Women stitch together cycle of Jewish celebration

Making a quilt at first sent some chills through the Rosh Chodesh group at Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley.

"People didn't know how to start," said Lori Knopf.

But once the quilters got started during a weekend retreat earlier this year, the patches turned into a lavish work of art — and more. The finished quilt, a celebration of Jewish women working together, is a source of pride.

"I feel elated," said Jan Dombrower, who ran the quilt-making workshop. "I knew it would be a really wonderful project, and it would create self-esteem. I know it gave me a feeling of self-esteem and unity."

Donated to Shir Ami, the quilt now hangs in one of the Reform congregation's meeting rooms and is made up of 18 10-inch felt squares, one by each participant. Each purple, blue, rust, gold or brown square is painted and decorated with bright colors, buttons or bits of fringe. The squares are mounted together on a background of blue fabric.

Thirteen of the squares represent months in the Jewish calendar, while the remaining five depict key Jewish holidays.

The quilt patches were individually designed and produced by the 18 women who attended the Rosh Chodesh group's beach retreat at Asilomar in Pacific Grove.

The Rosh Chodesh group, part of the sisterhood, is a women's circle that meets monthly the night of the new moon. Rosh Chodesh is Hebrew for "head (or beginning) of the month." Dombrower organizes the 3-year-old circle, which is led by a different member each month.

At first, "there was some resistance" to doing the quilt, said Knopf, a Rosh Chodesh member who has missed only one circle meeting in two years.

"There are definitely some strong, accomplished women in the group, but something like this, they were afraid they didn't know how to do it and be very good at it," she added. "They had to dare to try."

But once people got going with their designs, "it was incredible how it turned around," Knopf said.

Ingrid Weinberg, a founding member of Shir Ami, volunteered to take all the finished squares home and assemble the quilt.

"I cheated," Knopf confessed. "I looked at the squares and I saw one of the months, Kislev, said `Chanukah,' and I thought, `I can do a menorah, or a dreidel.' My square has those things and also what looks like some gold coins."

Each woman was allowed free design reign within the broad theme of the individual month or holiday, with the only firm instructions being to include the name of the month or holiday on the square, as well as the designer's initials.

During the three-hour workshop, Dombrower played Jewish women's music, an integral element in her group's Rosh Chodesh meetings.

Rosh Chodesh celebrations, which reportedly began in biblical times, are sacred gatherings specifically for women, Dombrower said. In recent years, women have revived the tradition and created their own rituals.

At Shir Ami, the group format is based loosely on a theme from the month ahead. For example, last month, Sivan, had the theme "giving and receiving" because that was the month the Jews received the Torah.

A typical meeting includes a mix of ancient rituals, such as going outside to spot the sliver of new moon, along with discussion and sharing about contemporary life and Jewish women role models throughout history. With ages ranging from the 30s to 60s, many members enjoy the opportunity to learn from other generations.

"It's like a throwback to the '60s — an encounter group," said Knopf. "It's getting together with other women to talk about feelings, about relationships and about what we share with each other besides being Jewish."

For single women, she said, the circle is a comfortable way to participate in the life of the congregation since many other activities are family oriented.

The Rosh Chodesh quilt was dedicated at the Shabbat services around Purim. Even though the quilt is done, its effect at the 60 member-family congregation continues.

"They recently started a men's support group," Dombrower said. "I don't know if it was a coincidence or not."