moses’s sister, in the desert thousands of years ago, there are only a handful of books that support this ancient tradition. At The Well is working on the much needed next version, scheduled for publication in 2017. Stay tuned!
In short, Well Circles offer a unique, meaningful, and scalable way to enable young women to rediscover Jewish wisdom, modernize Jewish traditions, and express Jewish values and spirituality. Our model opens avenues to use Judaism as a way to express spiritual discovery and provides resources for young women to connect with their bodies; and it does so in a way that traditionally worked for women and reflects Judaism’s written and oral traditions.
In the eight months since Cheshvan 5776 / October 2015 when At The Well launched, the movement has grown rapidly to 23 Well Circles in 10 different cities around the country, and others continue to form. Our newsletter has 300 readers, increasing by the day.
“I’m so impressed by the At the Well materials and look forward to receiving them every month. They’re beautifully written and understandable; they fill me up with hope about the Jewish people and help me understand the women of the Torah. I’m so grateful to be part of a women’s circle and find a lot of joy and fulfillment in it... and I can’t stop talking about it to others!”
— Lauren W. Washington D.C
“I didn’t realize how much I was missing this supportive, creative, spiritual feminine space until I was facing some difficult transitions in my life. Grateful for our new At The Well circle that we’re building together.”
— Sarah T. Washington D.C.
Being in a Well Circle has changed my life. I… didn’t grow up sharing my feelings EVER, and being in this group has shown me how much happier I can be if I voice my feelings to the people in my life who I care about. I’ve also shared cool stuff I’ve learned at my Well Circle with my friends outside the group, and many of them have texted me after they’ve tried my advice saying “OMG LIFE CHANGING!”
— Cassidy L. San Francisco
“I just had my third Well Circle last night and I’m feeling inspired by the women who have gathered together. Last night, I hosted the group at my apartment. We talked about our bodies and the moon cycle; we shared stories, made Havdalah candles and lit the Menorah for the seventh night of Chanukah. I wish there were more spaces like this to connect with other Jewish women and explore our spirituality together.”
— Hilah S. San Francisco
One of the most empowering aspects of the Jewish tradition is being able to take text and struggle with it until it turns into something that is meaningful to us. Torah is a living body of stories that can we can relate to whenever and wherever we are. As Jewish women, our founders have learned that we are excited to show up to the table to participate in Jewish conversations from a place of curiosity and desire to apply what we learn to our lives-- but that we need safe and supportive community and space to do so.
As leaders in our community and people who are deeply passionate about Judaism, we care about making these spaces available to other women our age. We’ve learned that walking the walk is a necessary first step in serving as role models for others. In order to show other women what’s possible, we must live it ourselves. For us, that’s entailed finding our own unique relationships with Jewish rituals and practices, and wrestling with numerous areas of difficulty and confusion. Nobody has all the answers, but we can be excited about the process.
Next, we’ve learned that to bring Jewish learning into modern day communities, it’s important to use language that makes sense to our audience. If an educator brings a story about Hillel that was written thousands of years ago to a classroom or place of learning, and expects people to engage with it just “as is,” he or she is missing the point. This is not to say we need to rewrite all of the original text, but it is crucial to offer relevant insight and explanation for what the text is saying, and how it might relate to us today. At The Well is successful because we’re innovative and experimental with the Jewish content we put forward. We’re updating it, and bringing it to life. We’re taking information, and sharing it through the voice of a 30 year old woman in America. That excites our audience because they can hear themselves in the writing. That’s how to make it come alive-- we have to be vulnerable enough to share what the text means for us.
A third lesson we’ve learned is about creating space that’s conducive to learning and dialogue. Chevruta style learning is designed so that you’re not supposed to agree. Teachers give us texts to talk about, and somewhere along the way something sparks. At the Well is creating and adapting content in ways that is relatable to our demographic, and then providing space and frameworks for them to ask their own questions. We’re not saying, “Go to the mikvah because it says right here you must do it!” Rather, we’re offering an opportunity to women for real dialogue about what mikvah means. Some will end up feeling inspired to perform the ritual, and others will just want to learn more about what it is. It’s not a top-down approach, it’s an invitation. And we’re finding that our community members are as excited about the open space for conversation around the content, as they are about the content itself.
As leaders of this movement, the best way we can create space for people to take Jewish wisdom and make it their own is by being up-front and honest with our own relationships with Judaism. At the Well encourages us to live lives that are meaningful, ethical, happy, and grounded in our tradition’s teachings, but we recognize that Judaism is not perfect. When we give women space to disagree, feel emotions like anger and confusion, and dig deeper, we give them the power to engage in real ways. When we disagree with something, the conversation doesn’t stop. In fact, it’s just the beginning.
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