A ‘Birthright’ for moms

With the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, thousands of mothers worldwide flock to Holy Land to discover Jewish roots and identities.

December 2, 2014 00:45
JEWISH WOMEN’S Renaissance Project participants at Masada

JEWISH WOMEN’S Renaissance Project participants at Masada. (photo credit: PR)

When one thinks of loud and rambunctious crowds, there are many demographics that come to mind. College kids before a rock concert? Sure. Rowdy soccer fans before a game? Of course.

But none of them match 400 Jewish mothers from 18 countries welcoming motivational speaker Adrienne Gold, who brought down the (mom-filled) house.

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“You are here to create a Renaissance of Jewish values for women. And each and every one of you are officially ambassadors, and if you know one more thing than you did before you came here then you have an obligation to teach,” Gold said, addressing the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s (JWRP) latest delegation of women visiting Israel.

Hailing from a diverse list of countries such as United States, Canada, Hungary, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia, the current group – which arrived in Israel a week ago and is set to depart Tuesday – consists of 400 women of various levels of religious observance.

The rousing applause by the enamored crowd often interrupted the former stylist and reality-show host turned motivational speaker’s Friday morning talk on self-esteem and a woman’s image in the media.

Before JWRP was created, founder and director Lori Palatnik, of the Washington area, noticed a severe lack of Jewish education catering specifically to women during her speaking tours to Jewish communities worldwide.

“I saw more and more that a community lives and dies by where the women are at... they so needed women role models in these communities. I decided that we have to do something, and can’t just circle the wagon saving our own families and communities,” she said on Friday.

Cultivating her connections in the Washington area and marketing skills as a former advertising executive, Palatnik enlisted seven other women to help brainstorm fund-raising efforts to get JWRP under way.

Six years later, JWRP has brought a total of 4,500 women from 19 countries to Israel. Today, it partners with 113 Jewish organizations and federations, including Israel’s Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, and enjoys an annual budget of $5.5 million.

“[JWRP] has proven itself to be an excellent immersive experience program, which has brought over 4,000 women to Israel. The Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry will continue to support JWRP and other programs that bring together Jews from around the world and expose them to their rich heritage, traditions and ties to the Jewish homeland,” said Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry director- general Dvir Kahana.

“I tell people I’m still in advertising, I just have a better product now,” Palatnik joked when asked about her formula for the organization’s success.

These 8-day trips – a “Birthright” for mothers of sorts – are officially called “Momentum,” and serve to “inspire, educate and empower” the Jewish mother. Besides listening to speakers like Gold, their itinerary includes touring Safed, climbing Masada, visiting the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem and, of course, the Western Wall.

The requirements are far from stringent. The woman must not already keep Shabbat, have a child at home under the age of 18, and be emotionally and physically well.

In other words, the program seeks highly motivated women who are curious about introducing more elements of Judaism into their home and who have neither a diva mentality nor a chip on their shoulder.

“Mean Girls” need not apply.

The mothers pay for their own airfare and a nominal application fee and $50 in tips, but are awarded a $2,400 scholarship by JWRP and the partner organizations to pay for the rest of the trip.

“For years I kept asking, how come there isn’t a Birthright for me?” Honey Konicoff, of Rockville, Maryland joked.

“One day a woman at work sent me the link to JWRP, and everything the trip stood for spoke to me. The idea of bonding with other women, the adventure and learning more about Judaism... I jumped on it,” she said.

Although Konicoff observed the cultural aspects of Judaism growing up – she went to Jewish camp, joined a Jewish sorority and had a bat mitzva – she came to Israel in search of something substantive to tie to her to her Jewish identity.

“We always felt very comfortable and proud to be Jewish.

We never questioned that Judaism was really important to us. And I wanted to find out why that was built into us without having any real formal education,” she explained.

When asked if she or her family were concerned about the security risks before traveling to Israel, she admitted that she was scheduled to join the last group that arrived during the summer’s Operation Protective Edge, but canceled at the last minute.

She wasn’t the only one.

During JWRP’s July trip, out of the 370 registered women, 90 dropped out. Accordingly, Palatnik acknowledges falling numbers to be a natural consequence when traveling to Israel during wartime.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern. We are in touch with the ‘Homeland Security’ of Israel, they have our itinerary, we check with them on a daily basis. I don’t take chances, I have children, my son is a lone soldier, I’m not innocent, I’m not naïve,” she said. “We would change our itinerary on a dime, if we felt in any way in danger or their safety was at risk.”

Moreover, according to Palatnik, the women who stuck around during the war felt even more connected to Israel out of a sense of solidarity.

Of course, the natural question is – does JWRP hope that this massive outpouring of support from the Diaspora will result in families making aliya? While nine families have made aliya thus far, Palatnik insists that is not the ultimate goal of the program and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry has not issued any aliya quotas prior to finalizing their partnership.

“The goal is to inspire the woman and she will inspire the family. I believe blessings come to the Jewish people when we’re unified,” she said. “There is something amazing that can happen when you get thousands of women together, we’re turning this into a movement.”

And if the energized 4,500 women, all engrossed and ready to lend their support to JWRP is any indication, it is a movement already well under way.

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