Elyse Goodstein, JiNspire Long Island
By Elyse Goodstein, lawyer from JiNspire Long Island, who is coming back as a Madricha
When my then-eight year old son was doing his Hebrew School homework in late Fall 2011, it hit me. Having never attended Hebrew School myself (and having grown up in a home with little religious influence), I realized that he not only had a greater understanding and knowledge of the Hebrew language, he was becoming more educated in Jewish history and culture than I. Also, when he needed help with his homework, I could not assist him. That realization prompted me to speak with my synagogue’s rabbi, who advised that he was about to start an adult Hebrew class for beginners and invited me to join. Not knowing the difference between an aleph and a bet, I nervously agreed to come to the class.
Fast forward to June 2012, I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah (having never had one as a child) and read from the Torah. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. After that day, however, I returned to my regular, fast-paced, busy life – – I am a mother to two young sons, a full-time attorney, wife to my amazing husband and daughter to my aging parents. Although I felt more connected to my Judaism than I ever had in my life, I wanted more but wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. Then, I learned about the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP). A friend of a friend went on one of their transformative missions to Israel – – and when I heard about her journey, I applied.
In October 2013, I traveled with thirteen strangers – – now sisters – – to the most beautiful land of Israel. Just taking that step was tremendous for me – – I did not know anyone on the trip at that time and I am certainly no world traveler (I have traveled abroad only twice in my life – to Paris on my honeymoon in 1998 and to England for our first anniversary). However, I felt something inside me compelling me to go. Looking back, I now know it was Hashem guiding me.
Eager with anticipation, I anxiously boarded the plane and began a journey that has truly changed my life. I immediately fell in love with Israel and all she is – – her people, her history, her culture, her diversity, her sheer majesty. The fresh fruits and vegetables were the best I ever tasted. We visited Yad L’Kashish, a lifeline for the aging, which is an incredible place. The support that Israel provides to its elderly with such a program is remarkable and made such an impression on me that I wanted to support it as best as I could. In addition to my purchasing gifts there for myself, my family and friends, I ordered some merchandise for resale in my synagogue’s Judaica shop. I bought myself a special set of shabbos candlesticks that I light every Friday night since my return from Israel.
Unlike my first attempt to learn more about Judiasm, which culminated in my bat mitzvah, the JWRP has kept me connected and my Jewish journey did not end upon my return from Israel. Shortly after my return, I was contacted by a "learner", a lovely Orthodox woman who reached out to me and let me know that she was happy to share her knowledge and help me learn, at my pace, on my schedule, no pressure. We chatted weekly for a few months and she helped me understand more deeply the reasons behind some of the customs and traditions which allowed me to really appreciate them rather than doing them by rote.
When Chanukah arrived, I was invited to a JWRP alumni party, hosted by my incredible City Leaders — Esti Stahler, Shiffy Edelman and Rivki Rosenwald – – and attended by many women who, like me, had traveled to Israel with the JWRP. It was a magical night as we laughed, ate, and drank and learned about the menorah, how to light it (who knew it mattered which candle is lit first!), and the history of the dreidel game.
Feeling so connected to the JWRP, I asked my City Leaders to extend invitations to the JWRP woman to attend a program at my synagogue – – we were hosting Charlie Harary – – for a special Chanukah program. They did, and it was wonderful to enjoy this evening with my JWRP family as well as my congregation.
I am fortunate to have amazing City Leaders who ensure that there are always opportunities to connect. My family has been invited to shabbos dinners at their homes and they have always gone above and beyond to make us feel welcome and included. My children were reluctant to go the first time, not knowing what to expect. I assured them that we would not stay too long if they were not having a good time. Because the hosts made sure that there were other children about the same age as mine in attendance, and had plenty of activities for them (as well as the most delicious homemade food), my children had the best time and wanted to stay later and later. It was challenging to get them to leave and I promised them that we would do it again, which we have.
One of my City Leaders opens her home every Friday for a parsha class – – "Lunch & Learn" – – where she most eloquently explains the weekly parsha in terms that are understandable and relatable. Due to my work schedule, I am not able to attend as often as I would like but she dutifully sends an e-mail version of her discussion that I look forward to reading each week. She inspires me so and always includes a way to incorporate the weekly lesson into our everyday lives.
When it was Purim time, my family was invited to a JWRP Purim party that was second to none. Hosted by Queen Esther herself, my children and I made hamantashen for the first time in our lives and learned all about the holiday. We made shalach manot bags and distributed them to friends when we got home, another first for us.
Because of the time we have spent together, I feel bonded to the JWRP women in a way that it is difficult to put into words. I now "learn" regularly with one of my City Leaders and look forward to our chats. She challenges me to dig deeper and helps me to see the presence of Hashem in my life. During one of our recent talks, I shared with her that I was upset because I was asked to give a lecture for work on a date that would conflict with a field trip I had planned to chaperone with my younger son’s second grade class. I was feeling disappointed that I could not go and upset that my son would not have me there with him. She asked me, "how many school trips have you gone on with your children?" "Most, if not all," I answered, puzzled by her question. Next, she asked, "How many has your husband gone on? "None" I answered. "See," she said. "If you were available, the answer would still be none for your husband." Rather than be angry or upset at the scheduling conflict, she helped me see that this obstacle was Hashem’s way of giving my husband his turn to experience the trip with our son. They went together and had a great time. And I went off to my lecture secure in the knowledge that everyone was where they were supposed to be that day.
Because of the JWRP, I have been inspired to participate more in activities at my synagogue. I recently modeled the latest Summer trends in my Sisterhood’s annual fashion show (and to which several of my JWRP sisters came to support as well). Just last week, I was elected Education Chair of the Hebrew School which will present many new and exciting challenges. I am eager to work with our Educational Director to develop a new, first-rate curriculum, with innovative programming that we hope will attract new families to our school.
I feel so connected to Judaism and Israel because of the JWRP – – I recently participated in the JWRP Walk to Israel which was an amazing opportunity to share my experience with the JWRP by talking about Israel to my friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow congregants, and family. And the response was overwhelming! I had set a fundraising goal for myself of $500 and the donations I collected far surpassed that. Having collected over $1500, I finished fourth from Long Island and in sixteenth place for overall fundraising (out of over 400 walkers!). In addition, now four incredible women who learned about the JWRP from me have applied and are going on the July trip. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to visit Israel with the JWRP and am extremely grateful to have been invited back this July as a madricha.
Before the trip, Israel was some far off land of which I rarely gave much thought. Now I feel so connected to Israel and have a deep sense of pride. We talk about Israel in my home. We now choose to use Waze, the navigation app, over Yahoo maps and others, since it was developed by an Israeli. I just drove through three towns to take my sons to an Israeli-owned barber shop for their camp haircuts. My children see that Israel is important to me and it is now important to them. My older son hopes to become a bar mitzvah at Masada in 2016 and nothing would make me prouder.