Most summers, we bond with our families at a cottage or campground or just in the backyard, around a campfire or a wading pool, cooling off and getting away from it all. But this July, three sisters from Toronto, Abby, Hilary and Liz Goldstein, took off on the journey of a lifetime – with Momentum, a program that brings Jewish women from all walks of life to Israel.
“People who went on the trip last summer told me it brings women together in Israel to teach them about community, then they come home to bring that into their lives and their families. It sounded like an amazing trip,” Hilary Goldstein explained.
Momentum, formerly the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), has brought over 17,000 women to Israel in its 10 years.
Hilary had never visited Israel before and immediately thought of her sisters. Liz, a full-time mom and former social worker, backpacked around Israel 22 years ago. “That was a different kind of trip,” she laughs.
Abby, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, had never been to Israel but was convinced after talking to Ellie Bass, Momentum’s city leader for Toronto. “She was very compelling in terms of how this trip would be transformative.”
Together, the three sisters have seven children ranging from seven to 16. Momentum’s primary focus is women with children at home under age 18.
“If you inspire a woman, you inspire a family,” explains founding director and former Torontonian Lori Palatnik.
From three trips of 100 women in 2009, Momentum will bring 3,000 participants to Israel in 2019. The trip is the start of a one-year journey that continues through local community organizations once women return home. In a recent seven-year post-trip survey, Palatnik says, 76 per cent of Momentum participants were still involved with their local organization. “We’re not here to compete with what’s going on locally, we’re here to help local organizations go from good to great,” fostering new initiatives and building positive change and leadership.
Participants pay only for airfare. The rest is funded through numerous sources including private philanthropy, family foundations, and, as of 2014, the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. The Israeli government hoped to use Momentum to reach those with little Jewish background in eastern Europe, and currently provide 15 per cent of Momentum’s US$13 million annual budget.
“It really has been an incredible ride, and we feel like we’ve just begun,” says Palatnik.
She says reaching out to Jews of the former Soviet Union feels especially meaningful since that’s where her maternal grandparents came from.
“On one trip,” Palatnik recalls, “I heard some women from Toronto complaining that it took so long on Shabbat to translate into Russian.” (Programs are translated simultaneously using headphones – except on Shabbat, when organizers don’t use electronics.) So the next day, I asked, ‘How many of you are descended from Russian Jews?’ Two-thirds put up their hands. So I asked, ‘Do you know why you got to grow up in Toronto, or Los Angeles, or Milwaukee, or Mexico, with all the opportunity you had? Because your bubbe got on the right boat.”
Momentum trips are like a global family reunion. “How can it be that a woman from Moscow and a woman from Vancouver and a woman from L.A. can be sisters within 24 hours? Because we have so much in common. We focus on what unites us, not divides us.”
Though the Goldsteins see each other often at home, bonding and self-growth usually take a backseat to the logistics of hectic family get-togethers. According to Abby, “[Momentum] is just about the three of us, where it all started: our roots and our family.”
The sisters talked to The CJN two days into the trip while in Safed. Abby was looking forward to Shabbat in Jerusalem, both the bustle and preparation beforehand and then “the entire city coming together to celebrate.” She also hoped taking a break over Shabbat would be a great opportunity to reflect on what they’d experienced in Israel so far.
Although trip organizers are Orthodox, Momentum has no spiritual agenda beyond education and empowerment. “If our goal was, ‘Everybody becomes Orthodox,’ we’re not doing a very good job,” jokes Palatnik. “We respect everybody’s journey. I believe we point people in the right direction, but where they go after that is their own journey.”
Hilary Goldstein says, “The speakers who are religious have an amazing way of talking to you about how you can relate Jewish values to your lives.” And Liz adds:“They’re helping us understand what’s meaningful to us for when we return to Toronto with our families.”