From Skepticism to Inspiration: A Reflection From Irina Missiuro
When I first heard about the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s (JWRP) Momentum trip to Israel, I was underwhelmed. A distant relative gushed to my mother about the wonderful time she had on the trip last year, causing her to nag me to sign up as well. And we all know what happens when your mother starts trying to make you do something – it’s the last thing you want to do.
Then, I met Elissa Felder at the Southern New England Conference for Jewish Women, and she, too, raved about the trip. She went as one of the two city leaders in 2014 and was in the process of selecting a group of 10 for 2015. According to Felder, I was “perfect” for the experience. And when Felder, a woman of boundless energy and enthusiasm, speaks, you listen.
True, I did meet all the qualifications – I lived in close proximity to the Dwares JCC, I was raising my children Jewish, and I was not celebrating Shabbat (a practice the trip hopes to instill). However, I had reservations. In theory, the trip sounded wonderful – hang out with local moms, see Israel for free (just pay the airfare), abstain from cooking for a while. I did feel apprehensive that it would be not as wonderful in practice. More specifically, I was afraid of brainwashing.
When I thought about the trip, I envisioned a group of observant women dumping my brain – spaghetti-like – into a colander, rinsing it a bit, then putting it back into the pot and adding some extra-spicy religion sauce. I am not a fan of extra spicy. In fact, I prefer mild.
I couldn’t have been further from the truth. The purpose of the trip was not to turn you into a religious fanatic. It was to allow you to access your best self – friend, wife, mother – by teaching you about Jewish wisdom.
Our group was extremely fortunate to have Adrienne Gold Davis – past Canadian television host and current teacher at the Village Shul in Toronto – as the lecturer, and what a lecturer she was! Her teachings were peppered with snippets of personal stories, humorous anecdotes, and self-deprecating statements.
Listening to her, I felt I was eavesdropping on an intimate train of thought, not attending a talk. Women around me nodded their heads, wiped away tears, smiled and nudged one another. They were relating, empathizing and understanding. They were feeling. Finally, someone was talking about the aspects of life that are usually deemed unimportant. Here was a woman who recognized that they were worthy, that we wanted to know how to approach them, needed to be heard. Here was a woman who gave us voice – gracefully, articulately and kindly – all the while guiding us toward becoming Jewish Women 2.0.
Gold was not the only captivating speaker on the trip. Rabbi Gavriel Friedman woke us up with his energetic lecture on Shabbat one morning. I almost hesitate to call it a lecture because it felt more like a stand-up act. I was amazed by this man’s chutzpah, charisma and ’90s song references. Rebbetzin Raizy Guttman taught us all about baking the perfect challah. Pamela and Aba Claman, founders of Thank Israeli Soldiers, personified philanthropy, welcoming all 200 of us, in addition to a group of soldiers, into their Old City home. Yossi Samuels inspired everyone who visited SHALVA, the association his parents founded for mentally and physically challenged children in Israel. Estee Yarmish awed us with her adoption story and the total number of children she now has – 14! Rachelle Fraenkel, mother of one of the kidnapped Israeli teens, stunned us with her strength and determination. Hillel and Chaya Lester illustrated superb parenting skills when they hosted some of us for lunch at the Shalev Center, where they turn Jewish teachings into personal development tools.
Besides trip leaders, hosts and speakers, we enjoyed the wisdom of our tour guides. Alternating to give us a chance to experience their individual styles, the guides shared their knowledge on all the sites we visited. We started the trip in gorgeous Tiberius, moved on to mystical Tsfat, toured the wrinkled Old City, explored the imposing Masada and floated in the hot Dead Sea. Other highlights included visiting Yad Vashem – Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, rafting on the Jordan River, meeting soldiers at an army base and watching the sunset at Kedma Hall in Neve Ilan.
One experience that stood out for me among the rest was Shabbat – a truly magical celebration in Jerusalem. We all danced to Yitzchak Meir Malek’s music, lit candles (some of us for the first time) and walked to the Kotel, where we sang Jewish songs and danced some more with the soldiers. There was something extraordinary about the unity we felt on that day – there we were, in the holiest place on earth, among our own people – numerous challah strands melded into one delicious bread – the Jewish woman.
We were observant and atheist, American and Israeli, mothers and daughters, short-haired and long, skinny and portly, but we were one. We stamped our feet on the cobblestones cracking with history. We strained our voices to shout “Havah Nagilah,” “Oseh Shalom” and “Dayenu.” We gently touched the wall and leaned our heads against it, connecting to the past, the present and the future. We stuck little pieces of paper into the wall, wishing and hoping and praying. We hugged and laughed and cried. We cried some more and then laughed about crying so much.
We became a whole. We shared stories from our lives, adversities we were overcoming, stumbling blocks we were anticipating. We celebrated birthdays and little victories. We encouraged one another with notes. We helped lug heavy suitcases up the stairs. We respected our differences, choosing to focus on the similarities, and engaged in discussions aimed at understanding the differing points of view. We did not blame or complain, and when we did, we switched our red plastic bracelets from one wrist to the other (the heat was a huge catalyst). We left inspired, thankful and rich. We had many new friends, and we couldn’t wait to find out what those friendships held in store for us. Awakened, we looked forward to sleep.
Originaly published on the Jewish Voice