‘Birthright for Mommies’
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‘Birthright for Mommies’

Local representatives join Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project in Israel

From left, Dena Levie, Karen Sackstein, Janet Freitag, and Shamira Malekar all were part of the Momentum trip.
From left, Dena Levie, Karen Sackstein, Janet Freitag, and Shamira Malekar all were part of the Momentum trip.

Connection.

That word is mentioned over and over by the Bergen County women who recently returned from a Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project trip to Israel, aka “Birthright for Mommies.”

The subsidized eight-day Momentum tour, which is filled with touring, classes, socializing, and introspection, is designed to “empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities.”

Participants say the experience leads to a strong connection with one another, with Judaism, and with Israel.

Started in 2008 by author and educator Lori Palatnik along with seven other Jewish women of different affiliations, JWRP has led 6,500 women from 19 countries on Momentum tours since 2009. (A newer Momentum tour for Jewish fathers has had 400 participants so far.)

Momentum works with more than 100 partner organizations around the world, including JInspire, a national grassroots Jewish learning initiative that has chapters in New Jersey and New York.

The group of 20 from Bergen County was part of a 400-woman Momentum tour for Jewish mothers from the United States, Canada, Russia, and Israel during the week of October 18. The local contingent was led by JInspire educators Julie Farkas of Bergenfield and Dena Levie, Esther Friedman, and Andrea Portal of Teaneck, and past participant Ellen Finkelstein of Teaneck.

Karen Sackstein of Fair Lawn signed up as a birthday present to herself. She turned 50 on the day of departure. “I’ve wanted to go to Israel for quite some time, and it was just the right time,” she said; still, it was hard leaving her husband and 12-year-old son. “I’m a member of the sandwich generation,” she said. “I’ve been caring for other people for a long time, and this was the first time I was doing something for me.

“Everyone talks about how you’re going to feel so connected to Judaism during this trip, and you’re waiting for that ‘aha’ moment,” she continued. “Actually there were many. But the one that surprised me was the Shabbat we spent in Jerusalem. Lighting candles, singing and dancing with 400 women — there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. All of a sudden everything just made sense for me.

“It was an overwhelming feeling of connection to the women I had been with only five days at that point and who became my best friends, but also to our Jewish heritage. Shabbat is something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. For me, it was no longer something only the Orthodox do.”

Ms. Sackstein also gained a new perspective on Israel. “I was ignorant about Israel before. You read things in the news and it’s always something that is happening ‘over there.’ I didn’t understand why they were fighting over this stupid piece of desert. Being there, talking to the Israelis on the trip, and to my cousins who have a child in the army, I realized that most of the people, Jewish and Arab, really do want peace and really do get along. It’s no longer about ‘over there’ but about real mothers and real children. It makes you want peace so much.”

She and Janet Freitag of Ramsey stayed in Israel a few extra days after Momentum ended. “I went with Janet to Old Jaffa one day, and there were crazy rains and the shops were flooded,” she said. “A Jewish shop owner told us that an Arab construction worker helped her for three hours to bail out.”

Upon returning home, Ms. Sackstein felt that the experience had pushed her reset button. “In Israel, everyone is grateful, literally dancing in the streets,” she said. “We’ve all read about the importance of practicing gratitude and mindfulness, but being in a place where they live gratitude and mindfulness is very different than reading about it in a book.

“People can see that I’ve changed; I’m letting go of stuff that doesn’t matter.”

Rena Bernstein, 56, of Fair Lawn calls Momentum “a life-changing experience, very different than I anticipated. If I went back now and went to the same sites it wouldn’t be the same.

“You can go and see Israel, you can hear people talk about it, but you don’t necessarily feel it. That’s what this trip was. I felt the ‘why.’ I felt a connection and a transformation. We went as 20 women from New Jersey — 25 including our leaders — and came back as a family.”

Ms. Bernstein said that both she and her husband were raised knowing little about Judaism. “I always wanted to learn and understand but never found the right opportunity,” she said. “I am not religious but I feel very connected to Judaism and I always wanted to go to Israel for reasons I didn’t understand.”

Two years ago, her son, now 22, went on Birthright with a group from college. She told the rabbi leading her son’s tour that she wished she could go along, and he told her about “Birthright for Mommies” — in other words, JWRP’s Momentum. She heard about it again from Debby Rapps, the director of the Jewish Youth Encounter Program that her 12-year-old daughter attends on Sunday mornings in Teaneck.

Ms. Bernstein finally had the chance to look into the trip a few months ago, and discovered that there was one planned for October. “As I was filling out the part of the application where they ask you to write about why you want to go, my good friend Roz Wisotsky, also from Fair Lawn, called and said, ‘Listen, you need to do this right now. I just got an email that I was accepted on this trip to Israel, a Mommy Birthright.’ She had never mentioned it to me and I had never mentioned it to her. And here I was about to hit the ‘submit’ button. So we wound up going to Israel together, and spent an extra five days there together.”

Ms. Bernstein recalls the group’s visit to the Western Wall, the sole remnant of the Second Temple complex destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE. “Before we approached, we made a circle,” she said. “Our leaders went around and asked us each to talk about something personal we would like to ask for, and that brought us closer together. They gave us each a prayer book with our name imprinted on it, and inside they had highlighted the prayer you say at the Wall. When we got there and touched it, it brought all the pieces together. It was just awesome — a connection between me, my story, my history, my friends, and my roots.”

Though these women can get together in Bergen County — and they have done so, for follow-up programming after the trip — Ms. Bernstein said that being in Israel cemented their relationship. “A big part of it was that in New Jersey we feel like we’re individuals who, even when in shul, are surrounded by a society that doesn’t understand, accept, or embrace us. In Israel I truly felt I was home, even though I had never been there before.”

The decision to go during a time of unrest was not easy, however.

“The founder of JWRP, Lori Palatnik, kept monitoring the situation and all the participants had a conference call with her a week before the trip,” Janet Freitag said. “She said they wouldn’t take us to places that are not safe, and I had no doubts about going. We had armed former IDF soldiers accompanying us on the trip, so we did feel very safe.”

Ms. Freitag, 46, first heard about Momentum from a friend in Woodcliff Lake who went in 2012. “She kept talking about how meaningful it was,” she said. “This year my son had a bar mitzvah, so I was extra exposed to my Judaism, and that prompted me to look into the trip.”

She also became more interested in Jewish learning through her attendance at family school with her 10-year-old daughter on Sunday mornings at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.

“My husband is not Jewish, but my synagogue embraced him, and we agreed to raise the kids Jewish,” Ms. Freitag said. “He was supportive of my going on the trip; he knew I needed to go spiritually.

“I always thought Israel was so far away and didn’t feel a connection to it. Going there deepened my faith, and a lot of the things I learned about had more meaning. I feel I want to be more involved in my synagogue and stay in touch with the women on the trip. I want my children to go to Israel, too.”

One of her favorite moments was on top of Masada, a mountain near the Dead Sea where a group of 900 Jews held out against the Roman Legion for three years. The author Alice Hoffman based her novel “The Dovekeepers” on this historic episode.

“I read ‘The Dovekeepers’ with my book club six months before the trip and it was beautiful to see where this story took place,” Ms. Freitag said.

Before joining the other city groups for the first night in Tiberias, the Bergen women traveled to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s sister city, Nahariya, on Israel’s northwest coast. They visited historic sites, met with the residents of a federation-supported group home for teenage girls, and toured the underground attack-proof emergency and surgery center at Nahariya’s Western Galilee Medical Center.

In addition to Jerusalem and Masada, the Momentum itinerary included Safed, the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, camel rides at Eretz Beresheet in the Judean Desert, Shabbat meals with local Jerusalem families, spa night at the natural sulfur hot-spring pools at the Akoya Spa in the south, and lectures on topics ranging from marriage to Israel advocacy to drawing meaning from lighting Shabbat candles.

“It was so lovely how everyone in Jerusalem says ‘Shabbat shalom’ to each other; I didn’t realize before that it was such a big deal,” Ms. Freitag said. “We completely observed Shabbat; we shut down our electronics and just enjoyed.”

By the end of the eight days, she said, “everyone was exhausted but renewed at the same time. At the Bergen trip reunion on November 30th, each participant shared the same sentiment — we all felt a deep connection with Israel and started to bring some new Jewish traditions into our family routines.”

Julie Farkas, one of the trip’s leaders and coordinators, said that she found out about JWRP in 2011, at a time when she was teaching Hebrew to students at the Jewish Learning Experience and JYEP. “I wanted to find a way to help them connect more deeply,” she says. “JWRP has created a diverse group of women — Conservative, Orthodox, Reform — and we’ve become one, a sisterhood. It’s an international organization, so no matter where we go we have sisters there.”

She noted that Israel’s diaspora Ministry has started providing half the funding for Momentum trips, allowing the organization to increase the number of participants from 1,000 women per year to 2,000 in the past two years. Registrants pay only air fare.

“The goal is to create community and connect women to their Judaism and to have them come back and be leaders and give to their communities,” Ms. Farkas said. “This trip shows you the soul of Israel. It’s a mix of classes and sightseeing that’s all relevant to the mission to connect everyone.

“When you come back it’s hard to verbalize what it was like, so you have to share with others who went with you.”

Each of the leaders offers optional follow-up activities, including classes and a monthly challah-bake. Ms. Farkas gives a Torah class on Sundays at the Teaneck General Store.

“I know it’s difficult as a mother to leave your family for eight days,” Ms. Freitag said. “It takes a lot of effort and work, but thousands of mothers have done it through JWRP, and it’s a life-changing experience that will enhance your Judaism and strengthen your faith, so it’s really worth it for yourself and for your family.”

JInspire already is recruiting for its next Momentum trip, set to leave on November 13, 2016. For information, email Esti Glauser at Eglauser@Jinspire.org.

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