A beautiful woman meets the man she believes she is destined for, but the night before their wedding she chooses to give him up rather than humiliate her sister. Ultimately, they marry, but she is unable to have children. After many years, and much hardship, she has one son but dies in childbirth with her second.
This is a story that has resonated with Jewish women for more than 3,000 years. That tragic woman is, of course, the matriarch Rachel, whose life and death are described in the Book of Genesis: “And Rachel died, and was buried on the road to Efrat, which is now Beth-Lechem. And Jacob set up a pillar on her grave; this is the same pillar on Rachel’s grave until this day.”
Her gravesite was once an isolated spot by the side of the road, and then, covered by a dome, a destination for Jewish pilgrims. In 1948, Jordan took control of it and did not allow Jews to pray there. Finally, in 1967, following the Six Day War, the site was restored to Jewish hands, and Jews flocked there to pray. It is a place that has been revered by the Jewish people, especially Jewish women, as one of the three holiest Jewish sites. Women who are suffering with infertility, in particular, go to her tomb to pray.
The Hebrew date 11 Cheshvan, this year corresponding to Nov. 5, is traditionally considered the yahrzeit of Rachel, and Jewish women of Pittsburgh hold an intimate gathering each year to strengthen and celebrate the unity of Jewish women in her honor.
This year’s event, hosted by Ronit Wiesenfeld, featured talks by three local women. Baila Cohen spoke about the matriarch’s life, the power of her advocating for the Jewish people through her tears and what it means for Jewish women today. Sara Bloom focused on Rachel’s beauty, both physical and spiritual.
Lisa Cook emphasized a different angle. Referring to the results of the infamous Pew Report on the precipitous decline of religious commitment in Jewish America, she quoted Rabbi Noach Weinberg on the “spiritual Holocaust” happening to the Jewish community of America and the responsibility to take action to save spiritual lives.
At the end of the evening, Kol Shira, a Pittsburgh-based a cappella singing group, performed several songs inspired by Rachel’s story.
Dr. Elana Bloom and Chani Rosenblum, the event organizers, had the evening begin with prayer and end with giving tzedakah. All donations will go to the upkeep and maintenance of Rachel’s Tomb, located in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.