A different kind of holy water

Photo from tumblr – Post by Melissa

Being in Israel, the prayers for rain feel so much more powerful and connected than they are in the US.

They are timed here differently to perfectly coincide with the holidays (and people’s travels home from Jerusalem after Sukkot during the Temple Era when people made the great pilgrimage on foot) and the agricultural seasons in Israel.

They have a deeper meaning as everyone is aware of the water crisis here in the desert. While people may be annoyed with days of rain, they are always also very excited and recognize its critical importance. People actually discuss the water levels of the Kinneret (The Sea of Galilee, our largest source of water) on the street and around Shabbat tables, and it even has its own twitter account.

We noticed the first major rains came right around the start of the davening (praying) changes in the fall, and now with spring upon us, people have been debating when the rains would end. Many people said that because it had been so long since our last rain storm we were done. Others put their faith in the fact that we have another week or so to ask for rain, so we were due for one last storm.

Apparently, Hashem is paying attention to our “local calls,” because we had a nice bit of rain right before Pesach (and another surprise shower this morning) – gives a whole new meaning to holy water!


On Being Frum and an Ally

marriage equality rings

Post by Melissa

I initially wrote this post about two years ago and it has lived in draft form with periodic edits ever since. At the time I wrote it, “gay marriage” was a hotbed issue in CO and was gaining national attention, I’ve edited it as it has been revisited time and again in CO and CA and now, with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hearing cases about whether or not both Proposition 8 (a CA state amendment which legally defined marriage as being between one man and one woman) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA – which restricts both federal marriage benefits and inter-state marriage recognition to opposite-sex marriages) are in fact constitutional.

In this moment, it feels like the time is absolutely right to finally post my very emotionally charged attempt at rationally explaining my views and how I reconcile being a frum (religious/Orthodox) Jew and a straight ally for gay rights.

I support the rights of all consenting adults to have a civil marriage which is recognized to the fullest extent of the law.

To explain what it really means requires a bit more explanation.

Quite simply, I have two separate marriage documents: a civil one and a religious one. The first was issued to me by the State of Colorado. It was signed by two friends in my synagogue on my wedding day, but it just as easily could have been signed in the city and county office building or on a mountaintop. This says that D and I are married in the eyes of the law. I can change my name to his, add him to my health insurance, get the tax benefits both on a state and federal level, and make medical decisions for him should he ever need me to. The second was issued to me by my religious institution. My ketubah was signed by two kosher witnesses (men who keep the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut) under my chuppah. This document recognizes my marriage in the Jewish community and affords me a few specific rights as such. So while it is very important to me that I have them both, neither has any bearing on the other.

So why does religion become a component of civil marriage? My best guess is that for many, it is harder to see this clear distinction. My two documents were signed by different people (spouses actually) at different times, and are handled in a very different way. My ketubah is also a piece of art which hangs on my wall and my civil marriage license (which is how we refer to it) is in a pocket on the back of it. (Ironically, we brought a copy of only the civil one to Israel with us.) I know that both are important to me, but neither one is more or less important to me. They grant me separate but equal things which I as a heterosexual, religious, married woman am blessed to be able to sometimes take for granted. To me, they are the quintessential statement of the separation of church and state.

Basically, my theory is that first part, the part I had to go to the courthouse to get and affords me legal rights, not only in the state I live in but also in any state I ever travel through or move to and also on a federal level, should be available to consenting adults – regardless of who they are marrying. (Lets not get too much into the nuances there.) That should be the only component which is handled legally, and in a way which carries inter-state legal weight also. Then if you so desire, you can have another ceremony and/or celebration with any religious, spiritual, or other special rituals which are relevant to you and your community. The couple can seek out a way to embrace it in their own way, with as much or as little religion as is appropriate in each unique relationship. I truly believe that this is the only way to secure civil rights for all, while also maintaining the religious freedoms so many in the United States of America cherish.


Melissa’s current profile photo

So yes, I changed my profile picture for these two days of the hearing to one of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) red equality symbol spinoffs and while I know it won’t actually make a difference to SCOTUS just how many of us did and they won’t make their decision for months – it makes a difference to my friends and family. For those for whom this isn’t a hypothetical question, for those who  are not able to have their marriages recognized, for those who can’t file taxes jointly or legally change their names, for those who want the chance to have what so many of us take for granted – to all those people in my life, it makes a difference that I stand with them. I am not in DC. I cannot stand up and share my thoughts at SCOTUS. But I can change my profile photo for two days (though, I think I’m going to keep it all week), I can publish this blog post, and I can continue to hope and pray that those in the position to make the change can see this as the civil rights issue it should be and not the religious issue it has become.

You may note that I did not address the “biblical issues” around homosexuality, and that is on purpose. I think it is very deep, dark, muddled waters which I am in no way prepared to address in such a public way. [And even if I was, who am I (or any of us really) to say that every American should be held to my understanding of religious texts? I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that is protected by the First Amendment.] It is because of this that I am turning off comments on this post. If you have something to say, you may email me directly and if you like the post, feel free to share it or simply “like” it via the built in WordPress function below.

Who is Lily Montagu?


Lily Montagu – Post by Jessica

One of the nice things about being back in school, particularly in grad school, is that there is often the thrill of discovery. With the Non-Profit Management side of my degree, it’s often about some new technique or approach that I’m putting in my “bag of tricks” for later use. In the Jewish Studies program, it’s generally more intellectual, the kind of thing that’s like “wow, the world is more interesting than I thought.”

Those moments make all the late nights worth it. Because I was taking a LOT of Jewish Studies last semester, I needed paper topics. I was floundering for one in particular, until I asked a friend what he thought. He suggested someone named Lily Montagu. I needed to analyze a primary source, and apparently, she had written a memoir. As it turned out, she had written a lot of things.

Born in 1873 to a very wealthy Orthodox family, Lily decided early on that Orthodox Judaism as it currently stood had very little to offer her as a woman. With little access to religious texts, yet still with an interest in a personal religious experience, she began to create religious services that spoke to her, first in the form of a religious service ostensibly for children (although often attended by women), and then through services held by the Jewish Religious Union, who held additional services on Shabbat afternoon. For a long time, she continued to try to work within the system, but eventually, it became clear that they were outside the realm of Orthodoxy, and began, in earnest, to try to create a movement. Through her alliance with Claude Montefiore, they began to form congregations.

This was a very painful break for her personally, since her father rejected the idea of reform, and in his will, forbade her from using the money towards the cause. As the movement grew, however, she remained heavily involved, helping to create the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), and even housing their headquarters in her home for many years, until they were moved to New York. She also regularly led services and spoke from the pulpit, with her address at the WUPJ conference in Berlin in 1928 the first time a woman had spoken from the pulpit in Germany. To this day, Liberal Judaism, the new name of the Jewish Religious Union, is still housed in The Montagu Center.

I found her story fascinating in general – but there were two aspects that made it even more interesting. First, the reasons she left Orthodoxy, and second, that her story is largely unknown and unstudied. Lily was given a secular education comparable to the non-Jews around her, while at the same time being denied access to Jewish texts. She saw the difference in what was offered to her brothers, and felt the injustice. This not only meant that she felt isolated from Judaism, but that her ways of thinking about religion were shaped by secular study rather than Jewish knowledge. Her language when discussing religion uses secular imagery more often than not; religion was used as a tool for personalizing secular values. That many women and men found this vision compelling speaks to the fact that this kind of education was common. But it also meant that, aside from her personal feelings of connection to Judaism, she was preaching a version of Judaism that was not compatible with Orthodoxy. It’s impossible to know what Lily would have done with a more rigorous Jewish education.

Still, why her story is largely unknown, even among liberal and progressive branches of Judaism? Ellen Umansky, until recently the only scholar who had studied her in depth, thinks that it might largely be the “fault” of Lily herself. Certain of her activities, such as preaching, were public. But many others, like her efforts to start the JRU and WUPJ were behind the scenes, and Lily deliberately described her own participation as non-essential. Umansky’s research, however, has unearthed evidence that she was often entirely instrumental in these efforts, both doing ground work and providing or gaining access to funding. That Lily’s attitude played better for the historians of the time is debatable – how would they have reacted if she had taken credit where the credit was due? Would there have been greater pushback? Or would it have just made it easier for historians of our time to understand where she fit in? The fact remains that, having grown up in a community connected to hers (both in South Africa and in Illinois), I had heard of Leo Baeck and of Samuel Montefiore, but not of Lily Montagu.

The little hidden gems of history. And hopefully, with a new book coming out about her, she’ll be a little less hidden than before.

Life happens… Death too.

I have recently had many conversations and learning topics where death and dying in Judaism were discussed, and each time it comes up it becomes abundantly clear that I think about these things very differently from most of my peers.

One year, my only specifically requested Chanukah gift was “The Jewish Way in Death and Dying” and I read  devoured it over a few Shabbatot. And it had an esteemed place on my bookshelf for many years. In fact, even with our very limited space in coming to Israel, it was one of the books I initially wanted to bring. (Alongside all my mikvah books… I don’t even know what to say about that.)

The combination of growing up in a family where the “family business” is the local Jewish funeral home, mortuary, and cemetery and my first “grown-up job” being as a hospice social worker give me a very unique attutude and perspective.

I see death as inevtiable. Something to acknowledge is real and tangible and natural. Something not to pray to prevent, but to pray it happens in its due course and that everyone should live long and healthy and productive lives. I think death is an important part of the life cycle and teaches us all important lessons about how to live our lives in the moment.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe it is sad when our loved ones pass. Of course it is! I just also believe that it is important to support one another realistically when death is immenint so that we aren’t surprised. It seems counter-productive to the grieving process to delude oneself into thinking it won’t happen to them. It should happen to you. The normative life course is that children should bury their parents.

I’ve realized in processing this that perhaps this is a part of my life path I hadn’t really factored in when deciding next steps. I know and am comfortable with death and dying. I want to learn halacha (Jewish law) intensively for years to come. I want to work in the Jewish world. I want to combine my experiences in ways which are unique to me. And while I want to focus on one other topic in particular (if you have been paying attention for the past three years, it won’t surprise you), it seems that this subtle piece of my soul may need to find a place in the plan too.

My family has often said that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter, perhaps this is just one more way in which that is true.


(This post was supposed to publish in early February but didn’t for some reason. Sorry for the delay!)

Which identity has the most influence?

How do you define your identity? 

Does your feminism influence your Judaism, or does your Judaism influence your feminism?

These questions were posed by one of my mentors here in Jerusalem at a Shabbat lunch with a group of young women who are all trying to define our identities, and it really resonated with me and has stuck with me for months. (Especially with all the conversations which have been generated surrounding my not-so-recent post: Orthodox Feminist: Not an oxymoron.) I think the same thing could be said of many aspects of identity, activism, and engagement also, but I’m going to stay focused on the initial question because that is the one I have been ruminating on.

Personally, I don’t think I can separate them. I think they influence each other fairly equally. I cannot say that I am more a feminist than a Jew, nor that I am more a Jew than a feminist. Neither comes first and neither stands alone.

If I could separate them, I wouldn’t be the woman I am. I wouldn’t be learning at Nishmat this year, nor would I be exploring my avenues for future learning. I wouldn’t be writing this blog about the adventures and challenges of being married to a man who has decided to pursue the rabbinate. I would be trying to “redefine rebbetzin.”  I wouldn’t have the complex feelings about parenting and education I do. I wouldn’t seek out the kind of prayer spaces and people to learn with that I do. I wouldn’t be the woman I am proud to be.

As I sit here pondering this question (and have for months), I continuously find that if I attempt to make one more crucial than another my sense of self shifts. I can play around with the focus in other parts of my identity. In fact, I regularly move around amongst wife / sister / daughter / friend and social worker / writer / editor / marketer / educator freely. I think those are all important parts of my identity, but not as critical as being simultaneously a religious Jewish woman and a feminist. For some reason, I cannot disengage those two parts from being the joint core of who I am.

Despite the time spent thinking about this, I am no closer to having any resolution, so I would love to hear your insights….

Does one part of your identity inherently have to take on a higher and more prominent place, or is it possible that two pieces can hold equal weight in how you interact with the world around you?

Can Judaism and feminism equally influence our place in the world?

A Rebbetzin is not a Rabbi

I have been involved in a few conversations lately about a topic that really agitates me, so when I saw the premise used to prove the exact opposite, I simply couldn’t not say my piece publicly any longer.

A Rebbetzin is not a female Rabbi. Sorry Orthodox Jewry, but its just not reality.

While many Rebbetzins or Rabbanits  (not getting into the semantics on this one now, been there done that) do serve as leaders in their communities, many do not. While some have a high level of education, some do not. And on the flip side, while some women who want to be leaders in the community marry Rabbis, others do not. The premise is that all women who want to lead have to marry Rabbis, and that all Rabbis have to marry women who want to be leaders. This is not realistic and it is not fair.

In this recent opinion piece by Rabbi Dan Friedman posted on The Jewish Week, the author uses this assumption to reach a conclusion I agree with, I just wish I could agree with his process more. The fact of the matter is that there are indeed women serving in great leadership roles in the Orthodox world, there are women who are certified by programs in Israel and America to be religious/halachic leaders and there are those who have stepped up without a formal program backing them. That is a great thing to recognize and to share widely. The problem begins when we believe that reassigning a title or suggesting that one method should be good enough for everyone will be the solution. Its not.

For some women, that is the level of religious and communal leadership that works for them. However, that it is good for a portion of the population doesn’t inherently mean that it is good for everyone. We have to allow women to find ways to lead that are personally meaningful – be it a a Rebbetzin, Jewish educator, communal worker, yoetzet halacha, or full fledged member of the clergy*.

We no longer tell girls who dream of working in the medical profession than being a nurse is “close enough” to being a doctor, so why should those who dream of working in the religious world settle for “close enough”? If women are able to learn at the level of men, why limit their professional advancement to who they marry?

*I said clergy so as to leave the semantics question out of it. I don’t think what the title is matters as much as giving women formal training to serve in these functions.

How it all began…

As we celebrate the blog’s third anniversary, it seems an appropriate time to stop and reflect on where it began and where it has taken us.

We were having a silly conversation online (as we are apt to do) when Jessica showed Melissa a happy little image of a bird and a giraffe – the animals that we each have a particular affinity for respectively. It was so cute that it was determined that we had to do something with it. We threw around a few ideas and decided a blog would be fun – we both like writing and had some time on our hands. Ok, so that would be the project, but what would we write about? Well, both of our husbands were seriously looking at options for rabbinical school and neither of us felt like we  knew what that path was going to look like – for them or us, and so – we had a topic. We wanted a catchy name that didn’t seem to be in use… Thus Redefining Rebbetzin was born.

We had some inspirations in a few other fabulous Jewish female bloggers at the start, and many more we met along the way. We have formed connections with Rabbis, Rebbetzins, and a host of other amazing people. We have shared our ups and downs, twists and turns, musings and challenges – and have so much more to experience! We wondered if anyone would read our blog and how long it would last. We had no idea what the path was going to look like, but we thought it would be fun to explore. And if nothing else, it has definitely been fun.

At this point, we still have a long way to go, but isn’t the journey the fun part? Thanks for sharing our journey with us.