Sonoma womens retreat to introduce new siddur

When Bay Area women come together next Friday for Shabbat services at Camp Newman, they will not only usher in a weekend of personal renewal. They will also introduce a new prayerbook that organizers refer to as "feminine — not feminist."

With the work of artist-poet Marsha Connell gracing the cover, the siddur is being created as an inclusive prayerbook. It is not intended to make a political statement, said Sally Churgel of Sebastopol, who participated in the committee that created the siddur.

The weekend retreat in Santa Rosa, titled "Jewish Women Gathering (Kehillat Nashim) III: Renewal of Spirit, Self and Community," is sponsored by the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County, with support from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The inspiration for the new siddur grew out of last year's highly successful women's gathering at Camp Newman, which 75 women from all over the Bay Area attended.

"The siddur project was brought up as a way to learn more about Judaism and how the service really works," Churgel said. "Many of us are from nonreligious backgrounds or have forgotten what the services and prayers mean.

"One concept is to develop completely new, creative responses to the prayers — from the modern woman's point of view. It's a mix of stuff we found we liked, or completely new interpretations of the prayers by local women."

When the call went out last year for women interested in helping to create the new siddur, several answered. The group began meeting and studying a variety of siddurim already available, with Rabbi Elisheva Sachs of Reconstructionist Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati providing rabbinical leadership.

"Elisheva wrote out all the parts of the service for us, one by one," Churgel said. "We looked at all the different types of siddurs there are — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist…and then we came up with an entirely new response from a modern woman's perspective."

The ultimate goal is to translate the siddur into Hebrew — "the feminine Hebrew — not the masculine Hebrew, as is traditional," said Carolyn Metz, director of the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County and the JCF's Sonoma regional director.

"And we wanted to re-vision the services — to make the services, the prayers meaningful to women's lives today, and to infuse the services with meaning which many of us found lacking."

To do that, the women on the siddur committee drew from poetry, mostly by Jewish women; some tracts from other siddurim; and original pieces composed by members of the committee.

"It's been absolutely wonderful — a lot more work than I thought," said Churgel. "But it's given me a chance to learn more about the services and the prayers.

Churgel herself looked at the Book of Psalms and "wrote an original piece — a poem reflecting the sentiment of the psalms. I found out how rich and spiritual our tradition is. It's a joy to find there is such richness in the prayers and in the service. I missed learning that as a child — as did many American Jews."

The siddur project is still in the works, and committee members invite interested people to join them.

"It's a work in progress," said Metz, a Santa Rosa resident. "Women have written poetry and music, and artwork is included, and we're going to go through it as far as we've gotten and invite others to join us in finishing the project."

Sachs, along with the two other women rabbis of Sonoma County, Leah Sudran of Conservative Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma and Bridget Wynne of Reform Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma will be taking part in the lay-organized retreat. Women of all ages and lifestyles are invited to share Shabbat in an atmosphere of healing, celebration and community.

Co-chaired by Barbara Tomin and Bernice Fox, both of Santa Rosa, the retreat is expected to draw some 100 women. It will feature 18 workshops focusing on healing. Topics range from "Creating an Ethical Will," "Healing Mother-Daughter Relationships," and "Jewish Healing," to "Visualization-Clay Sculpture." In addition, six local healing practitioners will participate in a panel, discussing how they use Judaism and their professional skills to heal themselves and others.

The retreat includes meals, accommodations and the camp, which is wheelchair accessible. Accommodations are in two- to four-person cabins.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."