‘Birthright for Moms’ Bars Women Who Are non-Orthodox Rabbis From Its Free Trips to Israel

'I feel we've been used,' congregation leader says after Momentum organization rejects female rabbis' applications without notifying prospective participants about its eligibility policy

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In this , Feb. 25, 2016 file photo, American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
In this , Feb. 25, 2016 file photo, American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Cheryl Jacobs, a prominent Conservative rabbi from South Florida, was planning on joining a group of women from her husband’s congregation on an organized trip to Israel next fall and serving as one of its leaders. The trip is sponsored by Momentum, formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project – an organization that often refers to itself as “Birthright for Moms.” This week, Jacobs was notified that her application had been rejected. The reason, she learned, was that female rabbis are not welcome on Momentum trips.

Established 10 years ago, Momentum is one of the fastest growing providers of educational trips to Israel in the Jewish world. Although it does not bring as many participants to Israel as Taglit-Birthright – which targets young Jewish singles for its free 10-day trips and is not affiliated with Momentum – it has been growing at a much faster pace in recent years. Like Birthright, Momentum receives a large share of its funding from the Israeli government. Participants in Momentum trips are required to pay only for their airfare to Israel, with all other expenses on the nine-day trip covered.

Since it was founded, Momentum has brought more than 17,000 women on trips to Israel from 28 countries, according to its website. It recently instituted trips for fathers as well.

Although Momentum was founded and is led by a woman active in the Orthodox outreach movement, it has long denied allegations of a hidden agenda of Orthodox indoctrination. According to its website, its goal is to empower women “to connect to Jewish values, engage with Israel, take action, and foster unity, without uniformity.”

The website does not specify the criteria for eligibility and does not suggest, in any way, that non-Orthodox rabbis are barred from participating in the trips.

According to Rabbi Andrew Jacobs – the spiritual leader of Ramat Shalom, a progressive congregation in Plantation, Florida – had he known otherwise, he would not have agreed to promote the Momentum trip in his synagogue. “If we had known this was their policy, then we would have had to decide whether this went along with our values as a liberal congregation,” he told Haaretz in a telephone conversation. “We had been led to believe that Momentum had no problem with my wife and our cantor co-leading the trip, and that is why many women in our congregation signed up. But we just learned that Cheryl won’t be able to join the group, and this is after all the participants have already put down a $650 non-refundable deposit, under the assumption that she would be one of the leaders. I have to say that I feel we’ve been used.”

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs runs an organization that provides guidance and mentorship during Jewish life-cycle events. The organization specifically targets Jews who are not affiliated with a particular congregation. In 2016, she made the prestigious Forward list of North America’s most inspirational rabbis.

According to Rabbi Andrew Jacobs, it was several women in his congregation who had suggested they organize a trip to Israel in partnership with Momentum this year. “I’m not in any way opposed to Orthodox Judaism but wanted to make sure that if we partnered with them, we wouldn’t have to compromise on who and what we are,” he said. “My cantor, Debbie Hafetz, reached out to Momentum and made it clear that if we were to do the trip, she and my wife would be the co-leaders. They said they’d never really done that before but that they could accommodate us. Once I heard that they would be taking Cheryl and Debbie, the two most prominent Jewish women leaders in our congregation, I felt comfortable with the idea.”

Once they received the go-ahead from Momentum, Rabbi Andrew Jacobs said, the 20 slots available for the trip filled up immediately, and a waiting list was formed.

His wife was never formally notified that her application had been rejected, but rather learned about it from Hafetz, who was sent a list of the approved participants on Thursday. The rabbi’s name did not appear on the list. When she proceeded to contact a representative of Momentum to get an explanation, Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs was told that in order to encourage grassroots leadership, Momentum does not accept clergy as group leaders.

But Haaretz has learned of at least one other case in which a female rabbi was rejected from a Momentum trip, even though she made clear that she had no desire to serve as a group leader. That case involved Vered Harris, the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel, a Reform congregation in Oklahoma City. “I just wanted to go and learn and be there as a mom,” she said in a phone conversation.

The Momentum trip she had been interested in joining was organized about two years ago by the Chabad center in her city, she said, and the wife of the local Chabad rabbi had been designated its spiritual leader. “I was never even able to receive an application,” she relayed. “I was informed by one of my congregants that she had been told I could not apply because I was a rabbi. I made several attempts to contact Momentum and get further explanation, but they never responded to my calls.”

Rabbi Harris said she was made to feel “deeply insulted and deeply hurt” by the organization. “What they were telling me is basically that because of my education and because of my job, I’m not eligible and that somehow in becoming a rabbi, I’m no longer first and foremost a mother of three children. As I see it, I was explicitly denied participation based on the fact that I’m educated as a Jew, which is also what being a rabbi is.”

Another female rabbi from North America, who did not want to be identified, said she had also applied to a Momentum trip but was told she could not participate because she was a Conservative rabbi. She said she subsequently requested a meeting with a representative of Momentum to explain “why this is not a good policy.”

Momentum partners with more than 200 organizations, many of them affiliated with Chabad and Aish Hatorah – both of which are active in Orthodox outreach. As a matter of policy, the organization does not accept observant Jews as participants. Momentum enjoys considerable support from local Jewish federations in North America.

“I think it’s important that the federations, which embrace Jewish plurality, know that female rabbis are not being welcomed on these trips,” said Rabbi Andrew Jacobs.

Naftali Bennett, Israel's defense minister, first took note of the organization while he served as minister of Diaspora affairs, and was deeply impressed. At the time, he also headed the religious, right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. Since 2014, about 40 percent of Momentum’s budget has come from the Diaspora affairs ministry. It is one of the biggest projects supported by the ministry.

Momentum did not respond to a request for comment by press time. On Sunday, in wake of this report's publication, Momentum published a statement saying its policy regarding the participation of clergy on its trips had hitherto been “unclear” and that it has now been “revised.”

In its statement, Momentum said that its representatives had met with Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs over the weekend and “made clear that she is welcome to lead her group.”

“We apologize to any upset caused to Rabbi Jacobs,” it said.

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