First Person | Local

Jewish women can build homes — literally

Nancy Mellan

As Jewish wom­en, we come from a tradition that honors our role in home, family and community. In the Eshet Chayil Shabbat blessing recited by husbands to their wives, we are honored: “A good woman, who can find. She reaches her hand out to those in need. She is precious far beyond rubies. She is robed in strength and dignity; and she smiles at the future. She opens her mouth with wisdom and a lesson of kindness is on her tongue.”

We find our role models in our ancestors: Sarah, opening her tent on all four sides to welcome travelers with hospitality and compassion; Rebecca at the well, offering water to a thirsty traveler and his animals.

In our own homes we know how to get everyone up and fed and out the door — beds made, kitchen counter crumb-free and the endless “to-do list” with at least a few items checked off. I’ll wager that many of us know how to unclog the toilet, flip the breakers that will re-start the air conditioning and paint a wall. Modeling for our children, spouses and community we conquer synagogue attendance, Federation Mitzvah Magic and Aunt Ethel’s brisket. We cement this all together with hugs at the door, a day at the office and the lighting of the Shabbat candles. Clearly, we are the ultimate home builders. And yet, the notion of literally building a house with real hammers and nails can, at first glance, feel out of our league.

Last year as I prepared to join several women with the Jewish Community Relations Council in a Habitat for Humanity house build, I found my construction anxiety rising. How could I possibly navigate my way through brick, mortar, dry wall and nail guns, not to mention a serious fear of ladder climbing. I had never worn a hard hat or thick leather work gloves. Most important, what shoes to wear? And yet, I found compelling the notion of lending a hand to help put together a home for someone without one. A roof, a door, a window, a floor. As Jewish women we understand that these are the makings of the sacred space of “home.”

On the day of the build I wore my most comfy cowgirl boots, jeans and a loose long-sleeved shirt. We gathered at the site where three homes were the focus for our day. We were surrounded by a group of women from the Habitat Women Build program already working in high gear, chatting, laughing, painting and sweeping. Still shaking in my boots that I would be asked to climb a ladder, I was instantly put at ease by our forewoman. She had a task list for the day and we could each select a task that felt comfortable for us.

Choosing to clean floors with a floor machine (I always wanted to try one of those), I donned my hard hat and gloves. I relished the thought of leaving behind a pristine cement slab ready for staining or carpeting; the very foundation of a cozy home. But wait. Before we can use the floor polisher we have to remove the heavy plastic that was covering the floor to protect it from the wall plastering. Oy! Knife cutter, dust mask, broom. Bend, stoop, sweep, sweep, sweep. Three houses and nine floors later my day was complete. Well, no machine. But one more accomplishment checked off the to-do list of building a home for someone in need. Sore, dust covered and hungry we left our task for the day, stopped for a burger and basked in the tired glow of the power of Jewish women.

Please join us for JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Habitat for Humanity Build on Nov. 9. Don’t worry that you may not be physically strong enough. You have the strength of ancestors of Jewish women behind you. Don’t worry that you cannot climb a ladder. We are each climbing Jacob’s ladder every moment of every day and you will have permission to sweep the floor instead. Don’t worry that you’ve never held a hammer. Trust that someone will show you how. You come from a tradition in which Jewish women have kept our peoplehood and spirituality glowing and growing by creating our homes. Don’t worry about the dust, your sore feet or even your mistakes. Just remember that you have a home to return to at the end of the day. Roof, floors, windows, doors. Together we can.

Volunteers for the JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Habitat for Humanity Build on Wednesday, Nov. 9, must be at least 16 years old. To volunteer, contact Jane Scott at 577-9393, ext. 114 or

Nancy Mellan is co-chair with Diana Friedman of the JFSA Women’s Philanthropy Habitat for Humanity Build.