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JWRP Israel Trip Inspires St. Louis Moms To Live More Jewishly

JWRP STL group photo

“St. Louis Soul Sisters” on top of Aish HaTorah building, overlooking the Old City in Jerusalem.

This summer, 12 St Louis moms embarked on a journey of their lifetime to Israel. I was lucky to be one of them.

With our passports, backpacks, and Evian facial mist in hand , we joined 200 other women from around the country on a nine-day trip, sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and Aish HaTorah. No kids. No husband. No job. No chores. And no planning, other than what color pashmina to pack in our suitcase.

Many of us had never been to Israel, so this was a new experience. The most important thing we had to remember, besides wear good walking shoes, was to keep an open mind and heart, allowing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of our Jewish homeland to seep into our souls and inspire us.

We came from all walks of life—married, divorced, Orthodox, non-observant, and converted. We call ourselves the “St. Louis Soul Sisters” because we formed a special bond right away—must have been all that moscato and Mediterranean cuisine. Our days were filled with fun activities as we rode camels in the desert, floated in the Dead Sea, kayaked on the Jordan River, explored Roman ruins on the Masada, nibbled fresh burekas in the Shuk, and shopped for hamsa necklaces in Ben Yehuda Street. We also played with special needs kids at Shalva, a state-of-the-art school, and met the incredibly funny and intelligent man Yossi, who is blind and deaf and considered an Israeli celebrity.

We also learned a great deal, about ourselves and each other. We prayed at the Western Wall with our brand new white Siddurs, braided challah in the shape of a flower, gave gifts to Israeli soldiers at their Army base, and danced wildly on Shabbat. We even visited a mikvah in Tsvat, where we learned the mantra, “Let it go. Let it flow. God loves me so” (and I got locked in the bathroom).

The trip was personally meaningful for all of us, but in different ways. For Leslie Koppel Gitel, the “Aha” moment came on top of the Masada, when she got her Hebrew name, Leah. For Elisa Mondschein, a significant and somber highlight was when we toured the haunting Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and she connected with her grandmother and aunt, who perished in the Holocaust while her grandfather and father survived.

Actually, our adventure began even before we landed in Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. It took us 26 hours to get there because we missed our connecting flight in New York due to bad weather.

The inconvenience, however, turned out to be blessing. Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald from Aish HaTorah St. Louis made last-minute arrangements with a Long Island Orthodox couple, Rabbi David and Debbie Greenblatt, to take care of us weary travelers during our six-hour layover. The Greenblatts welcomed us with open arms and fed us a tasty kosher Chinese smorgasbord. They entertained us with stories about the Orthodox life and we learned how they raised millions of dollars for Hurricane Sandy victims. Eventually, they loaded our heavy luggage into their vans and drove us back to the airport without blinking an eye. On that night, we learned what Jewish community is all about: being there for each other, and everything happens for a reason.

When we finally arrived in Israel at 2:30 a.m., I touched the mezuzah hanging on the wall at the end of the gangway. Waiting at the baggage claim was a handsome solider with a huge smile, dressed in his crisp olive green uniform and purple beret tucked under his left shoulder strap. He wasn’t just any member of the Israeli Defense Force. This lone soldier was the 18-year-son of one of our moms, Jill Starr, and he took some time off duty to surprise her. Of course, we all cried and took photos as we watched them embrace.

Jill and John hug

Jill Starr hugs her son John at the airport.

So, what’s the JWRP all about? It was founded in 2008 by eight Jewish women who traveled to Utah for a four-day retreat. They all agreed that the values of the world were spiraling out of control, and, as a result, our family, community and the very fabric of the Jewish people was deteriorating.

“The JWRP mission then and now is to empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities. We offer women a special gift, a highly subsidized 9-day action-packed trip to Israel. Women travel as a group, grow as a group, and continue their journey back to their communities as sisters, having shared an incredible experience together,” said Lori Palatnik, the founding director of JWRP, as well as an international speaker and author from Rockville, Maryland, who will be speaking in St. Louis in February.

“We’re doing something right because JWRP keeps growing, with 1,200 women from 15 different countries participating this year alone,” added Palatnik, who was recently named one of the “Ten Women to Watch” by Jewish Women’s International, which showcases Jewish women’s leadership across the United States.

Lori and Ellie in Tsfat

Having dinner with Laura Palatnik, founder of JWRP, in Tzvat.

To date, JWRP has attracted 4,000-plus women and is primarily designed for moms who have children at home under the age of 18. Aish HaTorah partners with JWRP and interviews women in local communities who they feel would benefit most from this experience. Since 2010, Aish HaTorah St Louis has sponsored about 80 moms on this trip.

“Our goal was to inspire these women so that they would share this enthusiasm with their family and friends, which could have a tremendous impact on their cities. We share the dream of JWRP, and our partnership with them has been very rewarding for the city of St Louis,” said Greenwald, whose wife Chana was our Madrichim, or teacher/leader, along with Peggy Umansky.

The powerful message that we go was this: moms are the secret weapon when it comes to the preservation of the Jewish people.

“Jewish women play a central role in the key place where Judaism is applied, namely the home. The goal of the JWRP trip is to reawaken a passion for our 4,000-year-old legacy.  The Jews are the only people who survived the ancient world in tact. We have provided so much of the moral ideas that the world now takes for granted. This trip is meant to reawaken this spirit,” said Greenwald, who is from Los Angeles and had no Jewish education growing up.

Bottom line, it’s never to late to live Jewishly. To grasp the concept of how Judaism offers guidance into so many aspects of life, from parenting to marriage to business, the JWRP is unlike any other group tour in Israel.

“This trip stresses Jewish values and our thousands of years of history and attachment to the land,” he said. “The JWRP mission is not a sightseeing trip. It’s so much more.”

Another highlight of the trip was the people we met, and great teachers we learned from. One of them was Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, who is in her 80s and the widow of the Aish HaTorah founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg. She is also a former teacher of our Madrichim Chana, who set up this special private meeting exclusively for our St. Louis group.

As the founder, dean and director of  E.Y.A.H.T, which is Aish HaTorah’s College for Women in Jerusalem, Weinberg has been a world-renowned lecturer for more than three decades, while raising 12 children of her own.

Her words were simple, yet profound:

“First learn about God. We lost our Army along the way (the Jewish people). Torah is unending, infinite. Don’t give up, but get started.”

“Pass on Judaism, and do so happily. The most important vehicle to pass on Judaism to our children is by doing mitzvot, doing Torah, and inspiring them to want to do that. Don’t push it on them. Everyone wants happiness,” she told us.

While we were in Israel, we also met one of our own, Pamela Claman, who grew up in St. Louis and is the daughter of Sam and Marilyn Fox. For the third meal of Shabbat and Havdalah, she and her husband Aba hosted hundreds of JWRP women, plus many Israeli soldiers—at the same time—in their spectacular Moorish-style mansion in the Old City of Jerusalem.

As the sunset glistened over the golden Temple Mount, we said the blessings over the wine and bread; we sang Oseh Shalom at the top of our lungs; and we celebrated the night away. But the best part happened after all the other cities left to go back to the hotel, and the dishes and tables were put away until the next Shabbat. That’s when Pamela, adorned in an ivory satin gown and turbin, sat with us in a circle and we talked about her hometown and how she met her soul mate in Israel and discovered Judaism later in life.

Their passion for Israel and its people is undeniable, and they have founded a program called Thank Israeli Soldiers (www.thankisraelisoldiers.org) to support the brave young men and women who sacrifice their lives for their country.

Shabbat Saturday group with Pamela

Our group at Pamela Claman’s house in Jerusalem, on Shabbat, with our Lone Soldier John.

My first trip to Israel was something that I’ll always remember, thanks to JWRP and Aish HaTorah. I look forward to the day when I can return to my Jewish homeland.

To learn more about JWRP, go to www.jwrp.org. If you would like to apply for the JWRP mission in 2014 or learn about an upcoming dad’s trip, please contact Claire Wolff, at 314 862 2474,  or cwolff@aish.com.