Members of B’not Esh
My relationship with B’not Esh has been one of the longest-standing, and most productive, of my life. I was there at its inception—in 1981—and have been coming ever since. Through B’not Esh I discovered that there were dramatically more open alternatives to the “traditional egalitarian” communities and modes of prayer in which I had participated in various havurot. We’ve explored God-language, movement, meditation, art and politics, as modes of spiritual expression (and vice versa); challenged ourselves to see the deep connections between politics, spirituality, sexuality, and more. Over the years, B’not Esh has led me to put almost every aspect of my life under a microscope, and to explore how to work more effectively with others toward creating the world in which I/we wish to live.
In addition to being a member of B’not Esh, I have engaged in writing, speaking and various forms of activism to address issues of feminism and LGBT inclusion within the Jewish community. I taught political science and women’s studies at Smith College for over forty years, while also singing in a local peace and justice chorus, and serving on the Northampton Housing Partnership, to promote affordable housing. I am now retired and living in NY, still singing in a chorus, enjoying regular time with my granddaughter, and devoting energies to addressing racism and white supremacy in the Jewish community and beyond.
Penina came of age in the 1960’s when Jewish Feminism was also coming of age. She wrote a book in 1976 called Riding the Nightmare with her mother, the historian, Selma R. Williams. It was about witchcraft persecution in Europe and Salem. This ignited her awareness of the oppression of women the world over which has led to a lifetime of writing about Jewish women, creative ritual and Midrash-making.
Joining B’not Esh in 1981, she has felt the group to be a tremendous support for her writing and continuing development as a Jewish feminist and human being. She continues to work as a psychotherapist with adults and as a Spiritual Director with rabbinical students in the Boston area. Currently, she is at work on a fictionalized memoir which begins at Creation.
When I read the preface to Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion (1979) where Judith Plaskow and Carol Christ say they would not have finished graduate school in Religion without each other’s comradeship, I cried. Five years earlier I had dropped out of such a grad school because I couldn’t find a comrade. Joining B’not Esh in its second year, I found the companionship I yearned for to explore and create new understandings of spirituality and theology based on feminist experience and rooted in community. As a social worker and feminist psychotherapist, I became a professor of Pastoral Counseling and co-founder of the Spiritual Direction program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where I’ve been for over 23 years; I was a founding teacher of Jewish Spiritual Direction training programs at Elat Chayyim/Isabella Freedman, the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Boston, and currently as consultant and teacher at HUC-JIR in New York and Los Angeles. I live in Philadelphia, now a grandma, part of a vibrant, progressive, multi-faith community where I am always learning and growing as an activist working toward creating a socially and racially just, sustainable human presence on/with our sacred earth.
Marla Brettschneider has been with B’not Esh since around 1995. To pay the bills, she is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire with a joint appointment in Politics and Women’s Studies. She has fancied herself an activist and publishes widely on Jewish diversity politics.
Dianne was the first woman from the Syrian Jewish community to be ordained as a Rabbi. She graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1995, where she was awarded several fellowships and a prize for academic excellence. Since that time she has served as an educator, scholar-in-residence, and administrator for multiple organizations in the Jewish world, including CLAL, the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, The Curriculum Initiative and UJA Federation. In 2007 she was named one of fifty top rabbis by the Washington Post online. She now serves as Associate Rabbi & Director of Life Long Learning at Romemu in New York. Besides leading education efforts at Romemu she currently co-teaches the Arts Beit Midrash at the Skirball Institute with Tobi Kahn, teaches courses at UJA Federation and writes and speaks regularly on Torah, Jewish values and family life, Jewish ethnicity and Judaism and disabilities. Dianne and her journalist husband Larry live on the upper west side of Manhattan and have three children.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland speaks and writes about the inclusion of LGBTQI people and interfaith families in religious life. She is the co-editor of Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives [Skylight Paths Publishing, 2015]. Prior to joining Sha’ar Zahav, Rabbi Copeland was the Director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area where she helped couples navigate a diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds. She served for thirteen years as a university Rabbi, first at UCLA and later at Hillel at Stanford University. She earned a Masters in Theological Studies and Secondary Teaching Credential from Harvard Divinity School in 1995, and a rabbinical degree from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2000. In 2005 she was recognized as being an Exemplar of Excellence by Hillel’s International Center, the highest individual honor for Hillel professionals. She served as the Cooperberg-Rittmaster Rabbinic Intern at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City, the world’s largest Jewish LGBTQ community and has carried that work into her career with college students. Mychal is a certified yoga instructor and fuses Jewish spirituality with movement in her yoga teaching.
Mary Gendler is a retired Psychologist living in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In the 70’s and 80’s she wrote some of the earliest articles “outing” and lauding some of the earliest feminists in the bible, Lillith and Vashti.. She proposed new rituals for girls, including a special ceremony for first menstruation, and a female “circumcision” ceremony at 8 days which involved the ritual rupture of the baby’s hymen. She spoke widely to different groups, especially women, about the importance of treating women as equals in Jewish practice, of modifying the language of prayers to include “she”, and of referring to God as both male and female. She also stressed the importance of women being rabbis. She has been a member of B’not Esh since its inception, She remains an avid feminist, and is thrilled to see the many changes and opportunities for women in Jewish liturgy and practice.
I’ve been a member of B’not Esh for more than thirty years. In that long journey there have been different eras of my life from the early years of training as a social justice organizer, rabbi and then therapist, to juggling earning a livelihood while having a house full of five young children, and now having an emptier nest and a whole new opportunity to engage with the world. My questions have stayed consistent: how to make my contribution to a better world, how to be part of a web of intimate connection, how to be a lifelong learner as I do all that? I’m in my eighteenth year as Rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia, I teach and supervise at the therapy training center Council for Relationships and work half of every week at the social justice organization POWER: An Interfaith Movement, currently chairing the work towards racial and economic justice on a livable planet. My current motto is Work Hard, Play Hard.
Sue Levi Elwell
I am one of the founders of B’not Esh, and the deep connections made and nurtured in this collective have been a primary anchor and continued source of challenge and growth in my life and work. After nearly 20 years of service to the Reform movement, I now serve as a Spiritual Director, a rabbi-activist, and A1 with Philadelphia’s Anna Crusis, the oldest feminist choir in the nation. I was privileged to work with extraordinary colleagues as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), The Open Door Haggadah (2002), as poetry editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2008), and Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (2013). I am the joyful mother of two and a half grown daughters and am an ecstatic savta to two young Brooklynites.
I’m a poet, a mentor to rabbis, a Jewish educator, activist, playwright (details on my website merlefeld.com). I am also a straight long-married woman with two adult children, a loving friend to many. I am happiest when helping people explore, develop, cherish their deep selves; sitting on my porch; making Shabbos; reading my poetry and opening people’s hearts. I’ve been a member of B’not Esh since 1984: this community of beloved friends and fellow seekers has pushed me, inspired me, encouraged me to grow and become my best self.
Barbara C. Johnson
I’m a 79-year-old retired professor of Anthropology & Jewish Studies (Ithaca College), now living happily with my partner in rural Vermont, where I’m involved in our small synagogue and various forms of racial justice activism, though unfortunately far away from my children and grandchildren. I’m a convert, having formally embraced Judaism in 1983 after many years of study and Havurah-style involvement – profoundly influenced by my long-term relationship with the “Cochini” Jews of South India in India and in Israel. Though I first met their community briefly in 1968 while I was living in India, I lived closely with them in Israel during my two years residence and many other visits there, and I’ve published extensively on Cochini Jewish history and culture with a focus on their women’s music. During my 34 years of membership in B’not Esh, I’ve loved our creative ritual celebrations, laughter and struggles – our differences and shared personal commitments to each other – and our growing commitment to the explicit social justice goals embodied in our 2018 Vision Statement, and to increased Jewish racial and cultural diversity in our membership.
Min Kantrowitz was brought up in an anti-religious Jewish socialist-leaning household in New York. Unlike most kids, she wanted to go to Hebrew School, but her parents refused. That spark of desire for spiritual life has grown through the years. She is a twin, a mother, a grandmother of 3 and has been married to the same man for more than 50 years. She is a former psychologist and a former architect/planner in addition to being a semi-retired Rabbi. Several years ago she wrote a spiritual guide to counting the Omer and is now working on a book of prayers and person prayer/reflections with a Muslim woman and an Episcopal woman. A lover of learning, of the desert Southwest, of words, of birds, of books, and of ritual, Min treasures exploring her friendships and the landscape of people and the earth around her.
Jane Rachel Litman
Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman directs the Jewish Roundtable of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies at the Pacific School of Religion, and is the Rabbi of the Chico Havurah, a diverse and welcoming community. Prior to Chico, Jane served as the Rabbi of LGBTQ outreach congregations Sha’ar Zahav and Kol Simcha. Jane has been a consultant on religious education for alternative families for the Metropolitan Community Church and National Council of Churches. Jane was a lecturer at California State University Northridge, where she co-founded the Queer Studies Institute. An LGBTQI and AIDS activist for over twenty-five years, including serving on the Board of the March on Washington and Freedom to Marry, Jane is widely published in the fields of feminism, trans* and queer theory, and is the co-editor of the award winning Lifecycles series. Jane’s latest piece is the chapter on Judaism in Struggling From Within, a multifaith look at religion in American from an LGBTQI perspective.
Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow works as the Director of Spiritual Care at Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston. She is a graduate of Oberlin College, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a certified chaplain. She was the first Conservative Movement intern at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in NYC, and a founder of the Bavli Yerushalmi Project. Her current work includes leading a multi-campus chaplaincy department and CPE program, chairing a hospital ethics committee, leading an LGBTQ aging initiative, and is now beginning to focus more on chaplaincy research. She is the co-author of Deathbed Wisdom of the Hasidic Masters and many articles related to aging and spiritual care. She lives in Newton MA, is the mother of three children and is married to Michael Paasche-Orlow.
Judith Plaskow is a Jewish feminist theologian and a founding member of B’not Esh. The group has been crucial to the development of both of my feminist perspective and my spiritual life. I have formed life-long friendships through B’not Esh and learned how to begin to imagine what it means to create a feminist Judaism. B’not Esh taught me how to create new rituals, stretch the boundaries of Jewish thought and practice, and explore the intersection of gender and gender identity with sexuality, race, class, politics, and many other issues. I have learned a sense of power as a Jew through the group that I can’t imagine having acquired in any other context. My partner Martha Ackelsberg and I are both retired from teaching and are writing, singing in a chorus, doing social justice work, going to the theater and grandparenting, among other things.
Reb Rayzel or Geela Rayzel is an “unorthodox rabbi,” your basic wild woman Shechinah Priestess. She was ordained at the Reconstructionist seminary, honored as an Eshet Hazon and inducted as a Kohenet. She joined B’not Esh in the early 80s, and was also one of the original members of Women of the Wall in Israel. Reb Rayzel has served four congregations, and yet her path is one of the artist and ritual leader. Author of two children’s books, Angels for Dreamtime and New Moon, she hopes to influence the next generation. She resides in the Philadelphia area where she performs weddings, paints tallitot, offers Shechinah Oracle readings, teaches about spirituality and the Jewish mysteries, as she is guided on her path in service to the Divine Feminine. Her websites: www.shechinah.com and www.interfaithJewishweddings.com.
A member of B’not Esh from the beginning, I am a rabbi, teacher, and writer. I was ordained in 1982 and after 10 years of campus work and 15 years teaching in a Jewish community high school, since 2009, I work with rabbinical students at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, directing a rabbinic mentoring program as well as a new Spirituality Initiative. I love my work in spiritual companioning, or accompaniment, formally known as “spiritual direction” and teaching Jewish mindfulness meditation and traditional Jewish texts. I also serve as the co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction and its training program, Morei Derekh. My articles, biblical commentary and midrash have appeared in various books and periodicals including Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of our Lives and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. In Crossing Cairo: A Jewish Woman’s Encounter with Egypt, I share my experiences living in Egypt in 2006 with my family and explore the question of what it means to genuinely listen to the “Other’s” narrative and use it as a lens for examining one’s own. My life partner, Reuven Firestone, and I are blessed with three wonderful adult children.
Marcia Cohn Spiegel
Marty. At 90 I am the token elderly member of our community. A graduate of Hebrew Union College School of Jewish Communal Service, I am retired from being a facilitator of groups on women’s spirituality, sexual and domestic violence and alcoholism and addiction and have written on these subjects in Jewish anthologies and periodicals. I taught women’s studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) for many years, and worked with women in the Former Soviet Union with Project Kesher, helping them to address domestic violence in their community. I have been a member of B’not Esh since the 2nd year of its existence and have been the recipient of miraculous healing rituals there..
Dr. Max Strassfeld (Ph.D. in Religious Studies, Stanford University) specializes in Rabbinic Literature, Transgender Studies, and Jewish Studies. Dr. Strassfeld is an affiliate of the UA Judaic Studies Program. His book project, Transing the Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature, explores eunuchs and androgynes in Jewish law, and pairs classical Jewish texts with intersex autobiography, transgender studies, and theories of queer temporality, in order to argue that the rabbis use these figures to map the boundaries of normative masculinity. In recognition of his work in gender and sexuality, he was awarded the Frankel Fellowship for New Perspectives on Gender and Jewish Life at the University of Michigan in 2013-2014. He has served on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion from 2015-2017 and on the editorial board of Reading Religion starting in 2018. He also serves as a member the AAR committee on the Status of LGBTIQ Persons in the Profession from 2015. Dr. Strassfeld teaches a wide range of courses, including Jewish Christian Relations; Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire; Religion and Sex; Gender, Women, and Religion
Becka Tilsen was a movement baby raised inside Midwest social justice movements. She is deeply invested in building strategic, compelling, creative and resilient mass movements for change. Becka is a Somatic Therapist, Trainer, Organizational Consultant, and Leadership Coach in Seattle Washington. She adores her dog, gathering and feeding people, dancing, comic levity and depthful real talk.
Brielle Paige Rassler
Rosa Maria Pegueros