Ask Sarah Waxman to describe the goals of her Jewish women’s health organization, At The Well, and you’ll get several answers. But as for the most memorable, we have a winner: “To get 10,000 menstruators to know where they are in their [menstrual] cycles and in the Hebrew calendar.”
San Francisco-based At The Well operates at the intersection of Jewish and health by forming “well circles” for women in their 20s to mid-40s. In those circles, they gather to talk about their bodies in a Jewish context. More than 100 circles in the U.S. and around the globe are said to use At The Well resources, rooted in ancient Jewish texts, as conversational prompts when they gather monthly for Rosh Hodesh (the new moon).
“In the secular wellness world, we’re unapologetically Jewish,” Waxman said. And for many women in the circles, she added, “this is their only Jewish thing.”
Isabel Friedman, 28, of San Francisco called her circle “one of the most important communities in my adult life.”
At The Well is building a model that “is helping Judaism evolve to 2018,” Isabel added, describing her circle as “brilliant women who share an interest in community, helping themselves flourish and helping others get in touch with their spirituality. We share that intention as the basis of our friendships. It’s not about where we work or where we came from. It’s about our shared commitment to health and spirituality. There aren’t a lot of Jewish organizations that feel as relevant to me.”
Explained Waxman: “We’re shifting the young professional Jewish space to take on rituals and practices as a way in. It’s a spiritual practice within Judaism to track [the menstrual] cycle. We want to help people have those practices so people are living closer aligned with their bodies.”
Rosh Hodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon, became known as a day for women because of the connection between the phases of the moon and menstrual cycles. Since the 1970s, Jewish women have been reclaiming it as a time to gather.
At The Well circles also were inspired by another Bay Area Jewish woman, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, whose concept of “Lean In” included work circles designed to bring women together for conversation and support.
Internationally, Waxman knows of 115 well circles — in the United States, Israel, Netherlands, Spain, Australia and England — that gather monthly for discussions. Most have an average of eight to 12 participants, she said, meet in members’ homes and feature At The Well’s Moon Manuals, a monthly collection of articles, stories, activities poems, meditations and recipes written by female leaders from around the world and rooted in stories from ancient Jewish texts. In the Bay Area, there are six circles, Waxman said.
“Our job is to inspire this ritual and see a culture change in the Jewish world to mark Jewish time and honor Rosh Hodesh,” she said. “It’s OK that some [circles] fizzle out; we are transient people. What is important and inspiring is that women are meeting.”
As the network grows, At The Well is creating more expansive content, such as the monthly Moon Manual. The one for the Tishrei, which begins Sept. 10, features a High Holiday theme. It identifies some of the health benefits of honey and of fasting, and delves into the “Al Chet” confession of sins recited in synagogue during Yom Kippur. Articles emphasize connection to nature, the health benefits of seasonal foods (for Sukkot) and dancing in celebration (as on Simchat Torah).
As the well circles, which also focus issues such as work stress and relationship challenges, continue, the organization also is organizing more and more retreats and events. “Forgiveness Prep: An Evening of Art Making and Reflection” was held Aug. 27 at Spark Arts gallery/gathering space in San Francisco, with other events over the past 12 months including “Paths to Healthy Cycling” (Brooklyn, New York), “Greens, Eggs & Jam” (co-presented with Cannabist Feminist in Los Angeles) and “Dial In: An Evening of Menstrual Wellness and Jewish Wisdom” (Detroit).
Over the past year, Carine Carmy, 31, has participated in circles in San Francisco, where she lives, and in her native Los Angeles. She grew up in a “somewhat religious” community, but “didn’t understand the deeper meaning to the calendar,” adding that wellness “is a much more accessible way to connect to Jewish tradition. I’m at the age where I’m realizing the mind-body connection.”
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Waxman formerly taught mind-body education in schools. When she started At The Well three years ago, it was her first time working in the Jewish world. Now she hopes to take on women’s health-related conversations that center on the body as an avenue into Judaism.
“Intentionally making the connection of cyclical time is a really easy way to bring Jewish life into my everyday,” Waxman said.
At The Well’s recent collaborations with Berkeley-based Urban Adamah, S.F.-based JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and Moishe House, which has been its fiscal sponsor, are bringing these conversations into the larger Jewish community. The project is also part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s Network Incubator program, which enabled them to convene 80 women for Timbrel, a December 2017 national health and spirituality summit in Baltimore. Waxman said a smaller convening in the Bay Area in March is likely.
In the past year, At The Well has received $45,000 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Women’s Fund to support local efforts. The organization was included in the Slingshot Guide’s Bay Area guide to innovative organizations in 2017 and in Slingshot’s national guide in 2018.
Overall, Waxman has been motivated by what she describes as “a fervent belief in the interconnectedness of the world.”
“A lot of things in Judaism are rocks and pillars for me, which is why I’m working on opportunities for other people to feel that, too,” she said. “I love thinking about religion and spirituality and ancient practices, yoga and Ayurveda, and the things in Judaism that are really important to me. I do it out of deep connection to everybody on the planet.”