From Oct. 12-14, a group of scholars, activists and artists will gather at Kol HaLev Synagogue and Church of the Holy Comforter in Lutherville and the Waldorf School of Baltimore for a spiritual workshop, retreat and musical concert.
Among the leaders of the three-day gathering – titled “She is the Tree of Life: A Weekend Immersion into the Divine Feminine and Cultivating Joy” — will be Rabbi Jill Hammer, director of spiritual education at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y., and Jewish educator/performer Shoshana Jedwab.
Jmore recently spoke with Dr. Harriette E. Wimms, the event’s organizer. A clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Towson University who lives in Mount Washington, Dr. Wimms is a Chizuk Amuno congregant and self-described “black queer Jew” with more than a decade of experience in social justice and volunteer work.
Jmore: How did this all come about?
Dr. Wimms: I was lucky enough to get to know Rabbi Dr. Jill Hammer and Shoshana Jedwab over the last several years, and I went to a Shabbaton program they were having at a shul in Woodstock, N.Y., back in January called, “She is the Tree of Life.” It was very similar to what’s happening here but the focus was on exploring what does Judaism have to say about the role of women … and what can an exploration of that do to enrich Judaic life to make it palpable and alive?
I felt like at that shul, I was so welcomed and got so much information emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, that I wanted to figure out how to bring this to Baltimore.
What’s the goal?
To have folks explore the feminine divine in Judaism. Dr. Hammer is remarkable as a midrashist [one who writes commentary on the Midrash] and as someone who has truly taken the time and the love to explore Jewish texts and find the places where the divine feminine has been present.
I’ve also added a few other things like Maria Broom, who is an artist and an activist, and is very well known not just in Baltimore but across the world. She’s an educator at Baltimore School for the Arts and was also in the television series “The Wire” and “The Corner.” Also, Shoshana Jedwab is going to be a part of it and she is not only a teacher at the Heschel School in New York, she’s also a performer and she’s going to be helping us study Torah on Saturday morning. And then we’re going to have a havdalah and drum circle on Saturday night. We’re going to have a closing circle and walk a labyrinth as part of Judaic practice on Sunday morning.
There is a concert Sunday afternoon featuring Shoshana and [Jewish musician] SONiA, who hails from Baltimore though right now she lives in Germany. And they are holding this concert to support not only the Abayudaya Jews of eastern Uganda but also an agency right here in Maryland called Advocates for Children and Youth, because I wanted there to be proceeds that went back to supporting Baltimore children and families while there were proceeds that were also going to support children and families in Uganda.
Why the tie-in to the Abayudaya?
The way that I became acquainted with the Ezra Uganda Assistance program is I came back from a retreat that was part of Kohenet, the program that Jill and Shoshana and another woman, Taya Shere, had created. I went to my rabbi at Chizuk Amuno, Debi Wechsler, and I said, “OK, I need my Judaism to start to be something that is alive and that I feel with my hands. I definitely live it and intellectualize it, but I’ve got to do something with my hands, Rabbi Wechsler. And I also feel like I want to reach out to African Jews. I want to know more people of color who are Jewish because walking around Baltimore, that’s not my experience.”
She said, “Well, I’m not sure how to have you do that, but I’m willing to support you.” So I put a message out on Facebook and said, “Folks, I don’t know how it’s going to happen but I have a feeling and I really need to connect with African Jews.” And I got a message maybe five minutes later letting me know that Rabbi Mugoya Shadrach Levi, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jews, was actually in Rockville with his tutor and mentor. So I talked to Rabbi Wechsler on Wednesday and on Sunday I was driving to Rockville, sitting down with Shadrach and talking about the Ugandan Jews.
One of the things I learned at the time was because that area of Africa had been having drought conditions and they live in pretty impoverished circumstances, three of their people had died last year in a famine — two children and a pregnant woman. And I said to Shadrach, “OK, from now on, you are a member of my tribe and I’m going to help. I don’t want any more women and children to die.” Being here in the United States, watching how much food is wasted, I just felt committed to doing something.
Planning any future events?
I feel like this really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for folks in the Baltimore-Washington area. But I was meeting yesterday with Rabbi Geoff Basik at Kol HaLev and he said, “You know, the next time you do this, you could get grants.” And I felt a little spark in my brain that went, “Hmmm, maybe next year … not right after the High Holy Days, it would be better with timing.”
So if I can get some help and some volunteers and some eager students who are younger and perhaps have more energy than I do, I’d love to make this a Baltimore thing.
Alex Holt is a Baltmore-based freelance writer.