Last year, four Jewish professionals came together at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake to offer personal reflections on their relation to the Torah and how its teachings have connected to their lives.
With the book “Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives” as their jumping-off point, the panelists discussed “how we personally connected Torah to a piece of our lives,” said Rabbi Loren Monosov, the religious leader of the Woodcliff Lake congregation, who was on the panel.
Rabbi Monosov will participate in this year’s program as well. She will join Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, the synagogue’s director of congregational education, and longtime Jewish educator Miriam Gray, who was associated with the shul for a long time and now is an adult education teacher at Temple Sinai in Tenafly. The three women will talk about their favorite Jewish holidays.
Centering on “My Jewish Year, 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” by Abigail Pogrebin, the December 7 program will echo Ms. Pogrebin’s approach, combining cultural and theological explanations of the Jewish holidays with autobiographical material. Rabbi Kniaz gave a shout-out to congregant Alayne Pick, chair of the shul’s Keruv Committee for Community Engagement and a co-chair of the continuing education committee, for suggesting both this book and last year’s selection.
Rabbi Monosov described the upcoming program as “a night to come together as a community and learn. Each presenter will talk about a particular holiday and how it is meaningful to her. Hopefully, by the end of the evening, people should learn more about the holidays we discuss and find a holiday that resonates with them. It does not have to be a holiday we presented on. Rather, they might come to appreciate a holiday or a memory in a new light or add a new tradition to their holiday celebration.”
While all the presenters are women, Rabbi Monosov said that was a “mere coincidence” and that the discussion “would have been as meaningful or fruitful if the panel included males.” Indeed, she hopes that men will attend the program. However, Rabbi Monosov added, it is significant that all the presenters are “Jewish professionals who balance our own personal celebration with our professional lives. That balance impacts our holidays in a profound way, sometimes making them more meaningful and sometimes making them much more challenging with the competing needs at the same time.”
Describing the upcoming program, Ms. Gray, who lives in Westwood, said it will be a way of “personalizing the holiday — giving it an individual feel,” as opposed to an academic one. Ms. Pogrebin’s book demonstrates that “the holidays are only meaningful if you participate,” she said. During the years when Ms. Pogrebin did not observe the holidays, “she had a childlike view of them and distant feelings.” But later, when she began to follow the Jewish calendar actively, “she really got to understand what our Sages intended, and why they made the rules surrounding the holidays.”
Ms. Gray believes that men and women approach the holidays “very differently.” With certain exceptions, she said, it is more common for women to take a hands-on approach. “It’s part of the fabric of our lives as Jewish women, very much a part of us.” For the most part, she said, “men aren’t doing the shopping, or planning the meals. A man’s presentation would be just as personal, but with a different viewpoint.”
Ms. Gray chose Yom Kippur for her discussion; her favorite time of the year is Sukkot, but Rabbi Kniaz already had dibs on it. Yom Kippur, Ms. Gray said, “is one day a year of no responsibility, except to sit in shul, and I love that.” You don’t have to be concerned with anything, and that allows a deeper exploration of the day’s spiritual aspects. “It’s a very cerebral day — no laundry or meals,” she said. “I find it peaceful. I don’t even come home during the break, although I may take a walk. There’s something about Yom Kippur — the spirituality, the awe.”
Her hope, she said, is that after she shares her personal feelings with the audience, “some will make a choice to try to observe it. You can better understand the chaggim by doing them. If you don’t take that step and make that effort, then you’re robbing yourself of a potentially enriching experience.”
She recalled that one year, knee-deep in Pesach preparations, she began to understand the mindset of the sages who created the laws regarding that holiday, “what was in their minds when they were doing it.” Sweeping out the house, “I began to understand that I was getting ready for something new, exciting, and different.”
Rabbi Kniaz, who lives in Teaneck, described the upcoming program, as well as last year’s event, as opportunities to express very personal connections. She noted that the presenters not only will choose a holiday to discuss but will “connect to both observance of the holiday and the values embedded in it.” She feels that since the three presenters are of different ages and have very different personalities, “we play off each other really nicely.”
Addressing the issue of differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of the holidays, Rabbi Kniaz said there are definitely differences but she doesn’t know whether to attribute them to experience or to biology. Most of the Jewish holidays have a strong home element. “Not to stereotype, but that fact that there is a strong home element does plug it into something that women by nature, or by circumstance, are very much involved in,” she said.
She will be discussing Sukkot, basing her observations and anecdotes on the theme of hachnasat orchim, hospitality. “It really revolves around that — eating in the sukkah, hosting people,” she said. “I’m going to say why that’s important to me and tell stories about Sukkot and hosting in general.”
Rabbi Kniaz said that as an educator, she is particularly concerned about putting guests together. “I like it to be intergenerational, to have some variety, so there will be interesting conversations.” Joking that her quest for an interesting combination of people might be described as “Downton Abbey with paper plates,” she added that she also considers the plight of “people who need a place.” Calling that a “chesed orientation,” she said she had created a program at Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan “where designated families would be responsible for setting extra plates at their Shabbat table and inviting people they did not know.”
That, she said, was based on a practice she pursued in her own home, through which she came to meet “some really interesting people.” Her son, Matan, grew up with that, she said, “asking ‘Who’s coming?’ every Friday night.
She and her husband, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, also took a particular interest in the Eastern European graduate students who work at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires during the summer and “sometimes needed a place to stay before and after camp, or to store their luggage.
“We became that way station,” she said. “We met amazing people. On one memorable night, we had 14 people sleeping in the house. All the bedrooms and the basement were full. One person said, ‘Everyone needs a Shabbat.’”
Rabbi Kniaz’s hope for the upcoming program is that people will become interested in observing the holidays they hear about, “or in more aspects of them and making forays into these values.” She acknowledged, however, that, “If you’re not immersed in an observant community, it feels alien to invite people you don’t know.”
The panel is “not academic or instructional per se,” she said. “There will be a lot of anecdotes and personal feelings. It’s very accessible and will make people think, ‘This is something I could consider.’”
Who: Rabbi Loren Monosov, Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, and educator Miriam Gray
What: Will discuss Abigail Pogrebin’s “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew
When: On Thursday, December 7, at 7:45 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, 87 Overlook Drive in Woodcliff Lake
Why: For the 5778 Rabbi/Scholar Symposium, “Hearing Women’s Voices”
For more information: Call (201) 391-0801 or go to www.tepv.org.