Pink prayer shawls honor a ‘beautiful person’
When Erwin Lewis of Monroe thinks of his late wife, he remembers a devoted Jewish woman who wore her pink tallit with pride.
When Sylvia Lewis died in November, her husband of almost 60 years wanted to memorialize her and thought of that tallit and what it meant to her.
That led to his recent donation of 25 pink prayer shawls to their synagogue, Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick.
The 89-year-old Lewis recalled that during their retirement years the couple often traveled, always making sure to find a synagogue for Shabbat services wherever they were in the world.
Several years ago, while in Buenos Aires, they went to services at Temple Heschel-Comunidad Bet El.
“The first thing we saw was a rack of pink tallesim next to the black tallesim, and my wife saw it as a sign women were welcome there,” said Lewis. “That was the first thing she said when we walked in.”
That experience made such an impression on Sylvia that immediately upon her return home, she bought her own tallit and wore it proudly to services.
Lewis said his wife reveled in the growing role of women in recent years in Judaism and had an adult bat mitzva at B’nai Tikvah at age 70. The couple had lived in Fort Lee prior to moving to the Greenbriar at Whittingham adult community and Sylvia would cross the George Washington Bridge to work as a docent at the Yeshiva University Museum.
“Her attitude was that she learned more than she gave,” said Lewis.
A member of the egalitarian Conservative B’nai Tikvah for 15 years, Lewis saw that most women there wore a tallit. If they did not own one, they borrowed a traditional blue and white one from the rack in the synagogue lobby.
Likewise, while in Boca Raton, Fla., this winter he noticed a similar situation at the synagogue he attended.
At B’nai Tikvah, the new pink tallitot now share the rack with the blue and white ones.
Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, who held a brief ceremony for the tallit donation during a visit by the couple’s two daughters, called Erwin and Sylvia “a gloriously beautiful couple.”
“They came to shul all the time,” he said. “Even as Sylvia became ill she still struggled to come, and we mourned when she left us. When Erwin came up with this idea it was embraced by the congregation because it reminded everyone what a beautiful person she was.
“Every time I walk by those tallits I remember the legacy she left us and her vibrancy is still alive.”
Lewis told NJJN a week before Rosh Hashana he was eager to see the reaction to the new tallitot over the High Holy Days.
He already has had one positive reaction from a fellow congregant, who told him that she thought she would never wear a tallit, “but starting now she would,” he said. “Now I see her there every Saturday wearing a pink tallit from the rack.”
Lewis said he hopes the pink prayer shawls will start a trend in other synagogues.
“I’m hoping that if they read this article they pick up on the idea and follow up with it,” he said.
And as for his wife’s pink tallit, it has now been passed to his daughter, who wears it proudly.