by Rachel Eisen, Director of Annual Giving
Jewish rituals and religious observance rely on community, and people are the backbone of communities.
That’s what I walked away with after seeing the film, The Women’s Balcony. The film is about people from a small Sephardi congregation in Jerusalem, whose lives are disrupted when the upstairs women’s prayer section collapses. Their synagogue is in ruins and the congregation in despair, when an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from a nearby seminary jumps in, appearing to save the day.
Alas, this rabbi wants his new community to be observant in his way – which is more stringent than the congregation’s own custom, and his stringencies have a disproportionate effect on women.
There is much to delve into with this movie: what it means to be observant, the power dynamics and relationships between Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, the false dichotomy between piety and empowerment, the role men have to play – and must play – in dismantling gender inequity.
But one of the bigger issues at play here is community, and the balancing act between honoring and prioritizing people – real, feeling humans with needs and desires – and Jewish law, ritual, and tradition – the substance of what brings us together as a people.
Newcomer Rabbi David wants to prioritize halacha, Jewish law; the women of the congregation want to prioritize community and people.
But as Jews, religious observance and community go hand-in-hand. What is the point of having a brand-new Torah scroll (as Rabbi David wants), if half the community – the women who consistently show up, who joyfully take on the responsibilities of organizing festivities for life cycle events – can’t be there to celebrate because their prayer section is left un-repaired?
Here at Mayyim Hayyim, we work on this balance every day. Halacha, Jewish law, is one of our Seven Principles, but so is Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people (and our differences), as is Klal Yisrael, the recognition that we are all part of a community, together.
It’s important to us to have a kosher mikveh: constructed properly according to the law, available for all the commanded reasons, and able to accommodate the customs of someone strictly observant.
It’s also important for us to have a mikveh where all Jews and those becoming Jewish feel welcome and included in whatever way is authentic for them – not just because we wrote it down in our mission, but because our guests are real people, with real human needs and emotions. It’s important for us that someone who is mourning a loss or healing from cancer treatments, coming out as queer, or celebrating a graduation has a place where they can find comfort and solace, or to rejoice with family and friends – even if that wasn’t exactly the purpose of a mikveh the first time it was used in the Torah.
Finding the balance between halacha and community was a challenge in The Women’s Balcony; yet it’s something at the forefront of our minds here at Mayyim Hayyim, every day. Mayyim Hayyim exists not just for the idea of being welcoming, but also because our community is full of people who need and cherish that welcome.
The result is that real people come here every day, feeling valued and truly part of our community. We see that impact in the stories people share with us, whether they tell us in person, in our guestbook, or write for this blog. Read those stories – and you’ll see why we take the values Ahavat Yisrael and Klal Yisrael so seriously.
Rachel Eisen is Mayyim Hayyim’s Director of Annual Giving. She gets her daily inspiration each morning when she reads the previous day’s guestbook entries.