Rosh Chodesh groups bring spiritual renewal, and not just once in a blue moon

On a recent Sunday evening, about 15 women sat around the living room of a cozy house in Berkeley snacking on grapes, cherries and chocolate chip cookies — all selected for their round shape — and began coloring.

Using markers and crayons, each woman was told to express the theme of inheritance: what she inherited from someone close to her, what she inherited from her community, and what she hoped others would inherit from her.

While the drawings were mostly primitive, the themes were not.

A high school teacher hoped she had inherited her grandmother's indomitable spirit and love of life; a resident in psychiatry wished others would receive the healing spirit from her and thus gain peace of mind; an educational consultant said the Jewish community had provided her with a sense of belonging and security, no matter where she went.

The women, all in their 20s and 30s, are part of the many Rosh Chodesh — New Moon — groups in the Bay Area. Some are affiliated with synagogues and others, like this one, start with women who are friends, who then bring in others.

This particular group, which jokingly refers to itself as "Moon Mamas," began last year with a retreat timed to coincide with the High Holy Days. And during the month of Tishrei, which begins with the start of Rosh Hashanah next week, 22 women will spend a few days at a retreat in Lake Tahoe.

"These are holidays that are so meaningful, and sometimes it's hard for people to deeply deal with the issues of tshuvah and forgiveness," said Deb Fink, one of the organizers of the group. "By doing that in a safe space with people you can share with, hopefully it will make the holidays more meaningful for people."

Fink and three others who are on the ritual committee for the weekend have created some "hands-on activities and discussions that will help facilitate us getting into those themes."

Additionally, she said, "it will be rejuvenating to be there in Tahoe and spend a lot of time outside."

Debra Sagan, associate director of the Reform movement's Camp Newman, had been in a Rosh Chodesh group while getting her master's degree in Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Fink, director of the Diller Teen Fellows at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, had been studying at the Pardes Institute, also in Jerusalem, and knew Sagan through the "Americans learning about Judaism crowd."

Sagan invited Fink to join the group, and when she came back to the United States, Fink decided it was something she wanted to continue.

So last year they began it with the retreat. "I invited 10 or 11 people, and everyone knew only one or two other people," said Fink. "And we had this great bonding experience."

Since then, the group has met consistently, with two women taking the responsibility for planning each time. And now they have 30 women on their e-mail list, with anywhere from 15 to 20 showing up for each meeting.

Deep friendships have been made, Fink said, and "how we've been able to connect to Judaism through our relationships with women has been a unique and fabulous experience."

The tradition of marking the new moon comes from the Book of Exodus. When Aaron begins to build the Golden Calf, some of the women choose not to give up their jewelry for the cause.

"There was an idea that women deserved a reward for not bowing to the pressure of the men in the tribe to give up their things for idolatry," said Rabbi Leslie Alexander, chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose. "That reward was that when the new month would come around, men were supposed to do all the work, like the cooking, and women were supposed to relax."

In addition, Alexander added, the fact that women's monthly cycles are linked to the moon lends itself to it being a holiday expressively for women to celebrate.

"A lot of women are trying to find pieces of the tradition that can be reclaimed in modern times," Alexander said. Rosh Chodesh is a natural one, she said, because it was always supposed to belong to women.

The new moon also signifies a new beginning and therefore brings with it a sense of optimism, Alexander said.

The Rosh Chodesh ceremony became popular in the 1970s with the rise of the feminist movement. What makes the Rosh Chodesh ceremony so widely marked now is that there is no one standard way to celebrate it. Each group is as unique as its participants; each meeting is as innovative and creative as the women who planned it.

Most groups open each gathering the same way, for example, introducing themselves by their matrilineal descent, or by lighting candles.

A different pair coordinates each meeting, although in some groups, there is a leader or two. Many groups prefer to meet in members' homes rather than at a synagogue, for a more intimate setting. Activities run the gamut; they can include text study, art projects, poetry writing, sharing personal stories, singing or social outings.

For ideas, many women turn to what are considered the classics of Rosh Chodesh literature, "Miriam's Well: Jewish Rituals for Women Around the Year" by Penina V. Adelman and "Celebrating a New Moon: A Rosh Chodesh Anthology," edited by Susan Berrin.

Recently published is "Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide" by Leora Tanenbaum, Claudia R. Chernov and Hadassah Tropper, edited by Carol Diament.

Another book, "Joining Lilith and Eve: A Rosh Chodesh Handbook" by Carole Burns, Ellen Cohn and Doris Wachsler, is forthcoming.

Whatever the activity, observing the ritual tends to create strong bonds between women who might not have known each other that well before they began.

"I've known some women in the group a long time," said Fink. "But I always learn something new about them at Rosh Chodesh. Things come up that don't in daily conversation, and it brings people together on a deeper level."

Jane Stepak of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto said social action was a large component of her synagogue's Rosh Chodesh group. (The group was begun as an offshoot of the sisterhood but now includes some non-synagogue members).

Participants in the Kol Emeth group often do text study, Stepak said, although once they did some improv, since one group member is an actor, and they also did a "bibliodrama," in which they acted out that week's Torah portion.

Recently, the group invited some members of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in East Palo Alto. While the turnout was not as great as the women would have hoped, Stepak said she hopes they will meet again. "I realized it is a first step," she said.

"It's a very uplifting experience to be with these women," said Stepak. "They are just really bright and generous with their spirit, and giving, and always thinking of how to make this world a better place."

At Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, the group can do anything from attending a cultural event, like the Jewish Film Festival, to reading a book and discussing it; recently, members read the Jewish women's book group favorite Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent."

While some of the meetings have a spiritual component, it's "more of a women's friendship, based on Judaism," said Sandy Reinhard, a member.

Reinhard said her group, whose members are in their 40s and 50s, has marked many lifecycle events together, and since none of the members are originally from the Bay Area, there's a sense of family among the women.

Not only is the group a "way for women to get together and talk about issues important to them," but "there's a real desire for us to have Jewish friends."

Nancy Bott was a member of two groups, one of them a random group of women who knew each other and the other from the Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

After several years, it became hard to think of new ideas, Bott said. Two years in a row, one of the groups went to the beach before Passover. One year, when the women descended the cliff to get to the sand, a stream had shifted, making it nearly impossible for them to pass. Being that they were there to mark Passover, it seemed almost mystical.

And once, the group spent the night together in the Santa Cruz mountains. Many of the women didn't know each other too well, Bott said, and they stayed awake the whole night, telling their stories.

Participating in the group "gave us a sense of our Jewishness," Bott said. "It helped form us as Jewish women."

In Fink's group, many of the women are "professional Jews," meaning they work for Jewish organizations, with quite a few of them in education. And while they are constantly educating others, they don't have the same opportunity to learn themselves.

"This is the way I do that for myself; it allows me to grow Jewishly," Fink said. "When you're a professional Jew, it's nice to have a way where you're also getting, not just giving."

The popularity of Rosh Chodesh groups has given rise to a challenge or two. One is whether the group will be open to new members. Some people feel that a group is not cohesive if new people are constantly drifting in and out, and the larger the group, the more difficult to establish intimacy among the women.

Stepak of Kol Emeth brought up another dilemma she isn't sure how to resolve: A few men in the congregation have heard such positive things about the Rosh Chodesh ceremony that they want to join.

"The men say, 'You are upset when our tradition says that women can't do certain things,' and they feel left out," she said, adding that sometimes non-Jewish friends of the women have been invited, but they draw the line when it comes to men.

"It's a good question," she said. "I don't know what to say."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."