Embracing a family secret

MOMENTUM’S goal is to bring Jewish mothers (who have at least one child under the age of 18) to Israel for the first time.

Author Shelly Sanders stands beside a camel at Genesis Land on the way to the Dead Sea during her trip with MOMENTUM (photo credit: Courtesy)
Author Shelly Sanders stands beside a camel at Genesis Land on the way to the Dead Sea during her trip with MOMENTUM
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Most teenagers’ prom preparations don’t include grappling with a major family bombshell, but that’s exactly what happened when Shelly Sanders found out that she was Jewish.
Sanders’s grandmother fled pogroms in Russia, sought refuge in Shanghai and then made a home in Canada, but kept her religion a secret for most of her life. Out of the blue, a Jewish friend told Sanders that she could not go to the prom because her parents would demand that she go only with a Jewish suitor (which was an impossibility in her high school). An upset Sanders told her mom the story and then discovered a family secret that changed her life.
Sanders, who became a noted journalist and accomplished novelist, went on a MOMENTUM trip and found it to be a moving experience. Four years ago, the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) joined forces with the Minstry of Diapsora Affairs, and created MOMENTUM. MOMENTUM aims to bring Jewish Mothers to experience Israel first-hand.
MOMENTUM’S goal is to bring Jewish mothers (who have at least one child under the age of 18) to Israel for the first time. Most of these mother’s are unafilliated with their Jewish community back home and, thus, the MOMENTUM experience helps them strengthen their Jewish identity and connection with Israel.
Sanders spoke to The Jerusalem Post Magazine about why that trip was such a valuable experience for her.
What did the MOMENTUM-JWRP experience mean to you? Why did you decide to participate in the organization? MOMENTUM-JWRP was kind of a final step for me in reclaiming my faith and my first step in going forward as a Jewish mother. That was a really important trip for me. I was a bit apprehensive at first – as a writer, I don’t love the idea of being constantly with people. But it got me out of my shell and showed me I can do things I didn’t think I could do. I grew as a person because of this trip. It was really transformative.
At my synagogue, one of my friends is a JWRP leader and she took one or two groups already. My rabbi encouraged me to go. After a few weeks of deliberating, I said, “I’m ready; I want to do this.”
Based on your experience with MOMENTUM-JWRP, how has your relationship with the Israel and the Jewish world evolved?
It has definitely become a lot stronger and deeper. At my synagogue, we sing “Hatkiva” and say a prayer for Israel every Saturday.
Now, having been there, it’s a lot more special.
I close my eyes and see the Western Wall. I know it now.
It strengthened my connection and I have more appreciation for it. With MOMENTUM- JWRP, we went to Independence Hall, and I thought to myself, “I wonder what my grandmother was thinking when she heard of Israel’s independence?” Canada was very antisemitic when she was living there. I’m really proud that I can wear a Star of David necklace and be open about who I am, because my grandmother couldn’t. Going to Israel made me feel that pride.
Speaking of your grandmother, your novel Rachel’s Secret is inspired by her harrowing story. How did you feel when you discovered you were Jewish?
I was looking for religion in my life. Growing up in Toronto, my neighbors were Jewish. I loved going to their Shabbat dinners and High Holy Days. I was looking for spirituality. I knew that I did not believe in the Christian metaphors – it was not me or who I was. I started to realize a lot of the religious ideas, concepts and themes of Judaism really resonated with me. So, I was living a Jewish life without really knowing it.
As a mom, what Jewish values do you instill in your children? Is it important that your children uphold Jewish traditions?
We do Shabbat dinners, absolutely. My brother married a Jewish woman, and my kids have been immersed in Jewish rituals since they were born. They go to Purim, Passover Seders, have gone to the synagogue with me. I tell them, “I want you to understand Judaism so it can be in your lives in honor of your great-grandmother.” My son takes Judaism courses with me. It is within the fabric of our lives, but I try not to push.
On a more global level, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the Jewish Diaspora today?
Sadly, there’s a lot more antisemitism in recent months, which leaves me shaking my head. I don’t understand this. My grandmother went to [University of California at] Berkeley, which was very accepting at the time. But when I visited Berkeley to do research for my book, I wanted to donate my trilogy to the library and was told there was a lot of antisemitism on campus, so that would not be a good idea. I was very upset and taken aback by that. This how we’ve regressed.
Another issue is something that faces all religions – it’s hard to compete with people’s busy schedules. That’s something in Israel that I truly love: seeing the way everything shuts down on Shabbat, families enjoying time together, this peacefulness, was really nice.
With global antisemitism on the rise, have you been personally affected by instances of antisemitism? What do you think groups in the Jewish Diaspora can do to help combat that?
I have not personally been impacted by antisemitism, but my synagogue in Toronto is a lot more secure. I think we need to educate people. I wrote my first book about blood libel – that ridiculous myth – it’s total ignorance about Judaism. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of basic information out there.
Do you think Israel has an image problem around the world? If so, what can Jews do to help?
I definitely found in the last year that there is an image problem. I got into a big debate on my LinkedIn with Palestinians and the Beduin over a blog post I wrote.
A lot of people are seeing an apartheid situation and have told me “how can you support that?” This is a problem.
One interesting thing I learned in Israel was visiting a soldiers’ base that was across from a Palestinian refugee settlement. The soldiers said they actually contact the refugees and tell them they are going to look for terrorists at a certain time and give them a warning in order to save them. People don’t hear about this. I think we need to do a better job about getting our voice heard. There’s a lot of fake news that’s not honest or truthful.