Ilene Cetlin Lipow wasn’t comfortable wearing a tallit until she wove her own.
Lipow grew up attending Beth El Suburban, now Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, where she neither wore a tallit nor read from the Torah on her bat mitzvah, as those were traditions for men. But when she wove her own tallit, it was not a man’s garment; it was hers: a simple cream-colored shawl with silk and wool, but the atarah, or neck band, is adorned with gold embroidery and dozens of tiny seed pearls.
“When I put on one that I wove, it was empowering,” Lipow said. “It doesn’t look like one of the ones that men traditionally wear.”
Having learned to knit at age 6 from her mother, Lipow has long been a lover of fiber arts and wanted to share her love with fellow congregants at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester.
“I love making things,” Lipow said. “If I make something for you, that’s my way of showing love.”
Last month, with the help of the Kesher Israel Sisterhood and the Kehillah of Chester County, Lipow began a weaving studio at the shul, open to the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community interested in making tallit, challah covers or other fabric Judaica.
After a few years of contemplating the idea, Lipow said now was the right time for her to start the studio; she was an attorney since 1985 and had recently retired. When the pandemic began, Lipow reconnected with her love of fiber arts — weaving, quilting
“Being stuck inside for a year kind of makes you re-evaluate what your priorities are,” Lipow said.
Lipow sent a detailed proposal of the studio to Shelly Rappaport, a friend and director of the Chester County and Delaware County Kehillot, who then applied for a capacity-building grant for the studio through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
According to Rappaport, the idea of a weaving studio wasn’t farfetched; there are a small handful of weaving studios in the area, including at the Wilkesboro and Harrisburg JCCs and at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Metuchen, New Jersey.
“We’ve had probably 150 to 200 weavers since we began the program who have come in and woven tallitot or challah covers, matzah covers … And the stories are just incredible,” said Cory Schneider, the co-creator of Neve Shalom’s “Loom Room,” which opened five years ago.
She, along with co-creator Jennifer Bullock, wanted to create an experience for the weavers that were “meaningful and memorable.” According to Schneider, one woman in her 80s wanted to knit a tallit for her grandson’s bar mitzvah. Though her grandson was only 3, the woman insisted on weaving the tallit, not knowing if she would live until her grandson’s bar mitzvah, but wanting him to have an heirloom of hers anyway.
Lipow consulted with Schneider when she was planning Kesher Israel’s studio, visiting Neve Shalom’s studio for inspiration.
Then, picking up a used loom from the middle of Pennsylvania and donating her own sewing machine to the cause, Lipow converted Kesher Israel’s original rabbi’s study into the weaving studio. The Kesher Israel Sisterhood funded the yarn for the weaving projects.
The Kesher Israel studio has been open for less than a month and has already attracted community attention. There are five people on the studio’s waitlist.
Amy Kamitsky, an active Kesher Israel member and longtime friend of Lipow, was the first to complete a project there: a tallit for her son’s upcoming bar mitzvah.
“Every time he puts his tallis on for the rest of his life, hopefully, he’ll be wrapping himself up in my handiwork and my love.” Kaminsky said. “It sounds so cheesy, but it warms my heart.”
Kaminsky is not a weaver, but Lipow sat down with her and explained the process to Kaminsky. After almost 20 hours of work, Kaminsky completed her project, save for tying the tzitzit, a project she was saving for her family.
Hoping congregants will be able to engage in their Judaism in new ways, Kaminsky is pushing Kesher Israel to expand the concept of the weaving studio and create additional maker spaces at the synagogue.
“Maybe if services aren’t for you, and Torah study isn’t for you, maybe this is one more way that you can find a connection that works for you, your religion,” Kaminsky said.
Lipow is also a proponent of experiential, or hands-on Judaism, giving Jews another opportunity to connect with their spirituality outside of the sanctuary and off the bimah.
“I want to give people the experience of creating something that they’ll have for a long time, an heirloom,” Lipow said. “These are the things that connect us. I love making things, and I wanted to be able to share it with my community and then the broader Jewish community.”