Rethinking ‘spiritual’ communities — Jewish women’s wisdom circles

In Short

Editor’s note: The following article is offered as a partnership between EJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: http://www.cliforum.org/blog/.

In 2018, after a fall full of Jewish holidays, six women sat around a kitchen table in Washington, D.C. to answer two questions: What are Jewish women* missing and needing in a communal setting most urgently in this moment? And how do we ensure that the structure of “Jewish community” is operating as a tool to empower individual women by coming together as a collective? These two questions formed the backbone of SVIVAH, and inform our programming to this day.

We gathered women from across the greater Washington DC area and centered the conversations between the people in the room, using our fantastic educators as connectors and facilitators, rather than as centerpieces. We decided that one of SVIVAH’s pillars needed to be a commitment to widening the pipelines of access to communal support structures and organizations that make Jewish women’s lives stronger. With a captive audience, we were going to make sure women knew about the communal resources that existed to serve them – and we were going to destigmatize and normalize making use of their services. We created spaces of welcoming and equity, intentionally avoiding traditional Jewish gathering places. We committed ourselves to always compensating our facilitators for their time and talent, a practice that is not yet universally accepted, particularly when it comes to women educators. 

2019 was a year of programmatic experimentation. We hired the fantastic Rabbanit Aliza Sperling and implemented her vision for HerTorah, a monthly diverse beit midrash that gathered women from across the greater D.C. area. HerTorah welcomed women of all backgrounds to learn from diverse educators, using Torah text as a medium for relationship-building, delving into topics of personal and communal relevance in a space that felt safe and welcoming and that elevated the lived wisdom of women as new and precious “oral Torah.” Additional programming addressed issues of empowerment, health and equity. However, as we closed out our first successful program year, we found ourselves facing a global pandemic and a very shaky future. 

When the pandemic hit, we shifted immediately to a virtual presence which increased our reach and established SVIVAH as an international entity. Our COVID silver lining was accessibility – our programming attracted women who wanted to be part of the conversations we were having, and it allowed us to bring together educators from around the world in teaching partnerships that we could never have created in person. We shifted SVIVAH’s focus: What could our Jewish communities look like if women’s voices were centered, if their Torah was amplified, if their lived experience was prioritized, and if the traditional fault lines between Jewish communities were erased? After a year of experimentation and evaluation, we focused on building connection and empowerment through four programming areas: Torah learning (HerTorah); pastoral tending (HerSpirit); physical and mental health education (HerHealth/Red Tent); and equity-driven skill-building (HerPower). 

Key elements have evolved our programming into the unique concoction that has become known as “SVIVAH-style”: 

Affinity: We have found that SVIVAH’s affinity space for women allows individuals from all different walks of life to feel welcomed and included. Many spaces in the Jewish community cater to women in relation to others; SVIVAH has instead created a space for women as women – not women looking for partners, or women as parents, or women as volunteers or philanthropists – but simply as the unique women they are. This intentional celebration of individuality offers women an empowering space in community where they can feel fully themselves. 

Authenticity: SVIVAH works to create a space that is conducive to openness and sharing with vulnerability, as well as a commitment to radical acceptance and generous curiosity. When navigating difficult conversations, we take care to ensure that our participants know that when we ask them to be vulnerable, we also truly value their safety and well-being. By acknowledging the sensitivities in the room, we enable participants to show up fully, creating honest conversations that inspire growth and changemaking. 

Urgency: SVIVAH finds itself regularly pivoting to gather women for the conversations that are most “of-the-moment,” responding to the evolving news cycle or issues that feel urgent and prescient. As collective conveners and with our commitment to authenticity, we could not gather our community and simultaneously ignore the issues that most weigh on peoples’ minds. SVIVAH is the space for the conversations that we should be having in community.

Amplification: SVIVAH is not a content creator. We are a convener and an amplifier. We want our SVIVAH audience to feel comfortable accessing the diverse teaching voices that we bring into our circle because we believe that there is an evolving season to every pastoral and spiritual connection. We seek out diverse educators and facilitators to teach for us and we amplify the work of our educators in perpetuity. SVIVAH also wants to see more women accessing the communal support systems — organizations such as Sharsheret, which supports cancer community, and organizations supporting victims of domestic violence or people challenged by fertility or mental health issues, for example — designed to strengthen and ease their lives. By constantly engaging with partner organizations and organically weaving their staff — including mental health practitioners, ritualists, spiritualists and pastoral professionals across communities and denominations — into our programming, we make these resources familiar and accessible, amplifying their powerful work and destigmatizing the need or desire to use them. 

Diversity: SVIVAH’s community consists of women from ages 12-90+, from six continents, from all walks of life and Jewish backgrounds. The diversity in our gatherings is what our audience appreciates the most – a chance to learn with and from women they may never have otherwise met. It is not uncommon for our hevrutot or breakout rooms to host a bubbie and a high school student, pigtails and sheitels, nonbinary folk and university scholars, clergy and non-Jewish halves of interfaith couples. Our facilitated conversations unearth intimate details of our spirituality, our beliefs and our hearts, but may never uncover who is partnered, who is a parent, or how someone is employed. The diversity in our audience is mirrored in the diversity of our 150+ educators and celebrated by our audience and educators alike. 

Where does SVIVAH go from here? We will continue to center womens’ lived experience and wisdom as oral Torah and treasured mesorah (transmitted tradition). We will continue to amplify the voices of women scholars and leaders, bringing our educators together into supportive community with each other and creating stronger relationships between Jewish educators and pastoral care. We will continue building rooms that empower, support, destigmatize, celebrate and connect the beautiful diversity of Jewish womanhood, weaving Jewish texts, tradition and culture into the fabric of our lives. SVIVAH is revolutionizing the way women come together in community, using “Jewish community” to empower women as individual changemakers in their own lives and in the world.

*SVIVAH defines “Jewish woman” as anyone wishing to be included in a circle of Jewish women. If you want to be here, we want you to be here. And, welcome.

Ariele Mortkowitz is passionate about the ways women interact with their faith and their community and has dedicated herself to the pursuit of fulfilling female spiritual and communal experiences. Before founding SVIVAH, she created the Agam Center in 2016, establishing a Jewish communal home for women’s spirituality, wellness, ritual and education. She has a background in nonprofit development focused on strategic planning, organizational growth, and culture creation and is a certified premarital educator and a longtime mikvah ritual guide. ariele@svivah.org