The Human Spirit: (In)sight seeing
July 30, 2015
The tourist bus of Jewish moms is rolling along Road 443 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
To my surprise, no one points out the protective wall along the highway, the checkpoint, or the flourishing city of Modi’in. The guide knows not to interrupt the speakers as one mom after another, some with great emotion, reveals her innermost experiences on this maiden trip to Israel.
One woman describes her efforts to be a better person while mourning a parent’s death. Another speaks about changes she’s hoping to make in speaking to her children about Judaism. Still another puts it this way: “I thought I was going on a sightseeing tour. I loved the rafting on the Jordan and Masada.
But this journey has been more of ‘insight- seeing’ than sightseeing.
This is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s “MOMentum,” and more than 6,000 Jewish mothers – mostly in their 40s and 50s – from around the world have taken part since 2009. The moms pay their plane fare and get the rest for free, paid for by JWRP fundraising and, since last year, by the government of Israel. I’m on a bus with women from New Jersey and greater Chicago, on the way to the grand finale of their eight day trip. MOMentum is often called “Birthright for mothers,” referring to the program that has brought half a million students and young adults on free trips to Israel over the last decade and a half.
JWRP founders – a cadre of Jewish women who took themselves away not to a spa but to a retreat to brainstorm how to energize the Jewish world and empower women – tweaked the Birthright concept that seeing Israel close up and personal would have lasting impact on Jewish identification and love of Zion. If enthusiastic youngsters would come back with stronger Jewish identities, how much more important would it be for moms bringing up kids to bring home their ignited Jewish passion to their husbands and children? Birthright Israel rejects heavy-handed Jewish education, assuming teenagers wouldn’t tolerate it. But JWRP front-loads lectures on Judaism and family relationships, and even “mussar” – behavior modification.
THE FIRST class is about the evils of lashon hara, gossip, and from day one the women wear rubber bracelets inscribed with the motto, “Don’t Blame, Don’t Complain.” If you find yourself blaming or complaining, you have to switch the hands on which you’re wearing the bracelet. If you successfully curb this tendency (it’s an honor system), you get a prize: a CD by Lori Palatnik, JWRP co-founder and accomplished motivational speaker.
Palatnik is a former advertising executive from Toronto who now lives with her rabbi husband and five children in Washington, DC. She’s comely and charismatic, able to be religious and unconventional at the same time. A rebbetzin with a twinkle in her eye and sparkling sandals. Palatnik became well-known for her video blog “Lori Almost Live” on the wildly popular Aish website. Her oldest son served as a lone solider in the IDF.
She gave away a kidney to a stranger. She teaches many of the classes herself. To join the group you have to be Jewish and to have children under 18. You don’t have to be married to a Jew or married at all. The group leaders are Orthodox, mostly wear long sleeves and wigs, but the participants are sleeveless and some wear shorts.
The participants on the bus all use the initials HP to describe their experiences. Nothing to do with computers or printers. HP stands for hashgaha pratit, and – in MOMentum – is short for the emotional, spiritual moments, epiphanies of the sort that so often characterize a trip to Israel. Initial evaluations of MOMentum show that 96 percent of the participants are more enthusiastic about Israel and encourage others to come. Forty three percent increased their volunteerism. That may be why the Diaspora Affairs Ministry decided to invest in this program.
WE ARRIVE at the Wohl Auditorium of Bar-Ilan University for the “Mega” event. This is a term borrowed from Birthright, which brings together its diverse groups of thousands of young adults in thunderous, percussion-heavy gala celebrations.
The MOMentum Mega brings together 10 buses with 400 moms. Drumsticks are taped to each chair. They’ve heard the lectures, shared HPs and worn their bracelets. Now they’re ready to party. In a minute, a Sabra singer in a slinky dress has them all dancing and singing, banging their drumsticks together as the band plays Hebrew music they might not have known before the trip. The room has the building energy of a Zumba class – easily equal to the more youthful Birthrighters.
Author, and journalist and mom Lihi (Mrs. Yair) Lapid (wearing trousers) reads a poetic personal essay in English about a having a child grow up to be a soldier. Torah scholar and teacher Rachel Fraenkel, whose son Naftali was among the three teens kidnapped and murdered last summer, describes her refusal to wear a mask hiding her emotions. “I reserve the right to cry when I have to, and to laugh when I want to.” She reminds the mothers that the “fear about what might happen is often worse than the thing itself,” and that “unity in Judaism is never uniformity.”
Representing the participants is Jill Schwartz-Chevlin, a mother of three and palliative care physician. She went on MOMentum last year, and has returned as a madricha, a counselor, with one of the groups.
Schwartz-Chevlin tells about being resistant at the organizers’ strong suggestion to hand in her cellphone before Shabbat “to see what that’s like.” “I’m a doctor. I’m never without my phone. But then Lori Palatnik asked me if I was on call here in Israel and I realized I wasn’t. When I put my phone in the bag, other women did, too.”
When she returned to the United States, she had to face a personal tragedy: her father’s diagnosis of ALS and quick decline. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the spiritual strengthening I received on the trip helped me through,” she said. “And it was very useful for giving me more to offer my patients,” she said. She hasn’t become Orthodox, but she looks at life differently, she says. “Through understanding and learning, I understood that we’re all souls wrapped in bodies.”
Palatnik, waving an outsize Israeli flag, wraps up the program before the singing and dancing begins again. “A lot of women ask me why they should feel so at home here,” she said.
“You know that cactus you have on the windowsill – the one that never changes size over the years? Take a look at how cacti grow in Arizona – they’re eight feet tall! When you put us in Israel, on our own soil, that’s how our souls flourish.”