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Home : Community : Customer Gallery : Soul Stitchers

Customer Projects - Get Inspired

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Soul Stitchers
Created By: Nikki Zarefsky

I just gave a sermon at our temple last night and am going to try and copy it here:

D’var Torah 2/29/08 -- Soul Stitchers

It all started with a book…and that can be trouble for a reading teacher.

I ordered KNITTING INTO THE MYSTERY because the title sounded interesting, but with no idea what the book was about. It was written by a United Church of Christ minister and a Roman Catholic laywoman. They describe the creation of the shawl ministry in 1998. When I read the dedication “…we celebrate Our God who knits us into wholeness, who enables us to care for others, who encircles the world in an eternal shawl of love and compassion,” I knew that something had led me to find this book. Though our worship of God is different, perhaps this was a program that would help me find the spirituality I was looking for and at the same time share my knitting skills.

The Knitting Ministry made shawls for support, for friendship, for people in crisis, or for any reasons that felt right. Knitting shawls for people in crisis took precedence over other projects. My thought was that I might knit shawls for people within my different communities who were in emotional crisis.

First I shared the book with my daughter and we decided to knit a shawl for our neighbor who was dying of cancer. We each knit ½ the shawl and then joined it in the center. Giving the shawl to our neighbor and his wife helped convey feelings of love and compassion as we cried together.

Then I asked my knitting club at the high school if they were interested in the project. They said yes and we became the “Yarn Angels.” We gave shawls to a student whose father had triple bypass; an administrator diagnosed with leukemia, a special ed student who missed the window of opportunity to have back surgery, and others. Each time the shawl was delivered with a card from the “Yarn Angels” expressing our best wishes.

At the same time I asked Rabbi London if she thought a similar program would work at Beth Emet. Although there are many groups who knit for people in need, the goal in this case would be to knit shawls specifically for people at Beth Emet who were experiencing some kind of crisis—who needed the “extra hug” that a shawl could provide. Shawls would be given by the clergy to people in need and the knitters would not be identified individually, so that the recipient would not feel any obligation. She encouraged the idea and notices were written to announce the forming of a knitting coterie.

The initial group had 15 people. We decided to meet the 2nd Mon. of every month to knit or crochet shawls. The shawls could be of any pattern the knitter desired within very flexible length and width guidelines. The name “Soul Stitchers” gradually evolved from our discussions. One of the original members made a donation to the Synagogue with which to buy yarn. Subsequently knitters provided their own yarn, and donations of yarn or money also were received. And…at least wherever I travel, a good excuse to stop at the local yarn shop is to buy enough yarn for at least one shawl. Rabbi London provided labels which are sewn on the shawls and say:

Knitted with love & blessings for a

Refuah Shleimah

Beth Emet Soul Stitchers

(Reader: refuah shleimah is hebrew and means whole recovery)

Our meetings have varied in attendance with a core of 5 knitters. Beginners and skilled knitters alike are welcome and members are glad to teach the necessary skills to all ages. Also one can knit shawls for Soul Stitchers without coming to meetings—knit at home and bring the finished product to the synagogue.

We started our first several meetings with prayers that were suggested in the book KNITTING IN THE MYSTERY that blessed our efforts. We talked about the fact that sometimes there are no words to say when someone is in crisis, but the shawl seems to convey our message of care and concern. We also talked about mistakes in the knitting or “lack of perfection.” We realized that the value of what we do in Soul Stitchers doesn’t depend on getting every stitch exactly right, if ever such is possible.

I find it meaningful to pray when I’m knitting and I am thankful that I can make shawls and other knitted products. I usually have many shawls going at the same time, knowing that each will find a home at Beth Emet or with friends. I would add to a German proverb “Begin to knit, and God will show you the pattern and give you the yarn” that God will also let you know for whom the project is intended. When my sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer last spring, I knit her a large shawl in her favorite colors, thinking it was a way to reach out when I was miles away. When I went to visit and saw that she wore the shawl constantly, I felt like I had been close to her in her painful struggle.

The date for this D’var Torah was chosen with no thought about the torah portion. But, surprisingly enough, this week we read about the building of the Mishkan. All of the hangings for the Mishkan were made of fine twisted linen, with embroidery of blue, purple, and crimson yarns. Artisans contributed their skill to the construction. The artistic work of one’s hands was valued by God. We, in turn, try to use the gift of our hands to benefit others.

So how does this project enact Jewish values? First, a strong sense of community is an important Jewish value. Receiving a shawl from Soul Stitchers shows that others care and the actual shawl “knits” everyone closer in the community. It doesn’t matter if the knitter knows the receiver or vice versa—the sense of others caring is important. As Jews, we are taught that God’s presence is everywhere. In the same way we wrap ourselves in a tallit to remember God’s love for the people Israel, so too do we remember the love of people for each other as we wrap ourselves in a shawl and feel enveloped with love. Since the clergy distribute the shawls, no one knows who knit the shawl he or she receives. As a result, Soul Stitchers achieves the highest form of tsadakah according to Maimonides—giving and receiving anonymously with no obligation.

Second, Rabbi Knobel speaks frequently about transforming the ordinary into the sacred--In other words, finding holiness in every day things. Knitting is something that people have done for thousands of years. It is for many an every day activity. Yet it really is a special gift…one that I don’t think I fully appreciated over the years. Now I feel like I’m using that gift to help others. Those who know me know that I knit everywhere. Why not? Rather than, as my son-in-law jokes, having “idle fingers,” I can be doing something to help someone else. I also find that whenever I’m knitting, I think about my aunt who raised me and taught me to knit when I was 6 or 7. Jews are taught to remember and honor our ancestors, and knitting helps me accomplish this.

Finally, seeing an analogy to creation may be a little much, but I love the idea written in Knitting in the Mystery that “out of a single strand of yarn, a flowing fabric emerges that will eventually wrap itself around another’s shoulders and speak love into another’s heart.” To demonstrate, I’d like to invite Rabbi London up and give her a shawl that started with a single strand of yarn to thank her for her support and friendship.


After the sermon,, the rabbi blessed us with a prayer she wrote for Soul Stitchers and many of the shawls were displayed (we made about 125 in 3 years). She asked that anyone who felt they knew someone who would be comforted with a shawl come up after the service and take one. That was very successful and got people thinking about the project.

Afterwards, one of the listeners expressed an interest in starting a program at the cancer care center of our local hospital and I said I would be glad to help.

Hope this story is helpful. I have shared PRAYER SHAWL I book with my group.


Nikki Zarefskky

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