Rosh Chodesh Groups Need to Be More Inclusive

Gathering to celebrate the new moon, these women's groups are already made to disrupt the patriarchy. But I know they can do better.

For years, I’ve been told in Rosh Chodesh groups, “this is a safe space.” So why do I keep feeling like it isn’t a safe space for everyone?

Rosh Chodesh groups meet during the holiday of Rosh Chodesh, which celebrates the new moon. For centuries, Rosh Chodesh has been associated with women; some even consider it a women’s holiday. In the 1970s, a group of feminist Jews saw the potential to harness Rosh Chodesh as a time to gather women together to discuss Jewish religiosity, spirituality and culture through the lens of feminism — and Rosh Chodesh groups were born. Since then, Rosh Chodesh has become a popular way for women to gather, bond and mobilize for social change.

Yet I believe they have a long way to go to become inclusive. I see a great need for queer and trans voices in women’s circles, and not just as addenda to the greater story of Jewish women. Rosh Chodesh groups are radical for centering women in a religion that does not often center them. But right now, we are only halfway there.

Before we dive in, I want to clarify that I am talking about my personal experiences with multiple Rosh Chodesh groups, and that these groups are different in every Jewish community. In addition, I know there is often a fervor or joy in critiquing the failures of women or women’s organizations — before I begin talking about the harm I see in some Rosh Chodesh groups, I challenge you to ask yourself if you take joy in hearing about that harm, and where that joy may come from.

With that said, I was 12 the first time I attended a Rosh Chodesh group. I was in a tiny, narrow classroom in my middle school that we normally used for math. Once a month, the seventh- and eighth-grade girls filtered in for a lunchtime lesson on unhealthy body image, inspiring Jewish women, or the stigmas of periods.

For 2013 me, that meant sitting shoulder to shoulder with my peers, cutting out photos from Teen Vogue to add to a collage on body dysmorphia while eating Oreos and Cheez-Its that our history teacher’s wife had bought from the supermarket next door. While, yes, a large part of the allure may have been the free food, I genuinely enjoyed those sessions; Rosh Chodesh also became my first real introduction to feminism and women-centered spaces. Years after the Oreos were all gone, I still kept coming back to Rosh Chodesh and Jewish women’s minyans to integrate women’s issues into my Jewish identity.

But as I got older and sought out my own definitions of feminism, forming new feminist communities, I began to feel disconnected from my Rosh Chodesh meetings. I couldn’t understand why at first, but I slowly realized that I felt like Rosh Chodesh spaces weren’t as welcoming as I’d originally thought. A lot of their programs took on very specific narratives of Jewish women, covering the same things I had discussed in those early meetings again and again: body image, Jewish women and periods.

And those three are where the issue lies.

Since Rosh Chodesh is a lunar holiday, a few groups connected the moon cycle with menstruation, while others talked about birth and motherhood; most tried to define the female body in the process of empowering it. All of them intended to connect traditional Jewish texts on women’s bodies to women’s issues today. But I, and friends of mine, always felt like they were leaving a lot of women out of the narrative: women without uteruses, women who are childless by choice, women who don’t fit into some preconceived body norm, and on and on.

On the other end of the spectrum, some groups I attended have tried to emphasize their acceptance of trans and nonbinary women in recent years, labelling their meetings for “womxn.” While I think there are some valid reasons for trying to create groups for non-men, the term “womxn,” specifically, conveys the idea that nonbinary people are in some way “women-lite,” or that including trans-women in a community requires modifying the word women. While groups may think they are creating a welcoming space, “womxn” implies seeing trans identities as other.

To be sure, this isn’t a problem that is isolated to the Jewish community — the feminist movement has had serious issues with intersectionality for decades, ignoring the struggles of women that fall outside of the categories of white, cis, straight and middle class. What is specific to Rosh Chodesh groups is the struggle to escape historical homophobia and transphobia while still learning from the texts and culture that inform Jewish history. In my own experiences of Rosh Chodesh, only straight cis-women have been centered, while trans and queer individuals are expected to empathize with experiences they do not share.

I propose a reinterpretation of Rosh Chodesh groups. While they have served as an invaluable resource for many women to validate their experiences — something so, so important in a religion that has roots in misogyny and sexism — it is time to reconsider what that validation actually looks like.

For me, reinterpreting Rosh Chodesh means talking about gender dysphoria along with body dysmorphia. It means reading about the difficulties of marriage from trans rabbi Joy Ladin and the rewriting of Lilith beyond Adam from lesbian theologian Judith Plaskow. It means asking how mikvahs can be healing and affirming outside of Niddah, the traditional ritual after menstruation. It means acknowledging that trans and queer voices are not an addendum; they are central to the story.

Rosh Chodesh has given me so much in the past: my first sex education, a way to build trust with close friends, a sense of belonging in Judaism beyond just “equality with men”. Still, it could give so, so much more if we let it. Rosh Chodesh is essential for women to bond and share experiences, creating a living history of Jewish women’s stories. But there are so many more ways to learn about gender, womanhood and Judaism when you look beyond straight-cis narratives. Rosh Chodesh provides the perfect space to have these conversations. It is already made to disrupt the patriarchy; it just needs a push in the right direction.

Ilana Jacobs

Ilana Jacobs (she/her) is a junior at Brown University currently studying literary arts. She likes to fill her time working with her hands, whether it’s painting, jewelry making or some other erratically changing hobby, so long as she can listen to a television show while she does it. Ilana is a 2021-2022 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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