‘Make it Happen’ on International Women’s Day and Bloody Sunday

Today is the commemoration of Bloody Sunday – that day in Selma, AL 50 years ago that is seared into our visual memory, even for those who were not there or not even alive at that time. Hundreds of civil rights activists standing toe to toe with hostile state troopers wielding billy clubs and an angry mob ready to attack. Like Moses standing before Pharoah, they choked down their fears and dared to ‘speak truth to power.’

Many heroes joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day and throughout the struggle for civil rights. Our nation’s soul owes them a debt of gratitude: the freedom riders who risked their lives in the cause of justice; the students who faced gauntlets of hatred for the right to go to school; the men and women who sat together at lunch counters; the lawyers who defended them and challenged unjust laws; the clergy who spoke truth from the pulpits of churches and synagogues despite bomb threats and arson; and the politicians who, finally, heard their pleas and changed their hearts.

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Voices of WRJ: Ki Tisa

by Dr. Sharon Z. Draznin

Parashat Ki Tisa, in the book of Exodus, begins with Moses taking a census of the Israelites (men over the age of 20) and collecting a half-shekel from each person to be used for the construction and upkeep of the Tabernacle. Taking a census involves counting, to determine the total number or to have merit, importance, or value, as in, “Your contribution really counts.”

When I look at the more literal meaning of counting, I can see a direct relationship to WRJ and sisterhood in terms of membership. It is vitally important to the health of our cherished organizations that we encourage and nurture membership. Even though this portion refers to adult Israelite men, we can, in these modern times, and in a more inclusive and participatory society, understand that the example stated above is one that creates a positive and healthy model for us today. I encourage you to think about ways you can involve yourself and others in becoming active members of your local sisterhood and of WRJ in a larger and broader sense.

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Why I’m Done Looking Up to Queen Esther

by Kelly Hershberg

As a child, Purim was one of my favorite holidays. Costumes, candy, and being allowed – nay, encouraged – to make noise in synagogue: What’s not to love? As a young Jewish girl, there was an extra special reason, too, to love Purim: Queen Esther.

Biblical heroes skew heavily male, and even among our few female heroines, Esther stands out. Although Miriam didn’t play second fiddle to a husband, she was outnumbered by her brothers, both of whom had official capacities in leading the Israelites while she had none. Ruth had agency, but her story of filial love and duty lacks the bombast of Esther’s narrative.

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Purim: A Story of Gender Bias and Sexism

by Helene Debowsky

As I started to work on this article, my mind was on the story of Purim and thought of it as an example of Women’s Lib. (My formative years were the 60’s when the feminist movement started.)  I saw Vashti as a strong woman who wouldn’t take garbage from anyone around her. I said to myself: “Good going; you’re courageous, strong, and assertive. You’re the first liberated woman.”

In those days it was the law of the land that every man shall be the master of his home. I’m glad things changed over the years!

As I did my research into Vashti, my opinion of her changed some. I read that she had danced naked before her husband and his drunken friends many times before and it was only because she had a bad rash, that she refused this time—talk about vanity! No, Vashti was no feminist; she viewed herself as men of her times did: as a beauty-object. She used make-up to cover her flaws and worked to make herself picture-perfect. Her level of confidence was weighed daily by a scale and a mirror. She was a woman of low self-esteem.

And where does Esther fit in this picture. Did she have a healthy self-esteem? Did she value her looks?

We are told that Esther is passive and submissive. All her life she has obeyed the men in her life. As a child she was taken in by Mordechai as a foster daughter, then taken in to the King’s harem and taken by the King. She does not reveal her identity at the palace because Mordechai has commanded her not to tell. She requests nothing at the harem even after she is crowned Queen. She is a model of docility.

When Mordechai tells Esther she must plead to the King to save the Jews, she does not know what to do. She knows that those who appear before the King unbidden are condemned to die but also has loyalty to Mordechai and her people.

In this moment of fate, Esther discovers she is not so different from Vashti. Esther takes control of the plan; changing and amending it as she sees fit. Like Vashti she will appear before the King only when she decides that the time is right—in this case after three days of fasting and praying. As she marshals her strength to save her nation, she must revisit the experiences of her shunned predecessor and learn from them.

Esther is the true feminist, because she took control of the situation and did it “her way.”

On a personal level, I hope you all can find the time to help WRJ grow, to show the importance of women of all ages in our modern society!

Helene Debowsky is Women of Temple B’nai Israel, Clearwater, FL, Co-President. Previously, she held the title of Operations Vice President. She has been a member of Temple B’nai Israel for 38 years and on the sisterhood board for 15 years.

Reflecting on a Meaningful Jewish Disability Advocacy Day

by Jordan Dashow

One of the first things I learned about as the legislative assistant working on disability rights was that February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) and that the RAC and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) (as the co-chairs of the Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of over two dozen Jewish organizations advocating for disability rights) plan an annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) to coincide with JDAM. However, none of the stories I heard about JDAD nor the planning of it could prepare me for the excitement of the day itself: an the amazing opportunity to see 90 Jews from across the U.S. converge on Capitol Hill to advocate for disability rights on Wednesday.

The morning began with a welcome from Janet Livingston, co-chair of JFNA’s Disability Committee, and then Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the RAC’s Director, shared some words of Torah as he discussed how Amalek’s sin was not just attacking the Israelites when they left Egypt but attacking those who were at the back of the community—the old and people with disabilities. Our obligation, Rabbi Pesner explained, is to put individuals with disability at the center of our community, not on the fringes.

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Voices of WRJ: T’tzaveh

by Resa Davids

Parashat T’tzaveh is devoted to four sets of detailed instructions. Not one of the topics is relevant to my life. I have picked a few olives in my day, but I am not about to bring clear olive oil to the Tent of Meeting to light the Ner Tamid. I am not a seamstress (in fact, the required blouse that I had to present in 8th grade sewing class wound up in the hands of my mother’s dressmaker so that I would not fail the class). Therefore, the instructions of how to prepare the apparel for Aaron and other priests do not relate to me. Sacrifice and the regulations related to the incense altar? No, not relevant, and not even stimulating.

The time has come to read each verse with its commentary. And then it is time to read the articles and views written at the end of the parashah. I begin to understand that there are some issues embedded in the text which could become topics of interest to me and to my readers. Slowly, these topics begin to meld into a compelling theme.

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Speak! [breathe]: What I Learned in Speakers Development Training

by Rozan Anderson

This post is an account of the very popular Speakers Development Training, which took place at WRJ Fried Leadership Conference 2015 on January 30, 2015 in Austin, TX. 



Good morning/afternoon/evening, everyone!     [pause]

Thank you so much for inviting me to share with you my experience as a participant in WRJ’s Speaker Development Program a few weeks ago in Austin, TX. About 35 of us attended the training, which was held just before the start of the 2015 Fried Leadership Conference.     [look around – make eye contact!]

I enrolled for the program, thinking that it’d be a good investment in my personal development. I am a past sisterhood president, a member of the WRJ Board and Executive Committee, and first vice president of my congregation. I’ve spoken professionally throughout my career, though not frequently. Since I’d like to represent WRJ, my congregation, other organizations, and myself as well as possible, I figured that it would be great to enhance my skills and comfort with public speaking.     [speak  s l o w l y]

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Voices of WRJ: T’rumah

by Phyllis Bigelson

Parashat T’rumah tells of the beginning of the building of the Mishkan, where God would dwell among the Jews as they traveled in the desert. The text does not state that God shall actually dwell in the sanctuary, but that he “may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). God is not living in the Mishkan, but instead among the Israelites themselves wherever they travel.

In my own life, I have traveled back and forth from the East Coast to the West, first to care for my mother and now for my sister, with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I know God always travels with me and is there to help guide my way and give me strength, even when I am far away from my own family, friends, and synagogue. When I had the difficult task of traveling across the country and finding an Alzheimer’s home for my sister this past year, I called upon the WRJ women in her area for help. Within an hour, I received telephone calls from a Rabbi and several WRJ sisters offering assistance and guidance. The WRJ community has always been among my “travelers” by supporting me emotionally wherever I travel. I am not sure I would have been able to handle this situation by myself. God is living among us every day, wherever our roads may lead us in life.

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The YES Fund Gives L’Dor V’Dor

by Sara Eiser

This speech was delivered at a Circle of Service YES Fund dinner honoring Sara at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA.

When Rabbi Judith Bluestein died, the entire Cincinnati community mourned. A native of Cincinnati, she had graduated from my high school years before me and been a consummate learner and reader. She had no children and died too young, and after her death her sister was left to decide what to do with her huge rabbinic library. Her sister called Hebrew Union College, and offered all of Rabbi Bluestein’s books to us rabbinical students in a beautiful act of generosity. Even more beautifully, I now have a book in my rabbinical library that once belonged to a rabbi I never knew, a way of showing that Jewish learning is truly l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

All of you who are sitting here tonight know what it’s like to invest in people you don’t know but feel intimately connected to. This is the central tenet of the YES Fund, and we all know and feel its impact. Our URJ camps are strong, the HUC-­JIR campus I attend in Cincinnati and the Jerusalem campus I attended last year are beautiful and thriving, and the WRJ is supporting the efforts of ARZA, the Reform Israel Fund, in its run for the upcoming World Zionist Organization elections. In so many ways, your contributions to the YES Fund put each and every one of you at the center of our Movement by supporting our youth, our professionals, and liberal Judaism in the state of Israel.

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Voices of WRJ: Mishpatim

The last few parashot have had the Israelites more than frantic. They have left Egypt, crossed the Sea, begun their journey through the wilderness, and encountered crises of lacking both food and water.

There has been an uprising and the beginnings of a mutiny. The Ten Commandments have been given to the people and amazingly received and accepted, “Na’aseh v’nishma, We will do and we will understand:” a concept I personally find remarkable but which I believe we still practice to this day.

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