A guide to 21st century Judaism says Ritualwell fills a void
Where can you find an American Sign Language version of the shema or a ritual to mark becoming an empty nester? Ritualwell.org, a project of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), is a free website filled with creative Jewish resources for our most treasured liturgy, major lifecycle events and everyday moments. Ritualwell brings together prayers, readings, videos and essays that encourage individualized expressions of Jewish life.
In October, Ritualwell’s inventive work was singled out by the 2014-2015 Slingshot, A Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, which highlights innovative projects that meet the needs of the 21st century Jewish community. A team of professionals with expertise in grant-making and Jewish communal life poured over hundreds of finalists, evaluating them for their innovation, impact, leadership and effectiveness. In announcing the award, the Slingshot committee noted: “Ritualwell is providing rituals that people need that are not otherwise addressed in traditional Judaism, helping people use Jewish customs to enhance their everyday lives.”
Sanctifying moments in everyday life
According to Rabbi Roni Handler, ’11, editor of Ritualwell and director of community learning for RRC, contemporary life is filled with moments for which there are no traditional markers—events such as a teens’ earning a driver’s license or an adult becoming a grandparent. Contributors to Ritualwell create prayers, meditations and rituals to sanctify these occasions and share them with the world on this site.
RRC grad Rabbi Amy Loewenthal, ‘12, created a ceremony for coming home after work. It builds on the traditional hand-washing ritual (netilat yadayim), and includes reflections to help people switch gears from work to home. “Rituals are about transitions, about taking time to be ready for something holy, about mindfulness,” says Rabbi Handler.
Ritualwell embodies the Reconstructionist philosophy that everyone must discover his or her own meaningful pathways for living a Jewish life. In the past year, more than 160,000 people have visited Ritualwell seeking creative and innovative interpretations of Jewish traditions. Users also can contribute to the site or submit questions that are answered by a rabbinical team.
Users count on Ritualwell, whatever the need
Heather Paul, the director of Student Engagement at Hillel at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, is a big fan of Ritualwell. When a student was missing in a foreign country, Paul looked for a prayer for a missing person. “I figured that if any source had it, it would be Ritualwell,” she says. “And there it was.” This past Rosh Hashanah, Paul again turned to the site, looking for a tashlikh ritual (symbolically casting sins into a body of water) that students could do at the beach. “Ritualwell is my go-to source because I appreciate the wide diversity of prayers and rituals,” she says. “I love using it to assemble everything from Rosh Chodesh (new month) programming to a booklet of blessings for a friend’s baby.”
Paul considers it an honor to have something she created on Ritualwell: a mikvah ritual for caregivers. “I’m grateful for the chance to give back to a source I use so often,” she says. “I hope that other healers will find my mikvah ritual helpful. I love thinking that my journey might be useful to others.” Paul noted a comment posted by a psychologist who felt burdened from absorbing the trauma of her clients, and was gratified to know that the ritual could be helpful.
Lifecycle events lead people to tradition with a twist
According to Rabbi Handler, lifecycle events are major triggers for people to reach back to Jewish tradition. One of the most searched-for keywords on the site is “death.” “When a loved one dies, we look for solace in rituals,” she says. She feels that Jewish mourning traditions provide a brilliant framework to accompany people on their journey of loss. Ritualwell offers not only creative twists on well-known customs—such as sitting shivah or observing the one-year yahrzeit anniversary—but also entirely new rituals. For example, the site has a prayer for lighting the shivah candle, which burns for the first week of mourning. “A prayer is not required by halakhah (Jewish law) at that moment, but people have often expressed remorse at the idea of simply lighting the candle and walking away,” Rabbi Handler says. “The author of this prayer turned it into a moment for special reflection.”
The essays and rituals on the site run the gamut of Jewish practice. “There is not just one way to do or observe something,” says Rabbi Handler. “How each person uses the resources can be different, too. We offer a kavanah (intention) about consuming food that is produced without exploiting workers, animals or the environment. For someone in the Orthodox community, the kavanah might be used alongside the traditional blessings for meals. For someone else, it might be the only thing they do to deepen their Jewish practices around eating.”
Rabbis use Ritualwell too
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, RRC ’03, of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, WI, appreciates that personalization of ritual, especially when it comes to officiating at lifecycle events. “Ritualwell provides many different kinds of ceremonies to help rabbis tailor traditions and rituals to the people they are working with,” she says. “Rituals should serve people, not the other way around.”
Connecting people going through similar experiences is another achievement of the site. “When someone sees what another contributor has written, they’ll comment,” Rabbi Handler says. “When people click and find their circumstance acknowledged—whether it’s trying to conceive a baby or grieving for a pet—they immediately realize that they’re not alone. All of a sudden, they’re part of a larger supportive—and Jewish—community.”