‘When the neshama is in charge’

Each trip brings 200 women from around the world. The main stops are Tiberias, Safed, Masada, and Shabbat in the Old City in Jerusalem.

JWRP participants
A dozen women burst through the doors of the meeting room at Aish Hatorah (an Orthodox Jewish organization and yeshiva) in Mexico City. They’re talking a mile a minute in rapid-fire Spanish as they hug each other, laugh raucously and eagerly reach for the snacks on the table, making sure to drown everything from the chips to the crudités in hot sauce.
The women range in age from their 30s to their 50s. Some are dressed in sweatpants or jeans, others in business suits or long skirts with head coverings, but age and fashion sense mean nothing here. You can feel the palpable bond between these women. The ties that bind them? A 10-day heavily subsidized trip to Israel each of them has undertaken, called The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project.
Interviewing 20 women over the course of 48 hours in Mexico City, I heard every one of them say it was a “life-changing” experience that has forged a unique sisterhood.
The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project is the brainchild of founding director Lori Palatnik, an Orthodox writer and Jewish educator who lives in Washington D.C. She has dubbed the project “Birthright for Women.”
In 2008, together with seven other women, Palatnik says they realized that if you want to have the greatest influence on the direction of the Jewish people, you need to target Jewish mothers. Palatnik and her co-founders decided the way to do this was by bringing them on an informative and transformative trip to Israel called the “Momentum” project.
Since 2009, more than 7,300 Jewish mothers from 150 partner organizations in 26 countries spanning several continents including Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America have taken part in the JWRP’s Momentum trips. In 2013, the JWRP and Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry formed a partnership to expand the trips. As a result, starting in 2016, JWRP has been able to reach out to include women from Jewish communities facing increased threats of anti-Semitism and economic hardship – especially in Argentina, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, France, the US and Canada.
There is also a men’s-only Momentum trip, and plans are in the works for a first-ever couples trip toward the end of 2017.
Each trip brings 200 women from around the world. The main stops are Tiberias, Safed, Masada, and Shabbat in the Old City in Jerusalem.
According to JWRP’s press statements, “The entire experience empowers the women, inspiring them to engage with Israel and Israelis, connect to their Jewish identities, develop new leadership skills and – ultimately – to strengthen their communities back home.”
The women from Mexico are a living, breathing testament to the success of the program. Despite the fact that they belong to different synagogues and communities (Sephardi and Ashkenazi) and that their trips are on different dates, they are still deeply connected to each other. Much of that has to do with Sara Romano, who works for Aish Mexico, but whose job it is to sift through the applications and choose the women for each trip.
Romano is part diplomat, part Energizer bunny, and part effusive Jewish den mother – quick with advice, and always available for deep conversations.
She is constantly being greeted with hugs and kisses as she criss-crosses the Jewish community of Mexico City, striding into the halls of Ashkenazi and Sephardi community centers, day schools and synagogues. Even sitting down to lunch at a restaurant in one of the Jewish neighborhoods, people come up to chat with her.
She’s the glue that binds the women, and they credit her with keeping their band of travelers together when they return to Mexico.
THERE IS a definite Orthodox slant to the trip. In addition, the requirements state that 90% of participants must have children at home under the age of 18.
The women receive a $2,000 subsidy, but must pay their own airfare (or have it covered by the partner organization in their city) and the $49 application fee.
While several of the women have become more observant since their trips, they are all adamant they were never under any pressure.
Suzy Kershenovic, who founded Aish Hatorah (literally “The Fire of the Torah”) in Mexico City with her husband, says she had spent her whole life “since I was eight or nine” searching for meaning.
It’s a refrain that many other women echoed: looking for meaning in yoga and spiritual practices and meditation.
“But I wasn’t rooted in my soul,” Kershenovic says. While she had made the journey toward Orthodoxy prior to her JWRP trip, she discovered that the trip was what made her feel “responsible for the Jewish community,” eventually leading to the founding of Aish Mexico.
Those who did become more observant following their trip insist it was something that came from within. Olga Blanga says watching disabled women making the effort to go to the mikve (ritual bath) in Safed had a profound impact on her.
“I’d been married 20 years and had always refused to go, but when I saw the effort those women went to and how easy it would be for me to get in my car and go to the mikve, I cried.”
Many of the women laugh about how their husbands and children sent them off on their trips with strict directives about “not coming back all religious with your head covered and wearing long skirts.”
For some, simply returning home and lighting Shabbat candles at the correct time was a small adjustment. Others made their kitchens kosher. However, it is also important to note that many women who participated still drive on Shabbat, eat out at non-kosher restaurants and wear jeans and T-shirts, just as they did before.
For Raquel Lichi, one of the participants on the very first trip in 2009, the trip marked a radical shift in her observance. Although she was already observing Shabbat before her trip, she says, “I was never going to do tzniut [dress modestly]. The whole 10 days I wore shorts.”
“Mini mini shorts” one of the other women interjects, to much laughter.
But Lichi notes that the moment she returned home she threw out all of her jeans. Asked to pinpoint why she suddenly did this, she shrugs and says, “When the neshama [soul] is in charge, there is nothing you can do about it.”
Jacqueline Volin had been divorced for several years when she went on the trip in 2010, and when she came back eventually remarried in an Orthodox ceremony.
“The trip is Orthodox in the sense of what you study,” she says. “But it’s like a huge hug, with so much warmth and caring and wisdom. There’s no pressure to become religious.”
Many of the women tap into something Palatnik realized when forming JWRP – that the trip is an opportunity to put themselves first.
“Usually when you travel it’s with your husbands or kids,” participant Denise Moreinis says. “You’re always the wife, the mother, the sister, the daughter.
Having that space to just be yourself and open up is important. The real change for me was at night, after the programs when we could just talk about everything in a room together.”
That sisterhood has extended back into the women’s communities and many of them still, even after several years have passed, get together to bake hallot.
“I love the practice,” says Ceci Gmora, another participant. “It’s a way of being involved in the community and doing hessed [good deeds].”
Hessed is a word that comes up a lot.
Becky Lieberman came back from her trip inspired.
“We always see the headlines in the news, but we don’t know what happens afterward to the families [of terrorism victims],” she says. “Learning how [the Israeli charity organization] OneFamily helps these people touched me deeply. It reminded me that hessed is important and it changed me.”
Now Lieberman is in charge of her community’s bikur holim (visiting the sick) program. She visits the day schools and has children send cards to those in hospitals, organizes halla baking for the sick and visits the hospitals on a regular basis.
This is the living embodiment of everything Palatnik dreamed of in creating JWRP, she told The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
“If it were up to me, I would have the women from Mexico on every trip! They have simhat haim, a joy for life that is infectious. They come off the planes singing and dancing.”
The women themselves struggle to describe what they call an “indescribable” trip.
“You have to be there to understand what it means,” they say.
The experience is perhaps best summed up in the story of Aline Aroeste, another participant.
Aroeste has a son with an immune system disorder, and part of the trip requires each participant to write a postcard to themselves with their wishes.
“I was staring out the window of Aish Hatorah in the Old City of Jerusalem and wishing I could be here the following year with my little boy to celebrate his bar mitzva,” she says, “and the next year, we were there doing that. I walked with him to Aish Hatorah and stood in the same window and said, ‘I stood here a year ago praying to God we could stand here and celebrate your life, your health and your bar mitzva – and here we are. So God must be good.’”