Earlier this month, 50 Jewish women gathered to launch a new kind of Jewish communal space. SVIVAH is both a community and a resource clearinghouse, providing for the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional needs of Jewish women. The initial lineup of events demonstrates this commitment to serving a broad spectrum of women’s interests and needs: SVIVAH’s launch event focused on forming a personal spiritual connection to Chanukah; the second program addressed the need for a space where women can support each other through life’s transitions and challenges; and upcoming programs for 2019 include a girls' empowerment dance class and a discussion about the tradition of women’s liturgy and song.
SVIVAH’s name comes from the Hebrew word sivuv, to surround. “SVIVAH is about bringing people together,” said founding director Ariele Mortkowitz. “It is of us. By us. For us.”
SVIVAH does not intend to replace existing Jewish institutions but rather seeks to fill a void by offering something new: It isn’t for mothers, or wives, or singles; it’s not a club for women of any one stream of Jewish practice or affiliation; and it isn’t geared toward young professionals or seniors or any specific demographic in between. It is simply for women, full stop; a supra-denominational community for Jewish women at all stages of life.
“There is a disconnect between the abundance of resources and providers that exist to enhance the lives of Jewish women in our area, and the women who they are trying to serve. There isn’t an easy flow between the two and a way for them to find each other,” Mortkowitz explained. “SVIVAH is actively partnering with existing organizations and resource providers to help them find the women they are built to serve.”
In addition to its value as a vehicle for building a network of Jewish women, unrestricted by denomination or age, and its potential as a central resource hub, conversations with supporters of this nascent “intentional community” reveal that SVIVAH means something to women looking to connect to something larger than themselves.
“I find that synagogue life offers programming that relates to prayer, study, and my role as a mother of young children, but almost nothing to hold up, support, and nourish the spiritual journeys of Jewish womanhood,” said Caryn Moshinsky, a member of the Kemp Mill community, at SVIVAH’s launch event on Dec. 4. “I’ve long been a supporter of Ariele because I believe deeply that an intentional community of women is so sorely missing in my life personally. I can imagine that other women feel the same.”
Of Us. By Us. For Us.
While SVIVAH’s first event took place on the third night of Chanukah, the concept behind it has been percolating for years, stemming from the conversations Mortkowitz has had with Jewish women throughout her 15 years as a “mikvah lady” (ritual bath attendant) in the DC area. Previously, Mortkowitz was director of Mikvah Chaim at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue and founded the Agam Center associated with Mikvah Chaim. She was responsible for mikvah operations and developing educational, spiritual, and wellness programming for local women.
Women from Maryland, DC, and Virginia and across a broad spectrum of Jewish practice used Mikvah Chaim during her tenure, and her “whole inspiration comes from sharing these spaces with women.”
“In that communal role that I held, there was so much more to do,” she said. “I also found women were often experiencing something in their life journey that made them feel outside of the community – different or other – when in truth, there were many other women in similar situations, but they were not able to find each other.”
For over a year, Mortkowitz has been building the foundation of SVIVAH by asking local Jewish women what they want from Jewish communal life, and what programming they’d like to see. And at SVIVAH’s events, she invited women to join her in continuing to shape SVIVAH into the community they want it to be, an intentional space built by and for Jewish women.
“Institutionalized Judaism doesn’t have enough space for women to explore what they need,” said Mortkowitz. “This is a radically different way to build tzibur (community) – powered by a diverse collective.”
A Resounding Response
SVIVAH’s inaugural event, “A Rededication: A Community Conversation and Candle Celebration,” was held on Dec. 4 in a lounge at The Galaxy apartment building in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Mortkowitz opened the program by explaining her vision of SVIVAH and welcoming everyone in the room to help shape this intentional community. Rabbi Sarah Tasman, founder and CEO of the Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity, spoke about the themes of Chanukah and how they apply to the spirit of SVIVAH.
“The Hebrew word Chanukah means dedication. This is an opportunity for personal dedication, to dedicate a piece of Chanukah for yourself,” Rabbi Tasman said. Everyone was given an opportunity to reflect on what they want for themselves this winter for their personal wellness, self-care, or spiritual nourishment and to write down their thoughts on what they hope SVIVAH can do to enrich their Jewish communal life.
“In my personal life, I’m a feminist looking to advocate and uplift other women. I’m continually looking for and not finding a Jewish space to bring in this holistic feminist perspective,” said Rachel Gildiner, who lives in downtown Silver Spring. “I want to learn about and from female Jewish scholars, be in conversation with accomplished, caring Jewish female peers. I want to uplift and celebrate female stories in our tradition. I want it to be a focal point of my Judaism.”
“We function in our roles, our smaller communities, divided in our communities. If we could meet across communities, we can support each other in unique ways and accomplish something larger,” said Kemp Mill resident Lauren Praff.
On Dec. 16, SVIVAH held an event focused on empowered life transitions, “It’s All About the Becoming,” featuring guest speaker Dvora Entin, LCSW. Entin talked about grief cycles and explained how to support people through the different phases: the raw space, where people can give themselves space to focus on their feelings; the open space, where community members can bear witness and acknowledge these feelings, without trying to fix them; and the healing space, where people learn how to move forward.
“A lot of what happens in raw space is trying to convince ourselves we’re OK. But if we don’t give ourselves space to feel, it will eventually bubble up,” Entin explained. “In a safe space, we’re willing to share.”
Creating a space where women feel respected, validated, and supported through whatever they may be going through is a critical part of SVIVAH. At both events, Mortkowitz reminded everyone that what is shared in the room stays in the room – SVIVAH is intended to be a space where people can share anything and trust that their fellow Jewish women will respect the experiences they discuss. “There is so much to be gained by walking through life with others. I don’t want us to miss out and we don’t have to,” she said.
Attendees at both events expressed gratitude for what SVIVAH aims to accomplish and excitement for the future of this new venture.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I liked the title of the talk, because mikvahs are also a place of transition,” said Naomi Malka, mivkah director at Adas Israel in DC. Entin’s message about witnessing people’s feelings and experiences without trying to fix them resonated with her, especially since Adas emphasizes this focus on the interactive exchange when training mikvah guides.
Nikki Richman, from Bethesda, Maryland, also found the topic intriguing, and actively recruited friends to attend the event. “A community for women is really important and was lacking in my life... I hope to get something deep – to form new relationships, find new friends, and experience something spiritual.”
For Praff, Mortkowitz’s leadership is a big part of SVIVAH’s appeal. “I feel like the vision is especially promising and will remain real because Ariele is at its helm,” she said. “She makes it so real and profound; not political, nor a trend or a fashion statement, but a vision of an open space so women can meet in a new way.”
Heading into 2019, SVIVAH plans to continue reaching out to different demographics to better meet the needs of all Jewish women. Next year’s programs will include a krav maga self-defense class, a pre-bat mitzvah program, a women’s beit midrash (study hall), and many more conversations about how to expand this community.
To learn more about SVIVAH, visit svivah.org.
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is managing editor of Kol HaBirah.