Twenty-eight Jewish mothers from Bergen County flew back from Israel the day before Thanksgiving with an extra reason to be grateful: nine days of bonding, learning, discovering, and exploring in Israel through Momentum, a subsidized group tour sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an international nonprofit organization.
Momentum takes women from the mystical Galilee city of Safed (Tsfat) to the ancient desert mountaintop fortress Masada, and features lectures by experts on everything from Jewish parenting to contemporary Israeli society.
Started in 2008 by author and educator Lori Palatnik with seven other Jewish women of different affiliations, JWRP has led some 10,000 participants to Israel through 142 partner organizations — including JInspire Bergen — in 26 countries. A Momentum tour for Jewish fathers, begun in 2013, has had 625 participants so far.
“We and JWRP share the vision of empowering Jewish women worldwide as leaders of the next generation, with the ability and drive to raise children who are proud of their identity and strongly connected to Israel,” said Dvir Kahana, director-general of the Israeli Ministry of diaspora Affairs, with which JWRP has partnered since 2014.
“Our philosophy from the beginning has always been: inspire a woman, you inspire a family,” Ms. Palatnik said. “Inspire enough families, you can change a community. Inspire enough communities, and you can change the world.”
One of the few requirements for participation is that each traveler must have at least one child under the age of 18.
“I’d never been to Israel and always felt I missed out,” said Alyson Cohn of Wyckoff, whose 24-year-old son went on a free 10-day Birthright trip several years ago. “He came back and said it was transformative and I’ve really been aching to go.”
Sitting in the lobby of Jerusalem’s King Solomon Hotel with several other participants toward the end of the trip, Ms. Cohn, who also has a 15-year-old son, explained that she was raised without any Jewish education or affiliation, started taking adult-ed courses when her older son was preparing for his bar mitzvah, and today is an active worshiper and president of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff.
She said she found it refreshing to discover the similarities among women from different streams of Judaism. She asked “a million and one questions” of the four volunteer leaders from JInspire Bergen, all of whom are Orthodox, though that is not a requirement.
“Spiritually, I came on this trip with no expectations,” Ms. Cohn said. “I was open to experience whatever was thrown at me. I was really shocked at how deeply it moved me and how connected I felt to places.”
The night her group arrived in Jerusalem, she and several others went to the Western Wall, a prayer site comprised of a section of one of the retaining walls of the Second Temple destroyed in 70 CE.
“I was overwhelmed,” Ms. Cohn said. “I did not expect to react the way I did. I just felt a connection to the past, to my children, to Judaism. My mom passed away three years ago, and I actually felt her presence there.”
Dr. Michele Gliksman of Wayne, a gynecologist in Bergen County, said many of her patients have gone on the Momentum trip and urged her to apply. Between her practice and her family commitments — she has four children, who are 24, 22, 19, and 12 years old — she found it difficult to arrange the time off.
However, she said, “I’m looking for a spiritual community, a place where I belong, and that’s why I came.” She said that goal was accomplished. “I spent a summer here when I was 15, and I have been to Israel several times since, but this was the first time I felt at home.” She thinks this is in large part due to the group.
“I was concerned about being on a trip with only other women but it’s been wonderful,” Dr. Gliksman said. “Everyone has similar goals, even though they have very different lives.”
Robin Baer of Fair Lawn said that her Momentum tour in October 2013 inspired her to become more involved with other alumnae, through Teaneck-based JInspire classes and challah bakes. She was a guide on this trip.
“The trip is just the beginning,” she said. “I became more connected with my Judaism. I started lighting Shabbat candles more regularly, expanding our Friday night dinner and trying to observe the holidays a little more deeply. My husband, Michael, has gone on the men’s trip.” Their children are 19 and 17.
“The lectures during the tour help us to know who we are and to recognize our potential,” Ms. Baer said. “They speak to all of us, no matter our social status or economic background, and teach us to be better women, better people, better spouses and significant others, and then we in turn bring that to our children and become better mothers and members of the community. It starts with us.”
Phyllis Krug of Teaneck, one of the leaders of the Bergen contingent, said the main goal is “to create a sisterhood, a supportive community, for these women. Primarily it starts with friendship and exploring Jewish identity. This has emerged in many different directions, from taking classes to going on vacations together to helping one another find jobs and give advice on child-rearing.”
Ms. Krug said she’s convinced that “you couldn’t accomplish this anywhere else but Israel, because the soul of the nation is here and the soul of the mothers is here. You come here and it’s literally a baring of the soul, and when that happens you’re willing to approach topics you would not have done in Teaneck, New Jersey. You needed to come here and be guided here.
“I really believe this is a priority of Jewish survival,” she said.
This year, the Momentum trip had funding from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Jodi Heimler of Oakland, the federation’s managing director for financial resource development, accompanied the local participants.
Ms. Heimler said that when some of the leaders approached her about partnering on Momentum, she asked them to describe their measure of success for the trip.
“Were they trying to turn all these women Orthodox?” she asked them. “They explained that it’s not about that at all. They just want them to connect more Jewishly, in whatever baby steps that entails for each individual.
“We both have the same goals: to build a strong and vibrant Jewish community. The leadership wants these women to come home and get more involved in their Jewish communities. And federation can be a resource to them.”
The November trip also included women from other areas of New Jersey, as well as from New York, Indiana, Minnesota, Texas, Washington State, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario.
The Bergen bus stopped first in Nahariya, the JFNNJ’s Partnership Together city, to visit social-action programs funded by JFNNJ and to share a meal with women living in that city.
Another stop was the Lone Soldier Center, a beneficiary of JFNNJ. Dr. Gliksman said that this was one of her most memorable moments, because she had not know anything about the phenomenon of so many Jews and gentiles from various countries leaving everything behind to volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I wanted to adopt them all,” she said half-jokingly. In the past she hosted Israeli teens through the Open Hearts Open Homes summer program sponsored by the Bergen County YJCC, and she arranged to meet up with two of them during the trip.
Another physician, Dr. Sue Flanzman of Ridgewood, said that she “can’t look at a soldier here without crying,” and treasured the opportunity to get acquainted with the small group of Israeli mothers who traveled with the group for the entire eight days.
“I love the Israeli women’s attitude,” Dr. Flanzman said. “They laugh and smile, dance and sing, yet I know they have pain in their lives because their children were in the army. It’s a wonderful message for us all.”
Rosa Rojas of Ridgewood agreed. “Everyone projects happiness and love for life and their country,” she said.
Ms. Rojas, the mother of children ranging from 23 and 16, is in the process of converting through an Orthodox rabbi in Fair Lawn. She took the Hebrew name Ruth during the Momentum journey.
“I heard about this trip from previous participants and wanted to go for purely spiritual reasons: my love for Judaism and what I had read in the Bible,” she said. “When I got here, it was way beyond my expectations because not only have I learned about the land and its biblical ties but also about the state of Israel, how it is run, how it is so nicely organized.
“It reaffirms my love for the country and the Bible.”
One of her most moving experiences was an explanatory visit to the Tsfat Mikveh & Education Center, where volunteers from Women of the Waters explained the concept of family purity and demonstrated immersion in the ritual bath. Observant Jewish women immerse once a month, some Jewish men immerse before the Sabbath or holidays, and converts of both genders immerse at the conclusion of their conversion process.
“To see somebody dunking in a mikvah, I started crying, because I want to be that person and I know I will be that person,” Ms. Rojas said.
“The Women of the Waters’ energy and spirituality was unbelievable, and our women were very curious,” said Ms. Baer, who is an attorney. “They explained the rituals beautifully, and cleared up misconceptions. We even met a woman who went on this trip four years ago and ended up moving to Tsfat with her husband. She works at the mikvah.”
The itinerary afforded many opportunities for fun as well, from dressing up in biblical-era garb and riding camels at Genesis Land to shopping in some ultra-chic Tel Aviv neighborhoods. The women volunteered at places such as Shalva-The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel, toured the Knesset, and interacted with soldiers at an army base.
Along the way, they bonded with one another and with their volunteer leaders, who also included Julie Farkas of Bergenfield and Debbie Rosalimsky and Dena Levie of Teaneck.
“Everyone here comes from different places and ends up in different places,” Ms. Levie said. “Everyone takes away something different; whatever speaks to her. I came to inspire these women but ended up being inspired by them. These women are my new best friends.”
The other local participants were Pam Abramowitz, Samantha Fruhling, and Karen Simon of Norwood; Rachelle Camhi Danto, Ann Golick, Hilary Hess, Cindy Rivkin, and Pam Rubenstein-Kuriloff of Fair Lawn; Helen Grant of West Nyack, N.Y.; Lillian Kate Kalmykov of Paramus; Batia Lampert of Teaneck; Dvorah Malek of Hackensack; Andrea Maline of Tenafly; Alicia Messer of Demarest; Joy Sapin of River Edge; Susan Steinberg of Mahwah, and Tamara Ween of Closter.
“Coming to Israel changes your life,” Ms. Cohn said. “You can’t help but be changed.”