Meet Five of Our Incoming JWRP Sisters
Each winter and summer, we bring hundreds of Jewish women to Israel to connect to Jewish values, engage with Israel, take action, and foster unity. While each woman can expect to travel to similar places in Israel and to listen to similar lectures, each woman will be impacted in a unique way. Our incoming JWRP sisters have incredible stories, fascinating backgrounds, and beautiful dreams for their futures. We’ve highlighted five of our newest JWRP sisters below. Get to know them now — where they come from, what inspired their journey, and how they’re making a difference in the world. We’ll check back in with each woman a few months after her MOMentum Trip to see how the experience impacted her perspectives, dreams, and everyday life.
Traci Portnoff from Hopkinton, Massachusetts
“I am a mother, daughter, dentist, business owner, volunteer, and friend. I am passionate about learning, and about giving back to my community. I hope to expand my network of amazing women and experiences to draw from in order to enhance my own community.”
When Traci began her own dental practice 12 years ago, she was the sole practitioner. Today, she employs 20 women. “I decided to start a private practice in order to give myself more control over my time — which also means more time for my kids and my community,” said Traci. Traci is an active member of the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) and is the general chair of the Yankee Dental Congress 2018, one of the largest dental conventions in the United States. She also established the committee for Women in Dentistry as part of the MDS to engage more women dentists and to encourage them to be active on a state and local level. This will be Traci’s first time in Israel.
Naomi Schachter from Allentown, Pennsylvania
“Israel is a magical place and to have the opportunity to experience it with a strong group of women will reinforce the fact that family, ritual, and Jewish life starts with women.”
Passionate about coexistence work, Naomi studied Arabic in Egypt after college and shared her Jewish identity with friends from across the Arab world. Her son takes after her, and while she is in Israel with MOMentum, he will be serving as an assistant instructor at SquashBond, a program in Israel that brings Jewish and Arab Israeli children together to play squash, learn life skills, build bridges, and forge friendships with one another. Naomi is also a personal trainer and a life coach for women, as well as a model and actress. She has appeared in print, movies, commercials, and television shows. “I go away and I have those ‘Narnia like’ experiences and then I return to my real life,” said Naomi. “Being a wife and a mother are the jobs that I am most proud of.”
Michelle Gregory from Camas, Washington
“I get so emotional when I think about traveling to Israel. I’ll be walking where my ancestors walked and it will truly feel like a homecoming.”
When Michelle was 10 years old, she was watching the movie, The Ten Commandments when she remarked, “I wish I were Jewish.” Her mother answered, “You are.” Michelle was shocked because she was raised in a Christian home. Her mother had converted to Christianity when she had married her Roman Catholic husband. Yet, Michelle never felt like she belonged at church. Twenty years ago, she walked away from Christianity and began to explore her Jewish roots through genealogy research and DNA testing.
Michelle discovered that her grandparents and great-grandparents were Russian Jews who settled in the U.S. to escape persecution and she located her Jewish cousins. She enrolled her daughter in a Hebrew club, and together, they took part in a Hebrew naming ceremony. Michelle chose her grandmother’s Hebrew name, Pessa, and her daughter chose the name, Shoshana. At the time, her daughter had no idea that her great-grandmother’s name was actually Rose, which translates to Shoshana in Hebrew. “It took me a long time to find my way back to Judaism, and I know that my grandparents and great-grandparents played a huge role in guiding me home,” said Michelle. This will be Michelle’s first time in Israel.
Lora Vaknin from Allentown, Pennsylvania
“I want to be able to expand my knowledge about the land of Israel, to improve my Jewish identity, and to be able to bring this home to my family.”
When the Nazis came to Lora’s grandparents’ Czechoslovakian town to deport the Jews, her grandfather approached Mr. Haytish, a friend from elementary school, and asked him to hide Lora’s mother and grandmother. During the next few years, Mr. Haytish rented different rooms in Bratislava and moved them around to keep them safe. “He was an amazing person and he did this because of his friendship with my grandfather,” said Lora. In 1982, Lora’s family traveled to then-Czechoslovakia to meet the Haytishes. Then, in 1989, Lora’s family brought Mr. Haytish to Allentown to have a life-saving operation.
Dana Cohen from Orefield, Pennsylvania
“I am hopeful that MOMentum will be another example to my children of how their Jewish identity will change and grow, just as mine has… I want to bring that educational experience back to my family and community so that I may continue to evolve as a woman who is proud of her Jewish identity.”
Because Dana Cohen’s husband is in the US Air Force, her family has lived throughout the US. While living in Las Vegas and Charleston, Dana taught English in special education classes in local public schools and wove Holocaust education into the curriculum. Many of her students had never heard about the Holocaust. Though she faced pushback from her schools’ administration, she found that her students were receptive to the learning. Dana said, “After briefly introducing what led up to the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews, a student said, ‘Had it not been for your class, I would have left high school not learning about such an awful event.’”