By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
A trip to Israel is expected to be transformative for any Jew. For a group of 28 men from the Dallas area, a Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project MoMENtum trip in October delivered far more than just the wonders of visiting the Jewish state.
Kevin Pailet’s wife, Mahra, is on the JWRP board and convinced him to go. It wasn’t an easy sell. Kevin is on AIPAC’s national board and had been to Israel many times before, primarily on business or organizational trips.
“I told my wife I go to Israel all the time, I don’t need to go on this,” Kevin said.
For others, it was seen as a chance to have fun. Chuck Butler, one of the last to sign up, went on his first trip to the Holy Land looking forward mostly to spending time away with friends.
What they received was life-changing advice, experiences and bonding opportunities — all with a backdrop of Jerusalem and other holy sites. In fact, months later, the entire group remains actively in touch, continuing their growth as Jews, fathers and husbands.
“It’s given me a different lens to engage my wife and kids with, and I’m really happy that I’ve got that lens,” Chuck said.
Chuck recently hosted a dinner for the group, and 26 of the 28 came — the other two being out of town. The bond developed last year is clearly lasting.
“I don’t think I could build these friendships in a normal setting, ever,” he said.
Although the JWRP is best known for its work with and for Jewish women, its focus on family and the success of the women’s trips made the men’s trips a natural next step. Many of the women want their husbands to get a similar experience.
“Because we are an organization that listens to our constituency, the MoMENtum trip was born,” Mahra said.
Her involvement with the board reflects that responsive nature. Mahra reached out to learn how she could do more as soon as she returned from Israel. Within a week, she was working out the next steps with the development department.
It’s not only normal for those who go to want to stay involved — it’s the rule of thumb.
“One year later, based on our follow-up, 99 percent still say being Jewish is more important to them,” she said. “98 percent have encouraged family and friends to visit Israel. 75 percent say the trip had a large or life-changing impact on them. We’re sending home leaders.”
A new focus
Most of Kevin’s trips have a very specific focus. He meets with elected officials, members of the military, bureaucrats and experts, he said, and it’s “like attending a conference or business trip that happens to be in Israel.”
On the MoMENtum trips, tourism is secondary. Instead of the skyscrapers and beaches, there’s introspection. Just as with the women’s trips, speakers focus on bettering oneself to improve family life and one’s place in the Jewish community. Charlie Harary, an inspirational speaker, shared his advice on a daily basis, and it hit home for Kevin.
“Once you are out of high school and college and have a family, you are doing very little for yourself,” Kevin said. “On this trip, it’s all guys having the same struggles of how to pause, how to focus on the important things in our lives, to transition away from that treadmill and be present in the moment. That was a big part for me, to learn skills to apply back here in daily life.”
Chuck said that one of his biggest challenges is explaining what he received from the trip without sounding like a zealot.
“When people come back, they want to witness to you about how awesome it is. If you haven’t been through it, these people seem crazy,” he said.
“If I could get people to go, I think they’d be better dads, better husbands, better leaders in the community. I struggle with how to not oversell it.”
He suggests looking at it the way he did — a chance to bond with fellow men. There were several guys he knew well, and others he had met briefly over the years.
Dallas has been very much a part of JWRP since its beginning. Two local rabbis — Nasanya Zakon of DATA of Plano and Shlomo Abrams of the Jewish Learning Center — went on the trip. Jewish Education Texas has also been supportive of JWRP.
“This trip has been a game-changer for men,” said Rabbi Abrams. “We are all running around on the treadmill of life trying to balance our work, family and kids and we tend to forget about our spiritual needs and our power as a Jewish man.
“This trip offers the opportunity to stop and look inside and rebuild our core and renew our relationship with our Jewish identity and God.”
Mahra describes the purpose of JWRP trips as rekindling the spark often lost in the daily grind. As such, it could appeal to a wide range of adults.
Future right of passage?
“I see a future where a JWRP MoMENtum trip becomes a rite of passage much like Birthright or March of the Living is for our children,” Mahra said.
Most of the trip was in Jerusalem, but there was also a day at the Dead Sea and Masada. The Dallas contingent was part of a larger group of about 200, including 13 men, most of who grew up in the Soviet Union, who decided to have a bar mitzvah ceremony atop Masada.
The symbolism was extremely apparent and moving, especially after an F-16 flew over.
“You’re having that emotional moment, you are at this ancient place of Masada with that last stand with the Romans and you are sitting here looking at these families from the Soviet Union, they were not able to live openly as Jews, and here they are in the modern state of Israel with Jewish sovereignty and having their bar mitzvahs,” Kevin said.
The men were also moved by their time in the Old City, especially Shabbat at the Kotel. They prayed and danced with others, befriending several members of Israel’s equivalent to Navy SEALs. Kevin said it felt like barriers were broken down, and Chuck described it as like being at the center of the world.
Rabbi Abrams explained, “Once we step into Israel, something special happens and the guys start bonding and come back with a fresh new perspective as a dad, husband and as an inspired Jew in Dallas.”
A true group
Chuck said there were no real cliques, regardless of who knew whom beforehand. He mentioned a trip to the shuk (traditional marketplace) where several smaller groups started exploring and ended up together.
The experience continues after the men and women come home. They are encouraged to stay connected and get involved.
“Everybody focuses on the trip because that’s what they know,” Mahra said. “They think it’s Birthright for moms. But a participant goes through teambuilding, is educated about Jewish values and has the Israel experience. Then the journey continues when they get home.”
Kevin said his emotional connection to God has changed as a result of Harary’s words. Celebrating Shabbat with family has taken a bigger role in his life, and the Pailets now include blessings over the children and additional songs.
Chuck, who converted about six years ago, is more spiritual than religious, but the experience reached him on multiple levels. He’s looking forward to future trips to Israel, but it’s not to see as many sights as he can.
“I don’t care how many times I go back, I would always spend a few days in Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s the center of it all. I’m looking down at the Kotel, and at this mosque dome, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there’s every religion, the holiest sites within 15 minutes of each other. It’s an overwhelming thing to see so many people emotionally charged and caring about one place. And it’s not a big place.”
As a group, the Dallas members rotate sharing a Shabbat inspirational message and keep in touch through WhatsApp, meeting when they can.
“We don’t realize as guys how much we also crave connection and friendship,” Rabbi Zakon said. “What is amazing to see is how this trip provides an opportunity for guys to bond. These friendships are only getting stronger since the trip. We have events just for the guys and we all stay and talk over beers for hours.”
“It’s an easy connection. It’s never handshakes, it’s always hugs. It’s a brotherhood,” Chuck said.