For Gail Fisher, needlework is about the doing.
She may spend days, weeks, even months working on something — a tallit bag, kippot, table cloths — then simply take a picture of it and give it away.
“I refuse to have my house filled up with stuff,” says Fisher, 69. “So for me the process of making something and working on it is what’s rewarding. And then when it’s done, I give it to whoever wants it and I don’t care anymore.”
She learned the craft, in part, from her mother, but it has run in the family for quite some time, Fisher says. And for the last 20 years, she’s been among the do-it-yourselfers giving and getting guidance on the internet. She’s a member of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Artwork and other online groups that focus on crochet, needlework and embroidery.
A sampling of her work was on display recently at Temple Rodef Shalom in McLean, where she is a member. Just the sheer number of her pieces and their detail impressed those who saw them.
“Gail doesn’t sleep,” said one congregant after Fisher explained the long process of measuring, counting and stitching a design into a tablecloth she’s working on for her brother and sister-in-law.
But it’s not all she does. She’s also pursuing rabbinical ordination. She takes classes through the Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute, an online rabbinical school, and is on track to be ordained in the summer, although she already leads services at Goodwin House, a senior living facility in Alexandria.
“I wanted to be a rabbi since I was 15 years old, but women weren’t really doing that in those days,” Fisher says. “But when I retired, I started taking classes [at various synagogues and institutions] and everything was very superficial. I wanted to study more and I said, ‘Hey, remember back when you wanted to be a rabbi? Why can’t you do it now?’”
Fisher grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and attended Michigan State University to study teaching. Later, her husband, Craig, took a job as a professor in Richmond and then in Northern Virginia. Once in McLean, they joined Temple Rodef Shalom. Fisher worked as a math teacher in Maryland and later as a tax accountant.
She’s been a volunteer chaplain in the Goodwin House hospice, and her final research paper will be on end-of-life spiritual concerns, the questions people ask rabbis and how clergy can bring comfort. She’ll also begin leading services at the Ashby Ponds retirement community in Ashburn this month.
“It feels like it’s a mitzvah,” Fisher says. “I don’t want a bimah, I don’t want the politics and all that stuff. But to be bringing [Judaism] to these communities is so rewarding.”
And recently she did what she describes as the most meaningful stitch work of her life: taking part in the Torah Stitch by Stitch Project based in Toronto. Organizers assigned 1,464 sections of the Torah to be cross-stitched by volunteers in 22 countries.
Fisher was responsible for Numbers 7:7-10. When crafting their respective pieces, participants are supposed to be reflective, she says.
“You’re supposed to wash your hands and say a blessing. You’re supposed to be contemplative before you started working each time, it’s not just supposed to be some throwaway piece,” Fisher says. “And the fact that I’m sitting and stitching these letters from the Torah, that felt like the holiest thing to me. I feel like I’m participating in the sacred and joining in creating sacred space,” she says.
When it’s all done, each section will be stitched together and sent around the world for display. Fisher is hoping the final product will make a stop in Baltimore or Washington, so she can see the finished product.
Her needlework takes up the most of her time not spent on coursework. She often works on pieces in front of the television.
“I like to work while I sit and watch the news, and right now there’s a lot of news,” she says. “I think you’re either born with a drive where you have to making something or you’re not. I do. I always have to be making something.”