Stronger Together: The Role of Women's Groups in Today's Reform Congregations
We were still wiping the tears of laughter from our eyes from the annual women’s retreat skit that had brought the house down just minutes before. It had been an evening of frivolity, costumes, and merriment. Everyone was in high spirits and laughing about the seemingly infinite Mishkan-building puns that had been squeezed into the script. As I emerged from a guided meditation with a few of the other retreat participants, Sasha greeted us in the hall. She looked somber and sullen. She asked us all to join her in the main room. I did not ask what was wrong, but I could tell that something serious had occurred. This group of joyous, vibrant and chatty women was sitting silently. As we took our seats in the haphazard circle of chairs, you could feel the weight of the silence. After a few moments, we learned what had happened.
“When Jenny returned to her room to change after the play, she had a message from her brother. Her mom passed away about an hour ago.”
No one spoke. Tears began to fill the corners of our eyes. A heaviness filled the space. It felt as if time stopped as we took in this news. I felt the intensity build, and I felt myself stuck to the chair. I searched for words; I searched for something meaningful to fill the vacant air. The momentary silence felt like years.
Luckily, Sasha filled the space and added, “I know we all want to do something. That’s what Jenny would do for us if the situation were reversed.”
This is what we needed to hear and we began to plan. After a few minutes of conversation about ideas, we settled on making cards for her to bring with her during this difficult time. It felt like the least we could do.
I had just folded my piece of construction paper when Jenny suddenly emerged into the common room.
“I heard you were sitting in a circle and talking, I had to come out and join,” Jenny exclaimed. Her sweet disposition shone through her grief – these were her people, this is where she needed to be in this earth-shattering and confusing moment. She needed to grieve with her women’s group.
Jenny has spent the past 15 years building this community. She is a participant at each retreat and Rosh Chodesh event and leads many of them, she teaches in the religious school and comes to nearly every Shabbat service. She is the first to call on a birthday, bake for the oneg, dream up a new project or program, and spend personal time with new members of the congregations. She truly is the consummate volunteer. As an effect of her dedication and spirit, this congregation is her strongest community too. These women are truly her sisters. She needed these women at her most vulnerable and challenging moment. By some stroke of magic, we were right there, all together, ready with open arms to give whatever we could, whatever she needed.
For the next two hours, something miraculous occurred. Women shared stories and held one another up. Jenny shared stories of her complicated and tumultuous relationship with her mother; other women shared supportive comments and related tales. I learned much more about these women than ever would have been possible in our usual post-services small talk. Women expressed their appreciation for this group, particularly as the sandwich generation; they talk about raising children while taking their parents back into their care.
Like Jenny, many of these women felt emotionally distant from their parents as young people and still feel this disconnect have an impact on their relationships today. They knew their parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, loved them, but this care was shown through the guarantee of basic necessities. Their parents pridefully put food on the table every night, but hugs and compliments were harder to come by. For these reasons and more, these women dote on their children and flock together to provide this support to one another. I believe women’s groups exist for these women – the ones who have so much love to give, but need to receive this care and compassion as well. Women supporting women is a beautiful, powerful and all too rare experience in our busy lives today.
In the creaky chairs and oddly decorated conference room, we created our own Mishkan. Each woman brought trumat lev – gifts of the heart. They shared what they could, what they had to offer. Everyone’s words were true, genuine and from their soul. Through tears and clasped hands our k'hilah kedosha, our holy community, became a family. We held Jenny, she held us, and through sniffles, smiles, laughs, and tears, we began to heal.
Julie Bressler is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. This piece was the winning essay from this year's WRJ/HUC-JIR Essay Competition, through which Women of Reform Judaism seeks share in the spiritual journeys of HUC-JIR students as it continues to invest in the future leaders of the Reform Movement.