Balancing the Sacred and the Everyday

The Women’s League Convention 2014 focused on the needs of sisterhoods and members, but it also celebrated a remarkable Shabbat.

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They came for a Women’s League convention. They left having had the experience of a lifetime. No one knew how the first Women’s League summer convention, over a Shabbat, would go… almost 400 women found out that it would be a remarkable opportunity to learn together, daven together, and celebrate together. Even old hands at Women’s League conventions (some having come to 25 of them!) said they would not have missed it for anything.

The four days began with a Judaica fair, a business plenum, and an optimistic report on the state of the League from President Rita Wertlieb. Dinner honored former President Evelyn Auerbach in celebration of her 90th birthday, and the evening featured a touching tribute by Rabbi Gordon Tucker to Rabbi Neil Gilman, recently retired from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Tucker acknowledged the importance of his teacher’s work on theology, praising its accessibility. Tucker, who holds a Ph.D in philosophy and is rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, then offered the keynote on the convention theme, Kodesh v’Chol: Balancing the Sacred with the Everyday. He spoke about the modern Jew’s often conflicted desire to discover the sacred in modern life and suggested that holiness is an acquired taste that can be achieved by internalizing the values that embody traditional Judaism.

Friday was dedicated to sisterhoods and making them successful, no matter the challenges they face. It was topped off with the entirely new Speedfest, five sessions of 17 options to choose from for a 12-minute introduction chock full of information and resources. It took a few minutes to catch on, but by the second time the whistles blew, the delegates were running to find their seats and hear from experienced Women’s League veterans.

After a few moments to catch our breath, we gathered to bid farewell to the outgoing officers and board, so ably led by Rita Wertlieb, and to install the 2014-2017 administration with Carol Simon as the new president.

Then there was Shabbat.

The beautiful voice and spirit of Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, music director of Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, New Jersey, drew us into an extraordinary Shabbat. Over the next 24 hours, voices were raised in prayer (with options to study with Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen or to engage in body/mind/ spiritual movement with Florida Region’s Sue Gurland) and there were various opportunities to study with the visiting scholars, including Scholar-in-Residence Rabbi Judith Hauptman.

A look at women’s religious identity had been planned for Saturday afternoon, with Rabbis Debra Cantor of Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom, Bloomfield, Connecticut, and Diana Villa from the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Because of the mounting crisis in Israel, the two women, in a discussion moderated by Executive Director Sarrae Crane, spoke about their shared concerns for the country’s security and their shock at the events leading up to the fighting. Both were among the first women to be ordained by their respective seminaries, so they went on to discuss how women rabbis are received both inside Israel and out. While in North America women rabbis face far fewer obstacles than those in Israel, they both confront the same issues experienced by many professional women.

A highlight of the day was the pre-Havdalah discussion, moderated by Rabbi Cantor, with JTS Chancellor Dr. Arnold Eisen and Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies Dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who spoke passionately about how the movement’s educational institutions continue to engage with modernity. In one light-hearted exchange, they both expressed amazement at their own adaptations of the communication technologies that have revolutionized access to learning and even created virtual communities. Their former students are engaging congregants in worship, study, and social activism in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. In one of the many comments that inspired applause, Chancellor Eisen, a renowned sociologist of contemporary Judaism, offered a passionate rejoinder to the recent Pew report’s findings about non-Orthodox Jewry: Conservative Judaism, while admittedly declining in membership, remains vibrant and dynamic.

After honoring more than 100 sisterhoods with Jewels in the Crown Awards for outstanding programming, the final convention session on Sunday focused on bullying in the public sphere. A panel of professionals involved in diverse aspects of the issue spoke movingly and quite personally. Peter Nelson, director of the New York office of Facing History and Ourselves, discussed the role of history and those who choose to do nothing; Rabbi Janet Perolman introduced Keshet, which focuses on advocacy for full inclusion for the Jewish GLBT community; and Naomi Taffet, a clinical social worker who specializes in treating victims of abuse, described the extent of the problem and its harrowing impact. The panelists were asked by moderator Lisa Kogen, Women’s League Education Director, how those in the audience could combat bullying back in their communities. All agreed that the first step is the recognition of the role of language – once language has wounded, the scars endure, often for a lifetime.

All in all, the four days presented ample opportunity to enjoy both aspects of our lives, the sacred and the everyday, and to consider how to make the everyday sacred as often as possible. Congratulations to Chair Margie Miller and Vice Chairs Phyllis Goldberg and Randy Schwartz, and their team.