Women’s group aims at renaissance in values

Lori Palatnik

These days, in the era of social media and the Internet, when things go viral, they really go viral.

Take the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) for instance. Four years ago, eight women led by Toronto native Lori Palatnik gathered at a resort in Utah to brainstorm ideas “to do something for the Jewish people around the world.”

They came up with the idea of creating “a Jewish women’s movement that inspires a renaissance of positive values that transforms ourselves, our families, and our communities.”

The flagship activity adopted by the JWRP was a subsidized trip to Israel, a sort of “Birthright for women,” Palatnik said, referring to the subsidized free trips to Israel for Jewish young people.

It was a big idea designed to address a really big issue, and word spread quickly. They told some friends, who told other friends, who used Facebook, e-mail and other social media to spread the concept. “It took off like a rocket,” said Palatnik, founding director of JWRP.

In 2009, JWRP’s first year of operation, 300 women participated in a nine-day visit to the Holy Land. In the second year, the numbers doubled to 600, and in 2010, JWRP took 1,000 women in five groups to Israel. Palatnik expects another 1,000 will make the trip this year, and in 2013, the number is expected to swell to 1,200. The 2,000 women who have taken part so far hail from seven countries, including Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The trips have been so exciting and enriching that demand far exceeds supply. At an information session in Los Angeles not long ago, 30 prior participants brought 200 friends with them, even though only 40 spots were available. Toronto women likewise have made the trip, often recruited through partnering groups at a number of Aish HaTorah-affiliated synagogues. Palatnik and her husband, Rabbi Yaakov Palatnik, founded Toronto’s Village Shul, which is Orthodox, although she said the trip is geared to non-Orthodox women.

Palatnik acknowledges that many women are enticed by the low cost of the trip. Participants are asked to pay only for airfare, while JWRP picks up the remaining $1,800-per-person tab. Subsidies are available through partnering groups, including synagogues, and some federations, but it’s a small group of well-to-do supporters who provide the financial muscle that makes JWRP trips a possibility.

While cost is certainly a consideration, it’s the nature of the trip itself that has proven the real enticement, Palatnik said. “It’s well thought out.” It balances visits to tourist destinations such as Jerusalem and the Dead Sea with a spiritual dimension. “We make it special and meaningful.”

In Jerusalem, the women enjoy a Shabbat dinner with a view of the Kotel (Western Wall), while hosting one or more lone soldiers, those who have no family in Israel. The soldiers tell about their experiences, and the women get a chance to “mother” the young men and women, Palatnik said.

At Masada, participants enjoy a unique naming ceremony. “One-third don’t have Jewish names, so they get [one] in a 2,000-year-old shul at the top of Masada. It’s the oldest shul in the world.

“They dance, they cry, and every day is like that, special and meaningful,” Palatnik added.

JWRP organizes speaking presentations that examine the Jewish contribution to civilization. Palatnik, herself an accomplished public speaker, discusses the application of the practical wisdom of the Torah to everyday issues such as raising children and ensuring a successful marriage.

In addition, there are fun activities such as camel riding, white water rafting and swimming in the Dead Sea.

“The women have the time of their lives. They laugh. They shop. They shop a lot.” Merchants in places like the artist colony in Safed lick their lips in anticipation of their visit, Palatnik quipped.

“They have a ball,” she added. “It’s so much fun. It’s like summer camp for moms.”

Ann Weiszmann, a mother of two from Toronto, said, “It really has changed my life… For somebody who is open-minded and who wants to learn more about their heritage, this is a great way to do it.”

Weiszmann learned about the trip through a friend. Although she had been to Israel to celebrate her older son’s bar mitzvah, she saw the JWRP tour as a chance to get a different perspective on the country.

“This was my big opportunity. It really took me to see places I hadn’t been to on our family trip.”

On top of that, “the learning was really incredible.”

Weiszmann was part of a group of 18 mostly “secular” women from Toronto on the July 2011 visit. From the first lecture on lashon hara (gossip), Weiszmann found the perspective offered to be enlightening.

“For me, the learning part of it was really integral. It exposed me to things I had not been exposed to,” she said.

Since her return, she’s continued her Jewish education by studying with Gail Michalowicz, the rebbetzin at the Westmount Shul. She now bakes challah for Shabbat and lights Shabbat candles, two mitzvot she adopted on her return.

“I’m 100 per cent recommending it to others,” said Weiszmann, a geologist who is a senior policy adviser with Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.

Weiszmann’s response is exactly what the organizers say they are looking for. At the heart of the project are Jewish values and continuity.

“Jewish women create community,” Palatnik said. “They set the spiritual tone of the home and they are the main deciders of the direction of the family: for example, the schools, the neighbours we socialize with, what camps the children will go to, how we support our husbands in the evenings.

“If you inspire a Jewish woman with Jewish values, then the decisions she will make are through a Jewish prism.”

To increase the benefits of the trip, JWRP set some conditions: participants must have children at home under age 18, and they are ineligible if they observe the Sabbath. That would ensure the benefits are passed down to the next generation, while including women who are shomrei Shabbat would be like preaching to the choir. It’s women who are unaffiliated that “are in danger of falling off the Jewish map,” Palatnik said.

She said most of the participants are not affiliated with Jewish organizations. In addition, 63 per cent have no connections to their local federations.

So far, JWRP’s internal research suggests the program is making a difference. Polling past participants in 2010, JWRP found:

• 86 per cent said being Jewish was now more important to them;

• 41.5 per cent subsequently put their children into Jewish youth groups;

• 43.2 per cent increased their volunteer activities within the Jewish community;

• 97 per cent had encouraged family and friends to visit Israel;.

• 76 per cent increased their attendance at Jewish services;

• 90.3 per cent increased their Jewish learning;

• 75.4 per cent increased their observance of Shabbat;

• 96 per cent said the trip had been a life-changing event.

Palatnik said the Utah 8 identified a big problem and agreed to avoid half-hearted measures. Its mandate was always to “think big.”

She points with pride to what she considers the JWRP’s most significant accomplishment: 25 per cent of participants had “pulled their children out of public schools and put them into [Jewish] day schools.

“That’s a game changer,” she said.