80 local Jewish moms learn more about Judaism and themselves in Israel.
Could the Jewish mother be the most potent weapon in the fight against assimilation and decreasing support for Israel?
The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program (JWRP), which partners with the Israeli government and more than 100 organizations around the world, is betting on it.
In partnership with Aish Detroit, JWRP’s flagship program, Momentum, recently brought 80 Detroit-area Jewish moms to Israel for an eight-day travel and education experience. They joined more than 300 women from Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, New York-New Jersey, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C.
JWRP was formed in 2008 and started leading moms’ missions to Israel the following year. Aish Detroit has been a partner since the beginning.
Momentum aims to bring Jewish knowledge, values and spirituality into the home and, through the moms, to make an impact on the entire family. In addition to Aish Detroit, partner organizations include Jewish federations, Jewish community centers and outreach organizations.
Aish’s previous mission was last July. Until now, the Detroit groups have been small, averaging about 10 women. December’s trip was the first “mega” moms’ mission, said Aish associate director Estie Tolwin of Huntington Woods.
Tolwin and her husband, Rabbi Simcha Tolwin, Aish executive director, began recruiting participants last summer by word of mouth. The only requirements are that the women have children under 18 living at home and agree to continue their Jewish learning after the mission by attending a number of JWRP-approved programs.
The moms’ missions are heavily subsidized by the JWRP, the Israeli government and Aish. Participants pay only for airfare (some used frequent flyer miles) and a $36 registration fee. Leaders and participants liken it to the popular Birthright program aimed at young adults.
The Dec. 8-17 mission included tours across the country, from Safed to Masada, as well as lectures, discussion groups and other educational activities about Israel, Jewish values, relationships and parenting. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit arranged for the women to spend an afternoon in Federation’s Partnership2Gether region, the Central Galilee.
“The lectures were outstanding and inspiring,” said Ellen Starr, 47, of Farmington Hills, a social worker who has 19-year-old boy-and-girl twins and a 15-year-old son. “I can use what I learned about parenting skills even though my children are older,” she said.
Jennifer Fishkind, 44, of Bloomfield Hills, who has three sons ages 15, 14 and 10, enjoyed the opportunity to get away from everyday responsibilities and do some introspection.
Participants came from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox steams of Judaism.
“One of the great surprises was seeing how similar we all are,” Fishkind said. “We connected in a real way and saw that we had more in common than not as women and moms. It was an incredible gift.”
Jennifer Arkin Camens, 42, of West Bloomfield, agreed.
“You had 80 women from Michigan and there was no drama, no bickering. We were all genuinely glad to be there,” she said. “I came back wanting to be a better woman, a better mom. I want to learn more about Judaism with my children.”
Aviva Gelberman, 40, of Southfield, who is Orthodox, said she found new ways of looking at Jewish practices and why she does what she does.
Even though she’s a program leader who has been through it before — this is her third moms’ mission — Gelberman said the lectures and classes made her realize the impact women can have on generations to come.
Camens, an attorney and a member of Temple Israel, said a highlight of the trip was dancing at the Western Wall on Erev Shabbat.
“We were 400 women, and all these other people — soldiers, children, grandmas — came and joined us because we were having the time of our lives,” said Camens, who has two daughters, ages 9 and 7.
Ellen Starr and Debbie Pearlman, 43, of Huntington Woods, a member of Temple Emanu-El, were moved by their visit to an Israeli army base.
“The soldiers defend Israel so we in America can have a Jewish state,” said Pearlman, who has three children, ages 14, 11 and 6. “I want my kids to have an appreciation for people who do that and be grateful that we have this Jewish state.”
Starr said she was struck by the realization that the soldiers she met were the same age as her twins, Shira and Zach. “They were overwhelmed that we were thanking them for what they’re doing,” she said.
Bringing It Home
Pearlman said the mission made her want to be “a better mom, a better person, a better Jew and to teach my kids to love Israel.”
She had purchased a pair of Shabbat candlesticks in Jerusalem. On the Friday after she returned, she lit Shabbat candles with her family for the first time.
“My heart was so full, being able to bring this home for my kids,” she said.
About 4,500 women have participated in Momentum trips since 2009.
Surveys conducted one year after participants return show that 83 percent say being Jewish is more important to them; 43 percent say they have become more involved in their local Jewish communities; 96 percent say they are encouraging their family and friends to visit Israel and 89 percent have increased their level of Jewish study.
Tolwin said the next Detroit Momentum mission will be in October, with a smaller group. She said JWRP also plans to bring a small group of dads on a similar trip in November.
For information, call Aish at (248) 327-3579. To apply, go to www.jwrp.org/apply and select “Detroit” from the drop-down menu, or contact Lisa Knoll at email@example.com.
By Barbara Lewis, Contributing Writer