About rabbi paula winnig

Rabbi Paula Jayne Winnig is the Executive Director at the Bureau of Jewish Education in Indianapolis, IN. She previously served congregations in Roslyn, Queens and Lawrence, New York after receiving her ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Winnig was also a prison chaplain for New York State for five years, serving in both the Women’s maximum and medium security prisons in Bedford Hills, NY. Rabbi Winnig received her MBA from the State University of New York in her Master of Arts of Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and her Bachelors Degree with Honors in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin. In 2010 Rabbi Winnig founded Torah Threads: Knitting the Threads of Torah into the Fabric of our Lives, a podcast available on Itunes celebrating her love of Torah, the fiber arts and sustainable living. Rabbi Winnig studied at the Hebrew University Department of Talmud. Rabbi Winnig also founded and assisted in the development of SULAM-LI: The Religious School for Jewish Children with Special Needs serving the Five Towns community of Long Island. Rabbi Winnig has published many articles in both print and online media including a chapter in the book: The Women’s Haftarah Commentary. Rabbi Winnig has appeared in many television programs and was a featured participant in the cable television program “Father Tom and Friends” for three years. She is the proud mother of two sons, two dogs and a flock of sheep. The large livestock live at Frisky Lamb Farm in Glen Aubrey, NY a family farm devoted to humanely raising animals and sustaining the earth. Rabbi Paula is a fiber artist, cook and bicyclist

On giving, aging and hair



Throughout my life, beginning as a young child, I have been involved in numerous social justice causes.  I have tramped through snow delivering political pamphlets on behalf of candidates.  I have walked miles and hopped on my bike to ride to raise money for causes.  I have attended rallies, benefits and new conferences in support of various issues.  I have dialogued and protested.  I have written letters and made phone calls.  I have baked cookies, cooked meals and donated money and given away car loads of clothing, furniture, books and toys.  I have done it all wishing I could do even more to make the pain of the world and individual suffering cease.  In the end of course I have always known, that the pain that I ease the most through all of my activism is my own.  Giving always helps the giver more than the recipient.  That is why are rabbis taught us we should give thanks for being allowed to help those in need.  Giving to people in need helps me keep my perspective on my own problems, both perceived and real.  I freely admit that I obsessively read tales of people struggling to get by some days simply to remind myself that however bad I feel about my own lot in life, it could always be worse. But mostly I read them because I am inspired and impressed by the courage and strength people show in adversity and I hope to learn how to always have the same inner core of faith and courage that they have.

I do however, most days, give to others because I am so grateful for what I do have.  I am able to wake up each day with a roof over my head, able to put both feet on the ground and use all my limbs and have a mostly functioning brain.  I have people I love and who love me in my life and I have seen and done so many incredible things in my life.  I know how good my life has been and I am grateful for it.  But of course while I am basically content with my lot in life, I am still ambitious enough to want to have more, to do more, and to give more.  People who have become ill or disabled often express that as much as they are pained and hurt by their illness it is their need to receive care rather than give help that hurts more.  I know this is true.  I hate having to be needy.  Perhaps my need to give is my insurance policy against needing.  If I am the giver, than I will never have to be the recipient……I am certain Freud and others can go deeper…but let’s not.

In 2014 I will turn 55.  It is a good age and considering the alternative to getting older…I will age delightedly!  I am celebrating my 55th birthday by doing several things.  I am going to compete in at least two mini triathlons.  I am competing to get my body in shape to have the strength, endurance and grace to finish the events and to be able to get up the next day able to walk with comfort.  I am working on organizing my life so that I can really find what I need when I need it and not be overwhelmed by mountains of paper covering my office, my home and my car (this will be more difficult than the triathlons).  I will also be doing one more thing…probably even more shocking to some than anything else I have ever done…I am shaving my head.

When I turned 50, I let my hair go to its natural color, grey.  I decided I had spent 15 years of my life as a slave to covering up my natural color and had enough.  At 50 I decided I wasn’t fooling anyone about my age in any case and I might as well embrace who I really was.  The past five years have been both liberating and enlightening.  But now, as I turn 55 it seems that hair is again going to be a focal point of my continued aging.  I am going totally bald, at least for a while.  On March 31, 2014, I will join with 35 other rabbis in a program called “Shave for the Brave”.  36 rabbis are gathering to support our colleague whose son has leukemia and sadly is no longer responding to treatment.  I have not met either my colleague or her son, but I have obsessively followed her story as she journeyed with her son through the world of cancer.  You can read her blog at supermansamuel.blogspot.com.  The “Shave for the Brave” will raise money for the St BALDrick’s foundation, a volunteer organization that supports pediatric cancer research.  shave for brave badgeMy sacrifice of my hair is nothing by comparison to what the children and families infected with cancer and other chronic illness deal with on a day to day basis.  You can read more about my participation here.  http://www.stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/660958/2014.

In the morning prayer service we thank God for giving us the breath of life and for giving us bodies that have veins and arteries the keep us alive.  I thank God for my body, for my brain and for the ability to be a giver and a doer.

Baruch atah Adonai Rofeh Kol basar u’mafli laasot.  Blessed are you, God, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.


Be happy and Shout out its Adar!

Be Happy its Adar!  Happy Rosh Hodesh Adar!

This month is considered one of the happiest months of the Hebrew Calendar.  It is said:  Those who welcome Adar increase joy and happiness in the world!  For it is in this month we celebrate the survival of Judaism despite another attempt by someone, this case Haman (may his name be erased) to annihilate us.   Fortunately, Haman did not succeed and we are here to celebrate and boo his name when we hear it during the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim, which this year we celebrate on February 23 & 24.  When I read the Book of Esther I try to remember how amazing it is that we have a whole book of the Hebrew Bible named for and featuring one woman, a rare but not exclusive situation.  Ruth exists as well.  It is easy to look at this book and dismiss Esther’s role in the story as that of a patriarchal stereotypic view of a woman especially because it was her physical attributes that got her to a place where the males in her life directed her behavior.  I personally was always more drawn to Vashti than Esther because it seemed that Vashti had more spunk, drive and courage.  I have always been amused that the authors of this text saw Vashti’s refusal to do what she was told as a threat to the very structure of their society and their place in it. They worried that other women would hear of her refusal and would make “their husbands contemptible in their eyes”  Esther 1:13-22.  But Esther can be viewed in another way, the ultimate insider who could have ignored all issues around her while living her life in the relative ease she has obtained.  But instead Esther risked it all to do what she had to do.  She recognized the power she possessed and used it to save her people.  We can admire her resolve and especially her patience in getting the King warmed up before she pressed for his support in saving her people.  Her story gives us much to admire, her book gives us great insight into the workings of the minds of our ancient authors and yes, it gives us a fun wondrous holiday to celebrate.  But I know that we cannot always use her methodology to press for things we believe in today.

 As I write this post today nine women were detained for committing the crime of trying to pray as a group covered in their prayer shawls at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  There are many who think that their act of civil disobedience is distracting from more major issues confronting Israeli society.  There are those who think that they are involved in a struggle that does not resonate with Israeli society because the Kotel is just not so important.  There are those who think that this is only a “Diaspora” issue, not a “real” Jewish issue.  There are those who don’t want to be identified with these “fringe” women because they want to stay solidly in the mainstream.  But those who wish to belittle this struggle are missing the point that it is not just a struggle about a place to pray, rather it is a struggle about the strength of women’s voices and presence in Israeli and Western society.  This is a struggle about whether the world will truly support a woman’s right to be an equal participant in society.  This is a struggle about a woman’s right to express a strong opinion and not be labeled as “confrontational” or “bitchy”.  This is a struggle for all people who are on the fringes of society having a right to still express themselves in the mainstream.  Yes women could pray as a group in other less public sections of the Old City of Jerusalem by why should they have to?  Why should only one type of religious authority be recognized?  Why is it that accommodations can only be made for the religious extremists of one type?   Today the Israeli police waited until men (including members of the paratroopers who liberated the Kotel in 1967)  who were supporting the Women of the Kotel left before  they grabbed nine women and detained them.  In prior confrontations the police were physically rough with the women they detained.   This action against the Women of the Kotel is an affront to women and is an attack on women’s rights and not only at the Kotel.  If this struggle for a woman’s right to pray with her peers at the Kotel is lost, it will be easier to chip away at other women’s rights issues.   It will be easier for religious authorities to continue to control marriage laws in Israel.  It will be easier for religious authorities to pressure women to conform to stricter religious standards of dress, where they should sit on buses, the number s of children they must have, the streets they can walk on and they marriages they must stay in.   It will be easier for people outside of Israel to reverse decades of progress for women in other areas as well.  This “small” issue has big ramifications for the status of women in society as a whole. 

As we rejoice in this month of Adar, may we remember all of our sisters and brothers who are crying out to have an equal voice in our world and may we help give voice to their struggle.  May the month of Adar bring joy and gladness and peace to us and to our world.    

Calm Seas, Blue Skies and Hope

The sky was brilliant blue with no clouds hovering.  The air was crisp and the sun was shining.  I walked on the Boardwalk adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and felt the fresh air melt away my stress.  I returned to my car to head home to begin the day and was annoyed to find that my radio was broadcasting static and not my favorite programs.   As I entered my house to dress to get to the interfaith clergy meeting I was to be hosting in the next hour, my phone was ringing and it was my assistant telling me to get to a TV to see the news.   The date was September 11, 2001 and the first plane had just hit the first of the Twin Towers.  By the time I got to my TV the second tower had been hit and we began to realize that this was no mere accident.

Thirty minutes later my ashen faced colleagues arrived with each of us sharing what little we had been able to learn.  We prayed together and discussed what we thought we should each do.  While we were meeting with the Television turned on low, we saw the Towers crumble.   We agreed to meet in a few days time to assess what we felt would be necessary to do.  We were all dreading what we would find out about the fate of our congregants and friends so many of whom worked in the financial district.  We of course had yet to learn about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania or about the attack on the Pentagon.

I received a call from my son who could see the towers from his high school classroom who wanted me to come get him so we could get my younger son from middle school and all be together.  When we arrived at the middle school the mother of one of his classmates who worked in the office went with us to get my other son from class.  She told us she had just heard from her husband that his fire department had been called in to assist, that was the last news she ever heard from him.  His body was found two months later and his burial took place on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

For days afterwards though we were twenty miles away, we could smell the fires burning, see the haze in the air and see the streams of smoke going out to sea. Our skies were silent as all air traffic in our area was stopped for five days.  It was only during the midst of a community service in a local park that we heard the first plane fly over head.  For the first time our neighborhood cheered as we welcomed the roaring sound of regular jets filling the air.   As Rosh Hashanah approached a few days later we began the New Year saddened, shocked, dismayed yet clearly bound together.  This feeling of unity sadly, did not last long.

Eleven years have passed since that day.  I have heard the platitudes uttered about the meaning of that day.  I have shed tears for the thousands that died that day and the thousands more young men and women who have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq too. I wonder though, what have we really learned since then?   What messages do we convey to our children, especially those who have been born since?  How are we honoring those who died?

In the coming weeks as we move ever closer to another presidential election I know that we will hear speech after speech about the role America is supposed to play in the world.   We will hear how this politician or that one will make certain that a tragedy like 9/11 will never happen again.  I hope that no matter what side they represent, that they are right.

I mostly hope however that someday it won’t take a tragedy of this magnitude to unite people.  I hope that someday soon, we might find a way build a world that is truly united in creating a dignified peaceful and secure world for all God’s people which will be filled with beautiful blue skies, crisp air and calm sea breezes.

Sadness in Wisconsin

This week we mourned yet another outburst of hatred against people of faith as a lone gunmen opened fire on a gathering of Sikh worshipers at a Sikh Temple is Oak Creek, Wisconsin killing seven people and wounding many others. The perpetrator of this crime was apparently so ignorant of the world that he thought he was firing on Muslims at a mosque. Yet despite his ignorance about anything to do with real Muslims or Sikhs and probably much more, he knew enough about the world to be filled with hatred and to methodically plan to legally amass the armaments necessary to carry out this horrible crime.
This attack hit me particularly hard as it took place in my home State especially because it opened up long buried wounds of being subjected to the vicious ignorant hated I was subjected to as the usually lone Jewish child in school in my Northern Wisconsin town. People who knew nothing about me, families who had never actually ever spoken to a member of my family would not have anything to do with us because we were Jewish. There were clubs from which we were barred and groups we could not join. There were taunts at school and people actually searching to find my horns! I heard more than once that if I accepted Christianity I could be forgiven the sin of murdering Jesus. Even my best friend, who was going through an interesting time of her life, gave me condescending pamphlets entitled “Why I love the Jew.” (Today she claims credit for having driven me to become a rabbi).
In truth these experiences did help me become the person I am today. I learned to strive to be more tolerant of others and to always identify with the oppressed. I also learned how easily racist thoughts and words could escalate to hatred and violence. The Torah reminds us to always treat the stranger as a citizen and to help the oppressed because we know what it is like to suffer oppression. The attack on the peaceful gathering of Sikhs in Oak Creek shows us that we are still far from reaching this ideal of our Biblical ancestors.
May the families of those killed know that we mourn with them. May this horrible crime remind us to continue to work together to bring acceptance, education and love to all around us. Perhaps sometime soon we will truly live in a America which truly honors the diversity and beauty of the rainbow of people who make our nation great.

The Fringes of Tradition

In 1980 when I was in my first year of rabbinical school, I decided to try out many new rituals including wearing a kippah, tefillin and tallit for prayer.  I was not raised wearing any of these and but I had remembered fondly sitting and playing with the fringes of my father’s z”l and my brothers’ tallitot as I sat next to them in services and seeing them scramble to find a kippah to put on as they entered our synagogue.   I always liked the beauty of the tallitot themselves and the ritual of the folding and fitting the tallit into its perfectly soft velvet bag after a service.   But, even though I was in the midst of crashing through the gender wall of Judaism, I was ambivalent about simply taking on formerly male only rituals without further investigation as to how they fit into my life.  I decided to begin by attending regular morning worship and slowly to experiment with other things..  I tried out wearing a kippah after of course searching to find the “perfect” one.   I found I liked the idea of covering my head as part of dressing for prayer.  It fit with the concept of being “dressed appropriately for every occasion” that had been drummed into my psyche by my parents.  

I then decided to move on to the tallit and Teffilin.  Teffilin made me feel very uncomfortable.  I felt less connected to tradition and more distracted during morning prayer.  Consequently I never adopted Tefillin wearing as a regular spiritual practice. Tallit wearing was so different.  I began by borrowing whatever ones we had at hand.  I tried all styles and designs from the “curtain panel” type that hung around the neck to enormous blanket type Tallitot that totally enveloped me.  I came to love the warm feeling of being hugged close as I prayed and tried to find a spiritual center.   Clearly the tallit was for me!  But now I wanted my own tallit and its own special bag.  I started shopping around for one and was mesmerized by the beautiful choices available each more stunning than the next and plenty that were not the “old” black or blue striped version.  Clearly this ritual fit me in every way!

As I shopped though I realized that there was something missing from the process but I could not understand why I could not finalize a choice. Until I finally realized that despite the fact that I was a 21 year old rabbinical student setting out on my “adult” career path, I needed my parents involved in this purchase.  I remembered the moment my parents gave each of my brothers their tallitot as they became B’nai Mitzvah and I wanted the same claim on both my religious and family traditions.  I decided to learn how to chant from the Torah and have my parents give me my tallit to wear for the first time when they came to visit me in Israel.  We shopped together for my tallit and I wore it as I chanted the Torah. I felt the warm presence of my parents and my tradition enveloping me as I stood at the Torah wrapped in my new tallit.  Years later for my father’s 60th birthday I reversed the tradition and presented him with a new tallit.  

I have since acquired many additional tallitot each special in its own way.  I am beginning the process of making my own tallit which I plan on making from scratch from raw wool which I will dye, spin and knit or weave myself.  I know as I go through the steps of making this special tallit that each thread will help link me to the ancient rituals of my tradition while  also uniquely representing my own journey to claim the beauty and traditions of my people and my family.