By Deb Silverthorn
MOMentum or moMENtum? Either way the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, with 100 partner organizations and 4,500 participants since 2009, offers adults who are not Shabbat observant an opportunity to travel to Israel for lectures, tours, travel time, down time and community service.
“As a part of the JWRP, women explore the ‘whys’ of Judaism,” Dallas JWRP co-leader Hudy Abrams said. “They get a real taste of the richness and beauty of what it means to live a meaningful Jewish life, and when they return they’re able to plug that meaningfulness into the many opportunities we offer so they cannot only grow their own inspiration, but they can ignite others as well!”
“A Jewish woman is constantly juggling and generally has little time to nurture her own spiritual and emotional well-being. Going on this trip with like-minded women from their community, allows them the breathing space to pause and take in all this incredible journey has to offer,” said Hudy Abrams who, with Devorah Zakon, led the 2014 tour primarily comprised of women with children at home under the age of 18. Renowned speaker and author Lori Palatnik is the founder and director of the international program.
Abrams added, “For eight days, they’re no longer someone’s wife, mother, or daughter — only themselves. It’s incredibly elevating to take this ‘timeout’ and fill it with an experience of a lifetime in Israel”
The 2014 “Israelites,” they call themselves, are Michele Alkalay, Gabriella Aronowitz, Jessica Behar, Leigh Bennett, Brenda Bliss, Sharon Blumberg, Tracy Brand, Marie Brown, Michelle Caplan, Amy Cuevas, Joey Daniel, Donna David, Lauren Davidoff, Caryn Fonberg, Stephanie Friedman, Myra Gingold, Stephanie Israelstam, Kim Kaliser, Tracy Kaye, Liz Kleinman, Sharron Laizerovitch, Carol Margolis, Julie Miller, Shawn Miller-Mandel, Shelly Mendelson, Joelle Novick, Alice Ovadia, Summer Pailet, Kay Ellen Pollack, Allyson Raskin, Alyson Ray, Erica Robins, Heather Shapan, Dana Starr, Debra Thomas, Thomy-Sue Toledo, Dina Warshauer, Wendy Weinman, Sheri Wigder, Danielle Wilson and Aimee Wortendyke.
Rabbi Nasanya Zakon and Rabbi Shlomo Abrams led men’s tour participants Jeff Hoppenstein, Merrill Kaliser, Jeff Pailet, David Raucher and Mark Weiner.
“This is about removing barriers,” Zakon said. “All they see is work, survival, some sports, financial stress and trying to earn enough money to be considered, what is in their own minds, successful. Often we lose the big picture. What we learned is that we can be awesome dad’s, husbands and Jews, and we came back with transformed perspectives.”
“I wanted to relate to the people that felt that Israel was their home and feel that fierce loyalty,” Tracy Kaye said. “From the time the pilot said, ‘welcome home,’ to witnessing the brave soldiers kissing their Israeli flag because a corner accidentally touched the ground. From the guides and rabbis to the sanitation workers and mailman with tzitzit and kippot, I was finally able to see Israel through their eyes and feel their pride. I felt God as never before — His presence and love. I now realize that the ability to pray has always been within me.”
“I wanted to bond with a Dallas group of women and to bring more Judaism into my family. What I got was a truer understanding of who I am as a woman, wife, mother and daughter,” Julie Miller said. “I woke up and brought back the light within me.”
Landing at DFW isn’t the end. In the last year, programs such as “Rav Gav” Friedman speaking engagements and the JLC Project Inspire Shabbaton and evening with Charlie Harary have enriched Dallas’ Jewish community overall. While many began their travels knowing only a few other travelers, participants from both programs insist they’re now family with many from around the world.
“Israel needs ‘us’ and by the bonding that took place, and the spirit of the trip brought home, we can support Israel and Judaism in an even greater manner,” said Merrill Kaliser, who discovered 145 new “best friends” from around the world on his trip.
This tour is co-sponsored by The Jewish Learning Center (JLC), led by Rabbi and Hudy Abrams, and DATA of Plano, led by Rabbi and Devorah Zakon. Both organizations host classes and programs that many participants attend regularly including JLC’s TOGA — Torah with Yoga, Foundations of Life, Kabbalah of Love, and Discover your Yeud – Unleash Your Purpose, and DATA’s Build the Marriage of YOUR Dreams seminars, Coffee and Questions women’s group and Frontier Girls and Quest Boys programs. Many of the women meet each Friday to prepare challah — a concept new to most. At 9 a.m. a group prepares the dough, leaving it to rise — and at noon the braiders arrive to create their edible art.
Support for the program is essential, and a root-funding campaign is underway. Sharon Blumberg, a 2014 participant, makes a donation of 20 percent of sales using the code ISRAEL 14 at checkout for CHOOZE products (also providing a 20 percent coupon to the buyer), and she and Wendy Weinman, who teaches TOGA, share the profits of that class with the program.
“JWRP makes Judaism relatable — Torah for the times, bringing together those who are observant and not, those who belong to every branch of our religion and those who are unaffiliated,” Blumberg said. “We’ve always celebrated Shabbat, I went to day school, we live in a Jewish home — but I now do all that with a different pride and joy. This trip has enriched every part of my life. It’s the best ‘TED moment,’ the best ‘Oprah AHA,’ it’s the best sermons ever written and the best girl-time getaway — all encompassed into 10 days of treasure.”
Summer Pailet and Aimee Wortendyke, previous JWRP/Dallas participants, returned this year as madrichot — counselor co-leaders. “Every chance we have to get together, we do, and we’re all connected to our families, our Jewish souls and how Judaism affects our lives,” said Pailet, highly responsible for more than tripling the number of Dallas participants and filling a bus. She was honored in Washington, D.C. with the JWRP Participant Leadership Award by the National JWRP leaders last spring. “I went on this trip and couldn’t wait to get back to share it.”
“Nothing I can say will do justice to the impact Summer is making. She’s taken her inspiration and multiplied it a millionfold,” Abrams said. “Her greatest pleasure is for people to live to their greatest potential. She’s there to do whatever it takes to light up the lives of everyone she meets and it’s absolutely contagious.”
Contagious is an understatement and it’s not uncommon for spouses to participate in the trip after one another. Pailet’s husband, Jeff, went on this year’s men’s trip. Jeff Hoppenstein went at the recommendation of his wife, Janet, who experienced JWRP five years ago and a year later as a group leader. “This program promised a unique opportunity to not only see magnificent Israeli sights but to have an amazing learning experience and access to some of the premier scholars,” he said, echoing Kaliser’s enthusiasm for making friends from around the world. “I made this trip a priority because I sensed it would help me grow individually, paying dividends to my kids and wife. The trip met and exceeded my expectations.”
For Hoppenstein, the trip reinforced his already strong Jewish identity. “I now pledge to celebrate Shabbos each week and to incorporate personal prayer on a weekly basis. I have a greater respect for those who choose to live in Israel and a pride for all that Israel has accomplished,” he said. “I’m more so inspired to continue my Jewish education and to encourage my kids to connect to Jewish activities, and I now have the tools to be a better husband and methods to forge a closer relationship with my wife.”
“Men find it hard to justify being away from work and family for a week by themselves, but spiritual and physical connection to the rich beauty of our heritage was well worth the sacrifice,” said Jeff Pailet. “This trip has opened a real lasting awareness and connection to Judaism through education and by being open to receive. It was a trip of a lifetime that I believe was a gift for my family!”
For Rabbi Abrams, bringing the Dallas group to the yeshiva he studied at in Israel is a culmination of 10 years of a dream. “This is the dream we trained for, turned into a reality,” he said. “I experienced the mutual nachas of sharing my students with my teacher, and vice versa.”
“The feeling that comes from this program is all-encompassing and allows you to want to live as a Jew everyday,” said Pailet, who credits the changes her family has undergone in the last year, which she calls a treasure, to the Abrams, Zakons and to JWRP. “When you are connected, when you have this sisterhood, the stewardship to Godliness lets you live life in 3-D, fully integrated and it’s nothing less than incredible. It’s magic.”
For more information contact Hudy Abrams at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit jwrp.org. To make a donation to the Dallas JWRP program, visit www.rootfunding.com/campaign/help-fuel-our-bus-to-israel-2014.