Alternative-Ritual Site Nabs Webby Award Nomination

By Noah Shachtman

Published May 30, 2003, issue of May 30, 2003.
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In the Talmud, there’s no ritual for going on welfare. For having sex for the first time. For recovering from a mastectomy. Or for going to a gay pride march.

But today, some people wish to infuse these events with religious and cultural significance. By the thousands, they’ve been turning to the Web site, Ritualwell (, for alternative Jewish ceremonies.

The site provides a searchable archive of symbols, rituals and background readings that can be used to design new ceremonies, or update traditional rites. For this work, Ritualwell has been nominated for a Webby Award — the online equivalent of an Oscar. It’s the first time a Jewish site has earned such an honor, Ritualwell’s founders say. The seventh annual Webby Awards will take place Thursday online.

While some Jewish leaders question the need to ritualize otherwise secular events, Rabbi Rona Shapiro, Ritualwell’s creative director, said that for too long in Judaism, personal moments have gone largely unconsecrated. “The Jewish tradition is not very personally oriented. It’s oriented around the community. Around ‘us,’” Shapiro said. “There’s not a lot of room for the individual.”

This is of particular concern to women, she said, since “women’s lives have largely existed only in the private realm.” A miscarriage, for example, was something “a woman often endured alone,” she said.

The ceremonies can also fill truly private moments with spiritual meaning, Shapiro contends. Take sex, for example. It’s a potentially sacred occasion, that too often becomes something downright unholy, Shapiro said. So she encourages Ritualwell readers to say the shehecheyanu prayer before their first sexual experience.

Ritualwell is a production of two liberal Jewish women’s groups — Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, and Kolot, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s women’s studies program. With their emphasis on alternative readings, the site’s ceremonies often speak loudest to people on Judaism’s margins.

Ilona Pengelly, 46, lives in Nelson, British Columbia — a speck of a town 10 hours east of Vancouver. Surprisingly, more than 100 Jews live in the 8,000-person hamlet. But of those, there are only four couples in which Jews are married to each other. Needless to say, this is not exactly a haven of tradition.

Ritualwell has helped Pengelly craft a Judaism that works in Nelson.

When a gentile friend lost her baby during childbirth, Pengelly was asked to say a few words. She knew the classic Kaddish wouldn’t work in such an occasion. So she went to Ritualwell for alternate inspiration. “I was looking for something that could speak to me [as a Jew], and could speak to them,” Pengelly said.

She found “Each of Us Has a Name,” Marcia Lee Falk’s piercing translation of Zelda’s mournful poem:

Each of us has a namegiven by our celebrationsand given by our work.Each of us has a namegiven by the seasonsand given by our blindness.Each of us has a namegiven by the seaand given by our death.

The poem is one of hundreds of readings, rituals and unconventional interpretations of Jewish ceremonies that have been gathered together on Ritualwell. Though the site has been up since 2001, it’s only in the last few months that the bulk of this material has made its way online.

Users of the site can search for rituals by occasion (from life-cycle events, like baby namings, to holidays, like Passover), by content type (from complete ceremonies to songs to source material), by symbol (from ashes to afikomen) and by author.

Most of the authors are rabbis and well-known Jewish writers. But Ritualwell encourages users to submit their own ceremonies, as well. Only a handful of these have made it on to the site, however.

And only a handful could be considered part of classical Jewish religious tradition, despite Shapiro’s assertion that “many of the rituals on the site are by and for Orthodox people.”

Whether it’s lesbian Passover symbols, an abortion ritual in the mikvah or a Jewish retirement ceremony, Ritualwell purposely tries to walk where Orthodoxy has not treaded. That has led some religious scholars to ask: Why exactly do you need a Jewish ceremony for a new driver’s license?

“They’re taking all of these personal experiences, and over-formalizing them through an excessive number of rituals,” said Lawrence Schiffman, who chairs New York University’s Hebrew and Judaic studies department. “These are things that people can go through on their own.”

Shapiro, of course, sees it differently.

“We’re all encouraged to pray to God,” she said. “Some people have the words. Some don’t. Here are the words, if you want them.”

Noah Shachtman writes about technology, national security and geek culture for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Wired News.

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