Birthright for Moms: Reconnecting With Judaism

Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz

It’s yet another big bus full of high-energy English-speakers grinding to a halt in the Masada parking lot. From afar − in shorts and tank tops, the signature baseball caps perched on their heads − they seem to blend in easily with the college-age Taglit-Birthrighters lining up for tickets at this storied site.

But up close, differences become discernible. For starters, this group is made up entirely of women, not a single man among them. Beyond that, they’re not particularly young.

The official name is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. However, its organizers like to refer to it as “Birthright for Moms” – though it has no organizational connection to the hit program that over the past 13 years has brought more than 300,000 young Jewish adults to Israel on free 10-day trips.

Traveling on this particular bus are women from Cleveland, Richmond and Indianapolis. But there are another three buses right behind them emptying out participants from towns all over North America, including Charlotte, Cincinnati, Denver, Dallas, Kansas City, Jacksonville and Miami, and Toronto.

All told, there are 180 women on this particular trip, the third organized thus far this year.

“You bring a college kid here, and you end up impacting one college kid,” says Lori Palatnick, the founding director of JWRP, who clearly has a knack for motivational speaking. “You bring a mother here, and you end up impacting an entire family.”

They are doctors, lawyers, nurses, financial planners, teachers, stay-at-home moms. Among them are a few pairs of sisters.

Some are married to non-Jews; others have converted in order to marry Jews. Their average age is 40, and for about half, this is their first trip ever to Israel. ‏(“Most of those who’ve already been were here when they were 16 or 17, and all they remember doing is looking at Israeli soldiers,” reports Palatnick‏).

This program is not a freebie, like Birthright, but it is subsidized: Participants pay only for their airline tickets. The rest of the tab is picked up by individual donors, Jewish federations and other partner organizations in their respective cities ‏(the women’s program’s biggest private backer is Len Leader, the former chief financial officer of AOL‏).

“A lot of these women can afford to pay for a trip to Israel,” notes Palatnick, who’s from the District of Columbia, “but they just wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have this sort of deal.”

To qualify for JWRP, candidates have to be mothers of children under the age of 18, who are more likely to be able to wield influence over their families, but who are not Sabbath observers, since, as Palatnick explains, there’s no point in preaching too – and investing money in – the converted, as it were.

Herein lies the main distinction from Birthright: While that program puts more emphasis on connecting its participants to Israel, JWRP seems to focus more on connecting them to Judaism. All the group leaders, including Palatnick, are ultra-Orthodox women ‏(she prefers to label herself “modern ultra-Orthodox”‏) who cover their heads and wear long skirts and sleeves in strict compliance with Jewish religious law, and in stark contrast to the skimpier attire favored by their participants. Most, like Palatnick, are affiliated with Aish Hatorah, an Orthodox outreach movement similar in its objectives and methods of operation to Chabad, and which makes its facilities available to JWRP free of charge.

While the program may be heavy on classes on Torah learning and other Jewish subjects, Palatnick insists that the goal is not to make the women religious. “We don’t force them to keep Shabbat here − it’s their choice,” she says. “But we do tell them that this might be their one opportunity to see what it’s like to keep Shabbat.”

Palatnick herself grew up in a secular home in Toronto and enjoyed a successful career in advertising ‏(during which time, quite ironically, she won an award for a Christmas commercial she produced‏) before experiencing her Jewish awakening. A mother of five, she resides today in Washington, D.C., with her husband, a rabbi.

About five years ago, together with a group of seven women friends who, like her, were searching for new meaning in their lives, she traveled to a retreat in Utah , hoping the beautiful scenery would inspire an idea for a project that could empower Jewish women and strengthen their connection to their communities and faith. Thus was born JWRP, which since 2009 has brought more than 3,000 women from 60 cities and 13 countries to Israel on nine-day trips. “I can now say ‘Stop shopping and get on the bus’ in quite a few different languages,” she says, in summary.

Tears and dancing

As they stream out of the bus and head toward the cable car, dabbing on one final layer of sunscreen along the way, the women are urged once again by Ken the guide to stay hydrated: “Ladies, I can’t emphasize how important it is to drink. Pardon me for saying this, but if you’re not peeing, that’s a bad sign.”

It’s not yet 8 A.M., but already close to 37 degrees Centigrade up on the top of Masada. The heat doesn’t seem to bother the participants, though, especially not the 20 or so mostly Russian-born women who are about to receive Hebrew names for the first time in their lives.

This, for most of the women, is one of the emotional highs of the JWRP trips: the naming ceremony at the site of the ancient synagogue on Masada. After the last member of the group has announced her choice of a Hebrew name, the others applaud loudly and then break into a hora-like dance.

“My grandmother would have been so proud,” says Elina Kerzhner, a 42-year-old mother of two from Cleveland, wiping a few tears as she exchanges hugs with some of the other women. Her official Hebrew name is now “Rahel.”

Like all JWRP tours, this one kicked off with an overnighter in Tiberias, where the women heard a lecture by Palatnick on “Gossip, lies & lessons.” As she observes during a chat on the bus, that talk – which is basically about the Jewish rules of lashon hara, idle talk – is her way of laying out the rules of behavior expected over the next intensive nine days.

Although JWRP tours visit many of the same sites as their Birthright equivalents, there are also notable differences. Tel Aviv, the country’s cultural and business capital, is not at all part of the JWRP itineraries ‏(“We used to include it,” explains Palatnick, “but we dropped it because we didn’t get great feedback”‏). They do, however, venture across the Green Line, holding their last, festive dinner at a restaurant in the Gush Etzion bloc of Jewish settlements ‏(Birthright tour operators typically steer clear of these contested areas.‏)

On the short drive from Masada to the Dead Sea, a group leader sporting a wig on her head cautions the women about the changing facilities they’re about to enter, urging them to set aside previous notions of modesty. “Ladies, it’s like the Loehman’s dressing room in there,” she says, referring to the popular American department store known for its open-space try-on area. “If you can’t deal with it, we can get the guys out, and you can change in the bus.”

With temperatures already hovering around 43 degrees at this point, an hour in the sun at the Dead Sea more than suffices for most of the women, who are happy to be back in the air-conditioned bus, heading to their last activity of the day: camel rides in the desert, following by dinner in what is billed as a biblical-style tent.

This is Amanda Zaidman’s first trip to Israel. The 33-year-old mother of two was born in Colombia and adopted at a very young age by an American Christian family. Growing up in the Deep South, she had never met any Jews before dating her future husband at Duke University. While it’s hard for her to be away from home in North Carolina, where her daughter is celebrating her birthday today, the recent convert says, “My gift to her this year is that I’m really becoming Jewish in a way I couldn’t in America.”

Shari Fox, a 42-year-old endocrinologist from Denver, is back on her second trip with JWRP, this time as a madrikha ‏(counselor‏); this time she’s also brought along her younger sister, a public health administrator. Although she wouldn’t describe herself as religious, Fox says her experience with JWRP has made her “much more open-minded about Torah observance.”

Many of the women are beginning to think about how they will take what they’ve learned on this trip and apply it back home. Julie Shrell, from Dallas, who recently underwent a double mastectomy, says she wants to start with the little things. “I’d like to start baking challahs regularly for Shabbat, and from now on, I’ll try to make them ahead of time, before the Sabbath begins,” she says. Nonetheless, she adds, “I’m looking more for spiritual Judaism − not so much practical Judaism.”

Laura Steckler, who hails from Miami and is married to another woman, is a bit more ambitious. “Once I get back home, I plan on working hard to keep Shabbat,” she says. “I also want to increase my charity work and identify areas of need within the Jewish community where I can use my skills.”

Palatnick, meanwhile, says she’s exploring ways of improving the program. Borrowing an idea that originated with Birthright, she wants to give her participants more of a local experience by getting Israeli women to join them on the bus. And in response to popular demand, she’s also organizing JWRP’s first-ever husbands’ trip in October, for 90 spouses of former participants who’ve also expressed interest in getting in on the fun.

Whatever spare time she has left, between three more trips planned for this year, Palatnick will be devoting to fund-raising. Asked whether she’s considered tapping casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Birthright’s chief backer, for a donation, she says: “He’s on my list.”

Participants in a Jewish Women's Renaissance Project trip to Masada.Credit: Judy Maltz

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