Women’s Israel trips to ‘empower’ Jewish mothers

The first group of Montrealers to take part in a Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project mission to Israel gather for a portrait in Jerusalem.

MONTREAL — It’s been facetiously called “Birthright for mommies.” Its founder wants to “empower Jewish women to change the world.”

Since 2009, close to 2,000 women, mothers of children under age 18 from seven countries, have participated in these heavily subsidized touring and educational trips to Israel.

They have come from Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto, the native city of the founder of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), Lori Palatnik, now of Washington, D.C. Her rabbi husband is executive director of the local chapter of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach program to Jews of all backgrounds who want to learn more about Judaism and Israel.

Last month, the first group from Montreal, 16 women, took part in an intensive, nine-day Transform and Grow (TAG) Mission to Israel that organizers hope will become an annual trip.

In Montreal, JWRP is partnering with Jewish Experience, which, like Aish, offers educational programming for all Jews. Ariella Hoffman is the local organizer. Her husband Rabbi Tuvia Hoffman has been a director and teacher with Jewish Experience since it was founded here in 2005.

With little publicity, Hoffman began “recruiting” candidates, and some 50 Montreal women applied to go on the mission. The number was whittled down through an interviewing process.

The Montrealers were among 200 women from Canada, the United States, Mexico and South Africa who travelled together in Israel from June 3 to 13.

Participants are responsible for their airfare only. Time in Israel, which includes sightseeing, accommodation in hotels, meals, classes and other organized activities, is free of charge.

“It’s an intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual experience,” said Hoffman, the mother of three, “with no kids and no husbands.”

She described the speakers as so “funny, entertaining and engaging” that even those who were hesitant about the educational aspect were soon at ease.

Hoffman became aware of the program three years ago, when she and her husband were in Israel. They met two women from her home state of Texas who spoke glowingly of their “life-changing experience.”

One of the Montreal participants, chiropractor Sima Goel, the mother of two sons, heard about the trips from her sister-in-law in Ottawa. Two years after her trip, she is still enthusiastic and her commitment to a Jewish life remains strong, Goel said.

Born in Iran, she said her parents had kept Shabbat and other observances, but until the TAG experience, she had not “understood how Judaism made this a better world. What we were told was not dogmatic, just the facts.”

Although the participants hear from rabbis and rebbetzins, among others, Goel said the religious message was about finding “purpose and meaning.

“The trip exceeded my expectations, many times over,” she said.

The tour is free, to encourage the participation of mothers who might otherwise spend the money on their families, and not themselves.

“Women tend to put themselves at the bottom of the list of priorities,” Hoffman said.

Unlike Birthright, which is for young Jewish adults, TAG is open to women who have previously visited Israel. Goel has, in fact, been several times.

JWRP is seeking women who believe in their potential to effect change through their families and communities, and who want, in Palatnik’s words, “to create a movement based on values.”

Hoffman said it’s often women who make decisions about what neighbourhood the family lives in, who their friends are, what Jewish traditions they maintain, and their children’s schools and camps.

Just three years later, the change is already happening, she thinks.

“Women are coming back… getting involved in Israel activism, volunteering in chesed organizations, putting their kids in Jewish schools and becoming involved in their own Jewish education.”

There is a yearlong followup after participants return, although no specific commitment is expected of them and they can decide how to put into practice what they learned in Israel.

In the short term, the Montreal women may get together for more challah-baking, which was a favourite activity on the trip. Jewish Experience will assist them.

Hoffman hopes to organize another Montreal mission next May, and has already begun recruiting. She is also helping to find funding.

For more information, call Jewish Experience at 514-489-9090 or email [email protected].