Starting and Growing a Rosh Chodesh Group
Found In: Rosh Chodesh
By Ruth Berger Goldston and Merle Feld | Article
In the early 1970s, as Jewish feminism was being born in the United States, a group of American and Israeli women living in Jerusalem began gathering monthly to explore and create new rituals based on the celebration of the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, which had traditionally been observed as a minor festival, particularly by women.1
Over, the last twenty years, Rosh Chodesh groups have become more widespread in North America. Some have been started by members of the original group who had moved to other locations. The publication of Peninah Adelman's Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year in 1986 made the experiences of that original group available to a wider audience and provided program ideas and rituals that could be used by groups that were just beginning. More recently, groups have been started by women whose Jewish backgrounds range from Orthodox upbringing and yeshiva education to liberal, if not assimilated, upbringing and Jewish knowledge that has been acquired in adulthood. Women rabbis have started groups in their synagogues. Other groups have flourished under the aegis of Jewish communal organizations, and many have simply begun spontaneously in the community and have thrived as independent groups.
In addition, the scope of Rosh Chodesh groups has widened: some confine themselves to celebration of the new moon, while others have branched out into Jewish study, personal spiritual exploration, and what we used to call "consciousness-raising." Some groups meet on Rosh Chodesh, others meet on a day close to Rash Chodesh, and still others content themselves with simply meeting monthly, whenever it's possible for busy members to attend.
Unlike other Jewish women's organizations, Rosh Chodesh groups do not have any kind of central agenda imposed on them by local or national policy or leadership. Instead, the unifying theme of the groups is the exploration of Jewish women's issues, with particular emphasis on personal spirituality, ritual, and celebration. Each group that forms develops its own minhag (customs) and procedures to deal with the myriad of issues that all groups face, such as membership, program, leadership, and continuity. Most groups are relatively small 2 and at least somewhat autonomous, a setting that provides women with an opportunity to feel more empowered to take charge of their Jewish lives than they might feel in a larger, more institutionalized setting. For some women, this can be a very liberating experience. Others may hesitate, either because they don't yet trust themselves to participate in a group whose structure and purpose are not explicitly known in advance, or because their needs for Jewish women's community are being met in established organizations. We think it's helpful to think of Rosh Chodesh groups as growing "from the inside out," that is, developing group agendas, styles, and customs based on the concerns, issues, strengths, and interests that particular members bring to the group.
To speak of "starting" a Rosh Chodesh group without considering how groups grow and maintain themselves is a little like using a seed package that instructs you to put the seeds in holes in the ground without mentioning how deep, how far apart, and how and when to water and cultivate the seedlings. So, while we will focus on issues that arise in getting a group started–that is, how to bring women together for an initial meeting–we will also try to address what kinds of "growing pains" a group might experience in its early months, as well as some longer-term "maintenance" issues.
In our small, informal survey of Rosh Chodesh groups around the United States, 3we found that groups most often "start" in the minds and imaginations of one or two women who feel a need for an intimate setting in which to celebrate, study, and explore Jewish women's issues and their own experiences. A surprising number of groups have developed and been catalyzed by the migrations of women from one community to another. Often, it is the new person in a community who has previously been in a Rosh Chodesh group who provides the impetus for a group's birth, who acts as an important resource for a group's early development, or who may bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to a group that is running out of steam. It can be helpful to have a person available who has "done it before" to help guide the way, though it is by no means necessary. We hope that this chapter, as well as the book of which it is a part, will enable women of all Jewish backgrounds and experiences to feel the confidence that is needed to transform the "spark" in their minds and imaginations into reality.
First Steps in Getting Started
Let's say you're a woman who's got that "spark." You've heard about Rosh Chodesh groups and you wonder what it would be like to be in such a group. Or, you feel you'd like to talk to other Jewish women on a regular basis. Or, perhaps Jewish life in your community is not very satisfying to you and you are looking for an outlet for your spiritual needs. Or, you grew up, as so many of us did, in a Jewish environment where women's participation was minimal, and you've always yearned to find out more and do more, but it's terribly intimidating to take your first steps in a congregation that includes men who seem to know so much more than you.
Share your feelings and thoughts with others. Some will likely "resonate" to your concerns and share an interest in initiating a Rash Chodesh group.
Probably the two most frequently encountered obstacles at this stage are: (1) feelings of intimidation because you believe you're not smart enough, Jewishly educated enough, a real "leader," or "entitled" in some other more amorphous way to start a group, and/or (2) doubts about anyone else out there who feels the same needs you do. Let's consider both these impediments.
First, we'd like to point out that it's those of you who feel most intimidated who probably stand to gain the most from participating in a Rosh Chodesh group. But even women who feel relatively secure and act confidently in other areas of their lives seem to get cold feet about starting something Jewish that isn't a part of synagogue or other communal activities. Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is the feeling that you couldn't possibly know enough Jewishly to take responsibility for planning a meeting or designing a ritual. The first response to that feeling is, of course, you're right: no one ever knows enough Jewishly and there's always more to learn! The trick is to stop focusing on what you don't know, to start looking at what you do know, and to turn your ignorance into curiosity and the opportunity for learning. It's also true that no one person in the group needs to know everything (we'll get back to that later when we talk about leadership), and each person in a Rosh Chodesh group can contribute from her own unique skills, talents, and experience for the good of the group as whole. Some people are whizzes at creating a comfortable atmosphere or are skilled with Hebrew texts; others know group dynamics skills or play the guitar. Some are writers, while others are accountants, artists, teachers, nurses, craftswomen, mothers, or all of the above. What is exciting is having a wide range of skills and talents in the group; what is crucial is promoting an openness to, and a respect for, what each woman has to offer the whole.
A Rosh Chodesh group can provide a unique opportunity for women to share experiences. After all, we are experts at our own lives. Talking about our upbringing, relationships with parents and siblings, experiences with death and mourning, the need for a spiritual dimension in our day-to-day lives, the joys and pains of relationships with significant others, how it felt to have an aliyah for the first time–all are potential themes to explore. Sharing the tales of these experiences will broaden your own knowledge while creating a bond between group members.
Second, perhaps you feel that there are no other women who share your concerns. You may simply need to speak up and let people know that you're thinking about trying to get a group started. The "old girl" network–one person tells another, who tells another–could circulate the message. You may choose, as some women have, to advertise through a synagogue newsletter, in the Jewish press, or even via the personals column of your local paper. Perhaps ask others in your Hadassah chapter, at your local day care center, or at the seniors' center where you take Elderhostel classes. Sometimes a specific event, such as a women's Seder, or an occasion when women gather together around a common concern serve as the impetus to form a group.
The Initial Meeting: Establishing an Agenda
A group of women gathers, either in someone's living room, in the shul library, or at the Jewish Community Center. A leader or facilitator–often a woman who's been involved in organizing this first meeting–has planned an introductory program. The format of this program will vary, depending on the interests, expertise, and experience of the leader-facilitator. Some groups will observe a ritual or celebration that is tied to a theme associated with the Jewish month, while other groups may begin and end with a brief song, poem, or activity, but focus mainly on a semistructured discussion or study session.
Regardless of the format, this first meeting should ideally allow people to introduce themselves and begin to get to know one another in the context of a Rosh Chodesh group: that is, as Jewish women. One way of doing this is to have each woman introduce herself by her Hebrew or Yiddish name, and by the names of her mother and grandmothers (for example, "I am Malkah, daughter of Rivkah, granddaughter of Gittel and Sarah"). Sharing a brief Jewish autobiography, as well as one's hopes for, and interests in, the group, is another tool to becoming a group. These activities will hopefully highlight common experiences and themes which can become the basis for future programs and for the group's identity. The leader can facilitate this process by drawing out those who are reticent, containing those who go on at length, and emphasizing commonalties rather than differences among those present (for this reason, we don't encourage highly charged political issues to be the focus of an initial meeting).
By the close of the first meeting, one or several directions toward which the group could proceed have probably emerged. The focus of the group should remain somewhat fluid throughout the first several months, as members come and go and as people get to know one another better. Keeping open at this stage, in regard to people and format, may feel disorienting at times but is well worth the effort in the long run. At this stage, the group needs to establish some structure, to deal with logistics and to ensure continuity.
The range of program ideas is virtually limitless. Programs can include life cycle celebrations, observance of Jewish holidays, traditional and creative prayer, study of Jewish texts, artistic pursuits, learning new Jewish skills, and discussion about a variety of shared experiences. While connecting to the themes of the Jewish month can help the group focus, some groups may prefer to branch out into nonthematic areas.
Adapting ideas from the contents of this book, or other resources, to fit the needs and interests of your own group will provide useful seeds for growing hearty programs.
As we mentioned above, many groups use opening and closing rituals, recognizing that it's important to create a "sacred space" for the group's activities. A song, a poem, a prayer, or a D'var Torah can serve this purpose. In some cases, the same ritual is used at every meeting to create a sense of continuity; in others, the form remains the same but the content changes as different members participate. In groups where membership is open, a brief introduction activity may need to be part of the opening ritual, so that all present know each other's names and feel included. A closing ritual could provide a response to the just-completed event and include singing, speaking, or even movement.
How can you make your program participatory? Some very simple techniques, such as breaking into groups of two, three, or four for a discussion or an activity, will ensure that everyone has a chance to participate within a limited period of time. After these more intimate sessions, the entire group can gather again and share the themes and the process of the smaller groups. Beit midrash style study, in which people pair up to wrestle with a text, is a time-honored and most appropriately traditional approach, which can easily be adapted to the needs of a Rosh Chodesh group. Whatever the format and content of the program, the leader or facilitator can help people become involved by creating an atmosphere that welcomes and values the participation of each group member.
Membership: Who's In and Who's Out–And How Do We Decide?
The question of membership is one that faces all groups. You became part of the Jewish people either by being born that way or through the process of conversion; you join other groups by applying for membership and/or by paying dues. In order for a group to function, people need to know if they are "in" or "out" of it. Rosh Chodesh groups deal with membership in a number of ways, and no one way is "right" or "wrong." Also, in the course of a group's development, a membership policy that worked well initially may become ineffective as the group matures. Because a Rosh Chodesh group is typically small and at least semiautonomous, it ought to have the flexibility to modify its membership policies and procedures as its circumstances change.
One way to think about group membership is to consider its boundaries. Are the boundaries wide open, so that people come and go at will? Are they selective, letting in some people but not others, or at some times but not other times? Or is the group closed, with a fixed set of members that does not change?
Initially, many groups are open. Women respond to a public invitation or hear about an initial meeting from friends. Some groups remain open, often with a core of regular attendees and a smaller number of newcomers. The advantage of this format is that the group is constantly being infused with new blood, new enthusiasm, and new ideas. People "self-select," staying with the group if it meets their needs and dropping out if it does not. No one is excluded from membership, which is an appealing egalitarian ideal. The founder of one group that has continued to be open throughout its three-year life noted: "This has been a successful approach. There's a core group who comes nearly all the time, people on the 'fringes' who attend occasionally, and new people. We have a photo album and an orientation pamphlet that have helped people feel involved."
There can, however, be problems with the open group. It may be more difficult for people to experience intimacy and be willing to take personal risks when new members are always appearing. Programming may be more hit-or-miss when the participant group is a "moving target," and the group may have trouble forming an identity or coherent sense of itself. Finally, the group is always vulnerable to "invasion" by someone who can alter its chemistry in a destructive way. Whether or not this actually happens, the group may feel helpless to control who its members are.
Another membership model has selective boundaries. This can occur in several ways. Initially, one or two organizers may just invite women who, they believe, have a common vision and who will be compatible with one another. In later stages, if a group is to add members, they must be approved by the existing membership. People are either "invited" to participate, or they "apply" to the group to be admitted. While this gives the group more control than a completely open membership, it can result in hurt feelings on the part of those who are excluded, passionate disagreements within the group as these decisions are being made, and awkwardness between people who are "in" and people who are "out" who may know one another in other community settings. Another type of selective boundary is opening the group occasionally (perhaps once a year) to new members who are interested in joining. This permits the group to rejuvenate itself on a regular basis, while still being able to create a stable environment for its members.
Finally, a group can be closed. Initial membership is by invitation from the organizers, and no new members are admitted. The advantage of such a group is that it permits an extraordinary degree of intimacy and risk taking within it. However, it can become vulnerable to the development of rifts, as well as to losses through attrition, and this group model demands a high degree of commitment.
Leadership: If You Don't Lead, You Don't Become Involved!
When a new Rosh Chodesh group begins, the leader is usually the woman who has sparked the group to get together. As we mentioned, this person may be a newcomer to the community who has participated in other Rosh Chodesh groups or was perceived by others to have the skills and experience necessary to facilitate the formation of a new group. One woman expressed her reasons for starting a group: "I wanted to make a community for myself here–I guess that was very selfish! But I feel blessed that there were lots of women who wanted to try it."
In other instances, a leader or leaders emerge as the group is forming. The leader serves a crucial purpose in the group, particularly in its initial stages, for without her a group can very easily feel direcionless and unable to function. However, despite our conviction that just about any Jewish woman has the capability to start and lead a Rosh Chodesh group, we recognize that many women do not feel that they can be leaders, at least at the beginning. For some it's a matter of personality, and for others it's an issue of not having what are perceived to be the "qualifications" for the job. Whatever the reason, at least initially, it's likely that the leader or leaders of the group will be those who did the initial organizing, those who have the strongest Jewish backgrounds and thus feel confident and secure, and/or those who are skilled in group processes.
Explicit, centralized leadership may be essential to get a group off the ground, but unfortunately, it seems to bring with it some inevitable problems. Hierarchies can develop within the group, when some people feel closer and more connected to the leader, and therefore more empowered, and others feel farther away and more ineffectual. Two leaders can vie for control, fragmenting the group into factions. But, most critical for a Rosh Chodesh group, strong centralized leadership may prevent the members of the group from realizing their own potential within it. Instead of stretching themselves, taking chances at trying new skills, members may find it easier to let the leader run the show, grumbling when they're not satisfied and, perhaps, eventually losing interest in participating.
Many of us have been frustrated by our participation in groups, both in the workplace and in the community, because of these leadership problems. The women's movement has taught us that we can question some of the basic assumptions that seem to be the legacy of centuries of patriarchy. One of these assumptions is that of hierarchy, in which someone is at the "top" and therefore, inevitably, someone is also at the "bottom." Women, having been an underclass for so long, are particularly sensitive to the problems of those at the "bottom." We have learned that one solution is to create a more egalitarian group, where leadership functions are shared among group members.
We favor a shared leadership model for Rosh Chodesh groups, realizing that there are many ways that leadership can be shared. It's important to have a person, or a small committee of people, who will handle logistics–keeping track of a calendar and a membership list, notifying people of meetings, making sure there are events scheduled and places for meetings to take place. These functions could rotate from year to year, and they can provide opportunities for some people to make a valuable contribution to the group.
Programmatic leadership is best rotated so that, depending on the size of the group, each member has the opportunity to plan or help plan a program at least once yearly. A method that works well for one group is to have two members plan each session, bouncing ideas off each other in the planning stages and giving each other courage to take center stage at the session. Teaming up members who have more Jewish background and/or leadership experience with those who perceive themselves to have less is one way of encouraging everyone to "try their wings."
Our small survey of groups around the continent suggests that the transition from one leader to shared leadership can be tricky, though by no means impossible, to accomplish. The original leaders may have been eager to involve others and step back themselves, but, as one women put it: "When no one signed up to do a program, I struggled with how to deal with it. Should I ask someone, or let it flounder?" Initially, this woman chose to intervene by asking another person to lead the program. Later, she was able to "let go" by putting all the materials, including a guide to planning and facilitating, in a box that each program leader, in turn, used. Another leader had a harder time establishing shared leadership for the group she founded, because the women who attended were reluctant to take those roles. Ultimately, this group wasn't able to maintain itself without her. In some groups, a leader will need to work to develop and empower others by offering support as needed, helping members team up to take new responsibilities, and knowing where and how to let go, even if it means gritting one's teeth as a woman does things in her own, different way.
Many of the women with whom we spoke felt frustrated by the difficulty around relinquishing leadership. They also felt that their spiritual needs, which they hoped would be met by the group, were not being satisfied because they were always playing the role of leader. One woman said: "I felt that leadership was expected of me. I wanted to get something from the group as well as give to it." A rabbi commented: "I wanted to be a resource person for the group, but I knew I wouldn't have the time to prepare each session myself. I felt that I could get more spiritual satisfaction from the group if I wasn't always the one who was worrying about choreography, cake, and constancy."
Maintenance: How to Keep the Group Going
Once the Rosh Chodesh group has passed through the initial stages, you and other group members may experience some well-earned euphoria as the group acquires its own life and direction. Often, a tremendous sense of excitement surrounds events, as people get to know and trust one another, as issues that are deeply significant are discussed, and as the group experiences the cycle of the Jewish year in new and creative ways. Everyone is eager to participate, ideas abound, and energy seems limitless. However, at some later time, perhaps years down the road, the group may lose some of its initial enthusiasm due to a decline in membership, ideas growing stale, or an insurmountable crisis within the group. It's a moment when many groups flounder and when some don't survive.
How can a group manage these pivotal moments? The first step is to get the issues out in the open. Perhaps the group has simply become too small to function, and a new infusion of members is needed. Or, the format of the group, which was so exciting at the beginning, is no longer stimulating, and a new direction is needed. Sometimes, crises involve difficult issues to address: there may be "personality conflicts" or a history of hurt feelings and misunderstandings that have gone unspoken and unresolved. Whatever the circumstances, group members should be given the opportunity to share their feelings and perceptions.
Sometimes everyone agrees that the solution is fairly straightforward: look for new members; try a different type of program; get more people involved in leading sessions. In other instances, the group may be working well for some members, but not for others. Can the group accommodate itself to a variety of needs without sacrificing its integrity? Or does it make more sense for some members to leave the group and look for another, more appropriate setting (or another Rosh Chodesh group)? There is no single right answer, of course, but we believe that everyone benefits from an honest, open, and respectful discussion of the issues, regardless of the outcome.
Some practical suggestions: Many groups try to reserve one meeting a year for planning and assessing the "state of the group." These meetings may be more administrative than ideological, a sign that the group is functioning smoothly. In other years, a "core" conflict or issue emerges, and the group may need several sessions to explore it and reorient itself. A moderator (a group member who is comfortable in that role or an outsider) may be asked to assist with group process. Practicing empathic listening as well as straightforward, sensitive expression of thoughts and feelings will lead to a more satisfactory outcome.
Groups, like individuals, have a natural life cycle, as well as times of growth, times of crisis, and times of stability. The sad truth is that many Rosh Chodesh groups don't survive past the first few years. A multitude of explanations, including each group's own unique circumstances, can be brought forth to help us understand why this is so. We hope, however, that some of the tools we've provided here will help you and your group deal with some of the more common problems that Rosh Chodesh groups face.
Starting, and growing, a Rosh Chodesh group can seem a daunting task. Yet, with a bit of knowledge and resourcefulness, many women have been able to help groups get off the ground, and many groups have not only been born, but have thrived. We have found that being part of a Rosh Chodesh group has been a very special experience of community that we didn't find in other parts of our Jewish lives–a unique opportunity to lead and be led, to grow and to experiment, to learn and to teach, to struggle and to celebrate with our sisters.
Originally published in Celebrating the New Moon: A Rosh Chodesh Anthology, ed. Susan Berrin (Jason Aronson, 1996), pp. 85-95. Used by permission of the editor.