Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, an interdenominational group of rabbis and cantors, developed the series "Women, Relationships & and Jewish Texts" to spark conversations and create safe spaces for discussions about healthy relationships by using insights, questions and commentary arising out of traditional Jewish texts about Jewish holidays. The series includes traditional texts, commentaries by members of the Clergy Task Force and guiding questions to promote contemporary conversations about relationships.
JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community developed this series of four thematic guides, focusing on Purim, Shabbat, Shavuot, and Sukkot. We use traditional and modern day Jewish texts and wisdom to explore elements of healthy relationships. The classical Jewish wisdom of using commentary to explicate text, and allowing commentaries to enter into discussion not only with the inherited text but with their own diverse voices, is a key element of the Holiday Guides.
The study series was developed in order to use the wisdom of Jewish tradition, both ancient and contemporary to explore the issues of relationships, including power, control, compassion, kindness, mutuality, gendered roles, social contexts, assumptions and expectations, and communication. These guides combine a respectful reading of classic texts with provocative and perceptive insights, questions and ideas that can help shape healthier relationships. It can help raise awareness of the ways in which issues of gender and power intersect with and can be addressed through such Jewish values as k’vod ha-briot (respect for the dignity and integrity of each person) and kedusha (sanctification), among others.
For example, for "Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts," the commentaries explore the story of Esther through the themes of developing a voice of one's own; cultivating the conscious use of self; and striving for parity in a relationship. The text of the Megillah and Midrash are used to explore these themes. (see supplementary PDF for the guide).
"Rethinking Shavuot: Women, Relationships & Jewish Texts" is organized around ways to journey toward safety and well-being. Three areas uncovered in this reading of the Book of Ruth and the midrash Ruth Rabba stress the importance of living in community in times of distress; the need for small acts of kindness in order to build trust; and the necessity of imagining a different future in order to escape a difficult past. (see supplementary PDF for the guide).
Each guide combines respectful readings of classic texts with provocative and perceptive insights, questions and ideas that can help shape present day healthier relationships. Guides can be used as a part of facilitated conversations in homes, on campuses, in synagogues – wherever and whenever people gather together to share the holiday. Short excerpts of ancient texts are provided in the original Hebrew or Aramaic, along with the source, and an English translation. Each of us - whether partnered or single - is in relationship. By using Jewish texts to help create a safe space for open conversations about our relationships we are able to make Jewish wisdom immediately applicable to our audience's lives. For example, to encourage using the "Rethinking Shabbat" guide, we created a campaign called Shamor L'Amour, providing sermon sparks for every Torah portion falling in the month of February (Dating Abuse Awareness Month, as well as "Valentine's Day). The CTF noted that "We tell our congregants that on Shabbat we hold two commandments sacred – "shamor v’zachor" – protect and remember. But to truly create a sacred space in the home for Shabbat, we must have a home that is at peace; a home of loving, healthy relationships and connections; a home where love is protected. During February 2015, we invite you and your congregation to celebrate a very special Shabbat – a Shabbat of shamor l’amour." Importantly, although the work of the Clergy Task Force is to end domestic abuse, these Guides focus solely on building healthy relationships. This is an intentional decision as we have learned that it is critical to have a positive focus to engage people in conversations about both healthy and not healthy relationships. The wisdom would not be accessible or used if we were to put our focus on domestic abuse.
Our impact is attested to by the growing number of clergy that are using the guides; the growing number of op-eds that we are getting placed that address the holidays and the guides; the diversity of denominations that are using the guides; and the number of clergy who express appreciation for the guides.
Over 400 Jewish community professionals have downloaded the guides over this past year alone. We have been gratified to receive examples, from time to time, of how clergy and others have taken up the challenge of initiating and deepening conversations about intimate relationships in our time by beginning with thought-provoking texts. The program introduces participants to a new way of looking at ancient texts. For example, Rabbi Uri Topelfsky, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote: "I was fortunate enough to incorporate some of the texts (with attribution!) into a class I delivered at our Tikkun Leil Shavuot program this year. I greatly appreciated being introduced to these texts." Rabbi Lina Zerbarini, Director, Weinberger Center for Jewish Life and Learning, wrote: "I used the guides with a synagogue study group – Esther and Ruth. I have looked at them since for reference. I like them very much." Rabbi Jill Borodin wrote: Thanks so much for putting together your holiday guides. They are wonderful." Others wrote: 'I would like to "rethink Sukkot" with your materials as I work with young girls and activist women.' and "Thanks for making these guides available. I found the Purim guide useful for teaching at a Jewish Senior campus where I work as a chaplain. Resources of this kind are appreciated." And from Israel - " my adult text study group can [use the guide] as they consider real women’s perspectives on [Shavuot] whose more abstract themes have tended to get most of the emphasis until now." – Rav Anita Steiner, Ramat Gan, Israel
We have found that Jewish wisdom reaches all of us, as part of our shared heritage and is highly valued by Jews of all backgrounds, orientations and interests. We understand that contemporary Judaism must co-exist with a highly seductive market-driven culture. We have learned to go in a different – in a sense, in a counter-cultural – direction: We draw on the wisdom of Jewish texts to create safe space in which candid and thoughtful sharing and questioning can begin about the nature of healthy relationships in the 21st century. That is why we always include a section, immediately after our commentaries relating to a particular text, called "Conversations". Here is an example of one of six Conversations sections in "Rethinking Shavuot: Women, Relationships, and Jewish Text."
1. Imagine a different future for Orpah [Naomi’s other daughter-in-law]. How would you rewrite her story?
2. Do you think that Orpah’s choice was a valid one for her day? What kind of choice do you imagine you would make in a similar situation?
3. How can our communities be more welcoming to inter‐faith families?
Each Guide also includes a Take Action page, encouraging participants to apply their newly enriched Jewish wisdom to help others and strengthen relationships - whether by volunteering in a domestic violence shelter, inviting friends and family for a holiday meal, becoming more engaged in their community, or sharing these resources - taking action is an important component of Jewish wisdom.
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