This article was originally published in the Jewish Exponent by Sasha Rogelberg.
Before Ritualwell was a website containing more than 2,200 liturgy and rituals crowdsourced by Jews, it was an idea of where to put dozens of scraps of paper in the drawers of offices in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Kolot: Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies in Wyncote.
In 2001, RRC and Kolot, in partnership with Ma’yan, a Jewish feminist organization, uploaded the prayers scrawled on those papers to the newfangled Internet, creating an archive of Jewish writing that filled in the gaps of liturgies and practices that historically excluded women and LGBTQ+ Jews. Community members were invited to write and submit their own liturgies and rituals.
Almost two decades later, Ritualwell has not only become a library of prayers and poetry, but an online community center for Jews looking to hone their skills through writing workshops and classes.
Approaching its 20th anniversary in December, Ritualwell recently launched ADVOT, a nationwide year-long writing program, looking to continue its mission of democratizing Jewish traditions of old and new.
ADVOT, which means “ripples” in Hebrew, consists of 27 writers, who will participate in monthly online salons and weekly writing studios.
The idea for ADVOT came organically from Ritualwell’s increasing workshop and programming attendance over the pandemic. On the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID as a pandemic, Ritualwell hosted a virtual healing ritual with 155 attendees.
“We noticed that there was a community of people that was growing around these offerings, people who were taking these Ritualwell immersions and then were sending work to us, and we were publishing their work,” said Hila Ratzabi, Ritualwell’s director of virtual content and programs who co-leads ADVOT with Adva Chattler. “We thought ‘it seems like there’s this creative community here, and it doesn’t really have a container yet.’”
Despite the commonality of ADVOT’s participants in wanting to create Jewish liturgy and ritual, the cohort is made up of writers from across the country of varying ages. Some are even in the process of converting to Judaism. Many were Ritualwell fans for years, having already read or submitted works to the site.
Though only a few weeks into the program, participants are already recognizing its merits.
“Writing is a very solitary activity,” said ADVOT member Karen Webber, who lives in Boston. “Bouncing the ideas off of like-minded people is amazing. And then taking the poetry from poems into ritual, into prayers — that sort of elevates it. It’s a different level.”
Like Webber, Heather Paul, the senior Jewish educator at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, was looking for a community through ADVOT. As a rabbinic student, she is hoping to publish a book of original liturgy.
Paul has participated in writing groups before, but none specific to Jewish writers.
“Fiction writing groups or even creative nonfiction writing groups are not going to know what to do with a ritual,” Paul said. “Writing among liturgists and other ritual designers is a completely different experience.”
Though the community component of ADVOT is what makes it unique to its members, liturgy writing is personal. Because of Ritualwell, Jews who otherwise didn’t have a space to write or publish rituals and prayers specific to them now do.
“I’ve always loved Judaism’s tradition of conversation, challenging, reinterpretation,” said Alex Carter, a member of the liturgy committee at Bet Mishpachah in Washington, D.C. “One of my pet projects is reading LGBTQ+ people and experiences into literature, history; and I’ve had an opportunity to do that.”
Ritualwell’s reach goes far beyond its workshop participants.
In April 2020, shortly after COVID lockdowns began, Brooklyn-based liturgist Trisha Arlin wrote “A Blessing for Washing Hands During a Pandemic.” The prayer went viral.
“I keep hearing about churches and synagogues and nursing homes and hospitals that have posted the prayer,” Arlin said.
Arlin’s prayer epitomizes Ritualwell at its most potent. It captures what it meant to live through a time of uncertainty and fear, and it took a mundane, individual act and through its widespread popularity and accessibility, it became a point of connection for those in Jewish communities nationwide.
“Prayer is singular; it’s between you and God,” Arlin said. “But the essence of Jewish prayer is that it’s done in a community, and Ritualwell offers another version of that community.”
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