Dressed in a bright green shirt and a print skirt, Cyndi Novak threaded her way through the maze of chairs and Orthodox women praying until she finally reached the kotel, the Western Wall. It was a recent Thursday and the area was crowded with Israeli families celebrating bar mitzvahs.She touched the wall and began to cry. “I lost both my father and my grandmother over the past year,” she tells The Jerusalem Report a few minutes later. “But somehow I feel like they’re right here with me now.”Novak, who describes herself as Reform and not particularly religious, was in Jerusalem on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), which has been dubbed Birthright for Moms. She works in medical device development and is the mother of two children, ages 12 and 14.Although the kotel visit was just three days into the eight-day trip, she is already thinking about what she will bring home with her.“I think the traditions have a deeper meaning for me now and I think I will bring some of them back to my family,” she said. That is exactly what Lori Palatnik, the founding director of JWRP, likes to hear. Since 2009, she has brought more than 15,000 participants from 26 countries on highly subsidized trips to Israel to increase both the women’s connection to Israel and to Jewish tradition.
“We are apolitical and pre-denominational,” she said in a telephone interview. When we go to the kotel, we tell the women, ‘Just go talk to God.’ We do not enforce any formal prayer.”JWRP is all about harnessing the power of Jewish women, she says.“This whole movement is about unlocking the power of women,” she said. “The mother is the greatest influencer of the family and she is often underserved. We want to create an international sisterhood and we believe in the power of Jewish women.”To be accepted to the program, the women must have children under age 18 at home. Preference is giving to women who are unaffiliated and who have not spent a lot of time in Israel in the past. Like Birthright, which has brought some 650,000 young people to Israel, the entire eight days in Israel, including hotels, food and entrance to all sites, is free. Unlike Birthright, however, the women pay for their own flights.JWRP’s funding comes partially from the Israeli government through the Israeli Ministry for Diaspora Affairs. Palatnik says the total cost per participant, not including airfare, is $3,200 each, which includes the program’s staff in Israel and the educational component afterwards.There is a lot of talk about sisterhood during the trip. Part of being accepted to the trip is agreeing to attend a year-long learning program afterwards. Women from the same city form cohorts that stay in close touch. Masha Hepovsky is on her second trip with JWRP, this time as a leader of a group.“My first job is to make sure they don’t fall off the bus,” she said laughing. “But for many of my women, this is their first time and it can be a little overwhelming. It’s my job to help them find what they need to in themselves to process this experience.”She said that after her trip, her cohort formed a close bond. When she was sick this past year, they helped her family with meals and even driving her kids to and from school.While the trips are ostensibly nondenominational and nonpolitical, Palatnik and her husband, a rabbi, have close ties to Aish HaTorah, a movement that encourages Jews to become Orthodox. Palatnik says they rent space from Aish HaTorah for a Shabbat dinner as it is one of the only large spaces near the kotel. Aish HaTorah is one of 200 partners that the JWRP works with to organize the trips.Palatnik, who describes herself as “a Jew who cares about the Jewish people” also found herself in hot water for a video she made for Aish HaTorah several years ago. In the video she said that women complain much more than men and “apologized” to men for their wives’ behavior.In the interview with The Report, she apologized and said the video was from five years ago. “It was meant to be tongue in cheek but it fell flat,” she said. “I really apologize and it was not what I meant.”One difference between men and women that she stands by, she said, is the amount of time a bathroom stop can take.“When women need to go, we have to pull over into a shopping center and we’re there for 45 minutes,” she said. “With men, we pull over to the side of the road, and it takes about seven minutes.”JWRP recently started running trips for men as well, after many of the women said they wanted their husbands to have the same experience they had. The men’s trips are not as heavily subsidized as the women’s.While the trips are not politically affiliated, there is an effort to encourage strong support for Israel.“We are trying to create a grass-roots movement of mothers who are inspired and empowered to help kids choose a campus with a strong Hillel and who understand our claim to Israel,” she said.For the women on the trip it is clearly an emotional experience.Laurence Elmozino, who teaches second grade French in Montreal, said she almost made aliyah 20 years ago. She says she hopes to return to Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah in three years.“I’ve done many trips to Israel but this one is different, she said. “[This time] I came as a Jewish mother trying to transmit my parents’ and my ancestor’s values. It’s very personal.”Another participant, Jen Gooze, said the visit to the kotel had left her speechless.“I talk a lot and I almost don’t even have words,” she said. “It’s so powerful. I feel that the prayers of thousands of people, both near me and not near me, were there with me.”An older Orthodox woman next to her was crying uncontrollably, she said.“I was praying for her and imagining tunnels and bridges taking our prayers straight up,” she said.The challenge for JWRP, like that for Birthright, will be helping the women maintain this level of excitement about Judaism and Israel once they return home.