I was prompted to write this article as I noticed that much of what we know about Kulanu’s communities are told by and about male leaders. In my travels, I have met amazing women who are actually the ones holding their communities together. Not only do they prepare delicious Shabbat and holiday meals, but they are dedicated participants in services, they open their homes freely for communal use, and they address communal needs in deep and personal ways. They study Torah regularly and give others the opportunity to study as well. If it weren’t for these women, their communities would not prosper and could not continue to thrive.
There are many things that these women share: their ability to turn food into something delicious, love of family and friends, generosity of spirit, openness, kindness, spirituality (however you define it), “sticktuitivness,” and creative ways of dealing with adversity. They pay attention to detail. They excel in the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim (hospitality), inviting and welcoming community members and strangers into their homes, embodying the spirit of Sarah, our matriarch.
For this article, I sent out a call to community leaders and others to nominate up to two women in their communities with some words and photos that describe the roles these women play. I have met some of these women personally. I have included eight communities, yet there are many more Tzidkaniot in each of them. And there are many more communities that have their share of Tzidkaniot.
Of eight communities I contacted, six entries were submitted by women about women. They wrote about cooking, tending to family, friends, and community, and participation in Jewish communal life. This article gives a voice to some of these women and highlights and honors them for their dedication and commitment to Jewish life and living in their communities. They are all brave and face similar obstacles and challenges. Some face discrimination, others have been ostracized by family and friends. Some lack financial resources, while others live comfortable lifestyles. All lack easy access to Jewish resources, and they hope to play a role in shaping the Jewish future for the worldwide Jewish community.
This is my way of saying thank you.
Nicaragua: Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua (CIN)
Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua is a traditional Jewish community founded by European refugees at the turn of the century, and now also includes descendants of Bene Anousim (“Children of the Coerced,” during the Inquisition) as well as families whose parents were Holocaust survivors. Most of the members live in Managua, Granada, and Masaya and gather together for holiday celebrations and milestone events. Kulanu was involved in helping rejuvenate this community with conversions, weddings, and a recent bat mitzvah, the second in Nicaragua.
Veronica (Sara Ester) Preiss is a vivacious woman who brings a sense of pride and a real joy to her community. Veronica, whose husband Kurt is the current president of Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua, is involved in all community activities, arranging festivities, giving support, and holding religious services and celebrations in her home, usually concluding with meals and Kiddush. She is the guardian of CIN’S library, which has a Sefer Torah, religious objects, and historical memorabilia. Not only did Veronica pay attention to the infinite details of the eight weddings that took place in her home a few years ago, but also to the details surrounding the conversion of twenty-eight people. Veronica even went into the mikvah with her clothes on with the children who were not so willing to dunk!
Dr. Karen Bermudez is married to Alex Muncado, both knowledgeable community leaders in CIN. Karen, according to Kurt, “is always being helpful in lending a hand at activities, organizing Shabbat evening meals, and as a doctor, she is always concerned about and helpful to the rest of the community.” Her compassion extends to fellow CIN members, and it’s typical that one might find Karen quietly conversing with someone who perhaps hasn’t been feeling well, and offering suggestions and help. Kulanu’s volunteer in Nicaragua, Judi Kloper, recently experienced Karen’s compassion during the Purim celebration as she dealt with pain from a knee injury. Karen has been one of the anchors of this community, especially in Managua.
Guatemala: Asociación Judía Reformista de Guatemala Adat Israel
Jeannette Orantes, president of the Asociación Judía Reformista de Guatemala Adat Israel, has been instrumental in helping this small Guatemalan community grow and thrive. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, a Reform rabbi living in Canada, who has done wonderful work in helping to develop Adat Israel, wrote, “I will always remember first meeting Jeannette eight years ago and sharing her indefatigable passion for Torah and Judaism. Jeannette deeply cares about her community—that they be the best Jews they can be, that they care for one another, and that they grow as human beings. It is because of Jeannette and that first meeting on a Friday night in Guatemala City that Adat Israel is the special community it is now: a member of Kulanu’s international family, an officially-recognized Reform congregation, and a proud member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
“Jeannette organizes every Shabbat and every holiday celebration at Adat Israel, and especially looks after the teens and young kids of the synagogue, helping them to grow into proud Jews. Jeanette’s family shares her joy of being Jewish, and we look forward to the day when her daughter Rebecca becomes our first Guatemalan rabbi—a dream the whole community shares with her!
“Jeannette always remembers how much I love plantain chips and mole, and is always sending or giving me reminders of my Guatemalan family. I treasure every visit with Jeannette and the community!”
Brazil: Ahavat Hatorah of Brasilia
Alessandra Franco and Nelice Franco Alves are two mainstays of this Jewish community in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Alexandre Coelho Franco, one of the community’s leaders, writes, “The woman—wife and mother—becomes ‘a must’ for the unity of family harmony. For this reason she is called akeret habayit, the ‘estejo,’ the pillar of the home. The family unit can be defined as a group of people joined by affection or by family ties. In our community there may be genetic ties, but the ‘like-mindedness and harmony’ which women create is what turns us into family. Among all of us, I wish to point out two women who help turn our community into family.
“‘Do you require candles, some wine, maybe challah?’ You can always count on Alessandra. ‘Do you need curtains, appliances, or any ideas for the holidays?’ You can turn to Nelice. ‘Do you require any help preparing kids’ events? Do you need to organize a group to daven tehillim (psalms)? Do you require information as how to daven (pray) during the chagim (holidays)? Do you need a friendly word from someone who is more interested in others than herself?’ You can find that in Alessandra. From Nelice you can count on someone to direct you and pull at your sleeve to get you on the right path, with a firm voice and a friendly shoulder to lean on. These women work together jointly, keeping the group together without skirting their daily chores and duties at work, at home, and with the kids. A virtuous woman, who can find? What if I say there are two?”
Suriname: Neve Shalom Synagogue
Marina Da Costa is a Jewish woman whose family spans Jewish history from the Portuguese Inquisition to New Amsterdam under Peter Stuyvesant, and through the Holocaust to leadership positions in the Jewish community of Suriname, the smallest country in South America.
Suriname hosts the oldest Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, founded over 375 years ago. The information about Marina is from an article in the Jewish Daily Forward, June 1, 2014: 400 Years After Portugal’s Inquisition, a Very Unusual Family Comes Together, by Jessica Siegel.
The Da Costas are descendants of four Portuguese Jewish brothers who, with their mother, fled the Inquisition in Portugal in 1614 and made their way to Amsterdam in order to live openly as Jews. Marina is the daughter of a Dutch Jewish father and a Christian mother. Her father fought in the Resistance movement during World War II and lost his sister, brother-in-law, and their two children in Auschwitz. The experience caused him to lose his faith, as he questioned the existence of a God who would allow the mass killing of Jews.
Neither Marina nor her siblings were raised as Jews. When at 18 she told her father that she wanted to return to his religion, he balked, “Oh, my girl, what are you doing now? I was the one who made you not Jewish and now you’re going back,” Marina recounted. “I think you will be the first one they will catch.”
Marina’s mother, on the other hand, was more interested in the family’s Jewish heritage. Though not Jewish herself, Irini Da Costa was fascinated by Sephardic Jewish history in Suriname and spent time in the Dutch archives, photocopying letters, birth records, marriage licenses, death certificates, bills of sale, ship manifests, and other public records. In 1973, Irini founded the Jodensavanne Foundation to help restore the remains of the synagogue of the initial Jewish settlement, long ago swallowed up by jungle.
Marina is a tour guide in Suriname and serves as her community’s international spokesperson.
Cote d’Ivoire: Beit Israel and Etz Chaim
Chantal and Edith (who do not wish us to use their last names) are two of the leading forces fueling Beit Israel’s existence and survival, according to community leader Cornet Alexandre Zouko. “These wonderful ladies have both been playing the most eventful roles in the community. Chantal, a lawyer, came up with the idea that Beit Israel gatherings could take place in one of her properties free of charge. Her home garden has always been a happy place for our Sukkah. Chantal brings yummy meals and drinks to community gatherings, making them memorable in a particular way.
“Edith, a beauty care professional, is a great cook; our meals are always spicy when Edith is around. She also provides financial support to the community. Chantal and Edith support our leaders, Alexandre and Ishmael, in their study projects, and they are Torah learners as well. Chantal likes to read Kabbalah-related books and Edith likes to ask questions for deeper understanding, but more importantly, their caring hearts have been nurturing Beit Israel’s survival. Had there been no Chantal and Edith, Beit Israel would have tasted like a half-baked cake.”
Hannah and Sarah (who also do not want their last names used), according to Abraham Yago, play an important role in the Etz Chaim community. They were part of a community delegation that spent almost a month in Israel in 2010 during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
Abraham Yago wrote, “As an early community member, Hannah first joined the congregation when it was an evangelical Christian community called by another name. Years ago, when the community changed its religious orientation and denomination to fully embrace Judaism, Hannah was part of this eventful change. A dental surgeon by profession, she is responsible for financial management and anything related to logistics and supplies within the community.
“Sarah has been in the community for ten years now. She is the one who makes this community the welcoming and nice-looking place that it is. She is in charge of adorning the synagogue with flowers and nice items for Shabbat and holidays. One might think that these two ladies are concerned only with their tasks. No! They are assiduous Torah learners with good religious service attendance. Hannah and Sarah are always ready to help out other women with their tasks; they are a real support for our community.”
India: The Bene Ephraim
Miryam Yacobi and her daughter Keziya Yacobi are women of slight stature and strong hands, hands that constantly are moving all day long, preparing chapati and meals and snacks, washing laundry, caring for their active grandson/nephew, washing dishes, sweeping and cleaning the home-synagogue and the yard, and doing it all again over and over and over, all day every day.
When Friday comes, Miryam and Keziya are even busier as they prepare for Shabbat. Suddenly they, with daughter/sister Beulah, are crushing grapes to make grape juice for Kiddush, and preparing the family’s sleeping area to be transformed into a sanctuary, complete with an ark and Torah, books and siddurs, and chairs and sitting mats. Shabbat begins and Miryam steps back and enjoys a bit of calm with her three children, grandson, and husband, as Jacob, the son of the family, along with his dad, sings Eshet Chayil to his mom with a smile on his face. Miryam listens pensively, enjoying a few minutes of quiet respite from her always-busy day. Soon the congregants of Bene Ephraim arrive and Shabbat service begins.
In a small village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a small Jewish community of about 35 to 45 families who call themselves the Bene Ephraim live with their Hindu, Christian, and Muslim neighbors. The leader of this community, and one of its founders, is Sadok Yacobi. While Sadok is skilled at bringing people together for worship and sharing his knowledge of Judaism, what a visitor would most likely notice, as a participant or as an observer, is the important role two women have in serving their community. These two women are Sadok’s wife, Miryam, and his younger daughter, Keziya.
Keziya is a young woman who has learned since childhood to recite the blessings and songs in Hebrew, sometimes from memory and sometimes from the transliterated Hebrew-Telegu prayer book. She sits with the women on the floor on the left side of the sanctuary (the men often sit on the right side), and stands to lead a song or prayer. She and Miryam make sure the Kiddush cup is filled and an extra pitcher is nearby.
Keziya enjoys having an aliyah at the Torah and even carrying the Torah. When services are over, she and her mom make sure to offer everyone chapati and fruit, usually bananas. They also help with Havdalah. Keziya wanted to learn some Jewish dances, and her enthusiasm was caught by some other younger members of the community, as well as some of the older ones. Dancing after Havdalah and on holidays such as Hanukkah is very exciting for everyone. Keziya and Miryam honor their faith with the recitation of the Shema, kissing the mezuzah as they enter and leave each entryway, and thanking HaShem for their blessings.
Judi Kloper, a Kulanu board member who recently spent time with the Bene Ephraim, wrote, “One very touching example for me of Miryam and her daughter’s thoughtfulness, of their commitment to the very basics of Judaism, was when, one night, a beggar woman came through their gate and asked to use their well to get some water. Miryam brought her to the well and helped her get water. Later on, the woman returned. Miriam quietly went to her kitchen area and prepared a plate of food for her. The woman was truly happy for this offering. Miryam once told me that no matter what she and her family think they may be lacking, they have much and they will make sure to take care of others.”
Cameroon: Beth Yeshourun
Blanche Mfegue is the wife of Serge Etele, the head of the Beth Yeshourun community in Cameroon. Serge is currently studying for rabbinic ordination in Israel at Ohr Torah Stone Yeshiva in Efrat.
One of the most touching and memorable moments of all my travels was watching Blanche bake challah for Shabbat. It began with sifting the flour. Blanche handed me the sifter and said, “You do it.” Not being a baker, she had to teach me. It was my first time. Then Blanche made the dough, kneaded it, and carefully braided it. “Where did you learn that?” I asked. She said, “My mother-in-law taught me.” It just made me chuckle. There are no ovens in Sa’a, the town where the Beth Yeshourun community is located and where Serge and Blanche make their home.
A fire from freshly chopped wood was lit to begin the baking process. But before the braided dough was put into the dutch oven with hot coals on top to bake the challah evenly, she took a small handful of the dough and threw it on the flame to burn as a remembrance of the dough offering given to the Cohen (priests) in ancient times, and recited the blessing asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’stivanu l’hafrish challah (…that has blessed us and commanded us to separate the challah). The glow on her face and the spirituality of the moment caught me by surprise and tears came to my eyes. The challah was delicious.
There are two women in Cameroon that I would like to mention. Teshua (Francine Biloa) was one of four wives in her household and the only practicing Jew. When she wanted to attend services for Rosh Hashanah, her husband said, “If you leave, you can’t come back.” She left and when she returned she found her bags packed outside her door.
The second woman was the elder of a new branch of Bet Yeshourun in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. She was the widow of a prominent pastor who left Christianity but did not join Judaism. A meeting place had been set up in his home where those who followed him gathered and worshiped. After the pastor died, the remnants of this group evolved into the new Jewish group in Douala and they are still praying in the widow’s home.
Zimbabwe: The Lemba
Brenda Maeresera is the wife of Modreck Maeresera, the leader of the small Lemba Jewish community in Harare, Zimbabwe, which developed with the help of Kulanu. Mickey Feinberg and her husband Mordy were two of the first teachers to go to this Lemba community.
Mickey has written, “The Harare Lemba Jewish community would not be as welcoming, warm and charmingly fun without Brenda’s constant contributions. Brenda is an accomplished and eager weekly Torah reader, a supportive mother and wife who appreciates the accomplishments of her husband and children, and an amazingly hospitable host to the constant flow of participants in the community’s religious services and meals.
“I’ll never forget her reaction to my suggestion that we might bake our own challah instead of purchasing it at the local grocery store. ‘Make it ourselves?’ exclaimed this smart and accomplished teacher, mother and community leader. Later, when she showed her beautiful and tasty challah to all to admire, there was a deep sense of pride and joy in having achieved yet another Jewish accomplishment.”
Uganda: The Abayudaya
Naume Sabano was the founding president of the Abayudaya Women’s Association. This is what Kulanu wrote about her when we honored her and her husband Aaron Kintu Moses in our tribute journal in 2012:
As the leader of the Abayudaya Women’s Association until last January, Naume has organized three conferences each year since 2005, where women from eight villages had, and still have, empowering opportunities to share successes and challenges and to implement ideas to better their lives. Among AWA’s achievements are a successful micro-credit program and a Torah study course for women. An eloquent speaker, Naume was elected to her regional government council last year, gaining the support of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim voters.
In addition to her role as the effective manager of the high school nutrition program, she owns a small shop, helps to organize the production and sale of Abayudaya kippot, and farms vegetables and coffee with her husband Aaron.
I think you will agree with me that these Righteous Women deserve Kulanu’s wholehearted respect and thanks for their often unheralded efforts. They allow Jewish life to flourish in these emerging and isolated communities and inspire us with their examples.