The recent Toronto Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project group in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo from Nicole Pollak)
In its flagship program, Momentum, the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) provides Jewish women and men, typically mothers and fathers, with a free journey throughout Israel (airfare is not included).
The trips – the women’s and men’s trips are separate – are designed for people who are not shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant). As well, 90% of participants must have children at home under the age of 18, and participants must be physically and emotionally healthy.
Rebbetzin Lori Palatnik founded JWRP in 2008. Since then, it has become an international initiative bringing thousands of women and hundreds of men to Israel each year from 19 different countries.
“The goal is that the women have 10 incredible, uplifting, inspirational days together … and then go home and bring that back to their families and communities,” said Toby Bernstein of the Chabad Romano Centre in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Bernstein led a group of women on the program in December 2016, noting, “We decided to do this trip to encourage some of the women in our community to be more connected to Judaism.”
Bernstein took with her 10 women, “women who come to synagogue services, a couple Hebrew school moms [and] a couple preschool moms.”
These women joined 250 others from the United States, Canada, Russia, Greece and England.
“It was an inspirational trip, because there were classes every day [about] what it means to be a Jewish mom, a Jewish wife, to be a Jew altogether … what’s the purpose of life,” said Bernstein. “It got a lot of people thinking, so it was inspirational. Even me, who grew up with all of this, grew from [the trip] and gained new insight, new inspiration…. It was beautiful to see the women growing and taking it all in.”
One of the participants was Nicole Pollak, a business owner in Toronto along with her husband, Aaron; the couple has a 3-year-old, Sydney.
Pollak went on the trip with both of her sisters after her younger sister, Melissa Jacks, who sends her children to the Chabad Romano Centre, was invited to join by Bernstein.
“My sister came to me and said that Chabad Romano is going to be running a JWRP trip and asked if me and our older sister, Allyson Theodorou, were interested in going,” said Pollak. “We applied, and all three of us went on this trip together.
“We thought it would be an amazing experience to do this together, and to learn more about Judaism and Israel,” she said. “And I, personally, have been studying with a rabbi for about eight years. So, I really liked the idea that it was an educational trip to teach us more and give us more insight into Judaism and the religion, and thought it was a good opportunity to get some Jewish inspiration.”
Before leaving, Pollak had to do what she could to ready her daughter for her absence. “From an emotional standpoint, preparing my daughter that I was going to be away for that amount of time was very difficult for a 3-year-old,” said Pollak. “I don’t think she has a concept of time – 10 days, for her, could be 10 hours, 10 minutes or 10 weeks … [so it was hard to tell] her that I’m going away and what that means and that I’ll be calling her every day. Preparing for the trip on my end, it was not really that difficult. It was just a matter of packing and organizing.”
Pollak’s husband was very supportive of her going on the trip. When Pollak became anxious about leaving, it was her husband who helped push her through it.
“There were a couple of times where I contemplated whether I was even going to go. I thought it was going to be too stressful for the family for me to be gone,” said Pollak. “My husband was the one who said, ‘I support you whether you want to go or if you don’t want to go, but I’d be very disappointed if you didn’t go. I think that would teach our daughter we don’t do things because we’re afraid, instead of showing her to do what we want – to learn, to have an adventure or explore life. He was pushing me to go because he thought it would be an incredible opportunity to go to Israel, learn and spend that time with my sisters.”
From the moment Pollak arrived at the airport, she could feel the camaraderie of the women traveling, all with similar feelings about leaving home, and she began focusing on the trip and getting as much out of it as she could.
Each day of the program in Israel involved one or two discussions, lectures, lessons and classes, sightseeing and tours, and the opportunity to see something cultural or religious in the region. For Pollak, the learning was the best part of the experience.
“One of the things we learned was that there are three major mitzvot for a Jewish woman: lighting Shabbat candles, making challah and going to the mikvah,” she explained. “We had the opportunity to light Shabbat candles and to participate in a challah-making class. And, on our visit to Tzfat, we visited a mikvah and had a tour.
“One of the things they talked about is, if you’re a secular Jewish woman and you don’t have a lot of religion in your life, you should start with lighting Shabbat candles. My older sister, Allyson, had never lit Shabbat candles in her house in her whole life and she’s been married 18 years. In Israel, she bought Shabbat candles and, last Friday night was the first time ever she lit them in her house. That’s pretty amazing.”
As for challah-making, the sisters have committed to getting together sometimes on Friday nights and making challah for Shabbat. As for the mikvah mitzvah, Pollak plans to investigate it more before deciding whether she wants to make it a part of her life.
With respect to the sightseeing, visiting the Kotel was a major highlight for Pollak, especially after having had a class about prayer before going in a spot overlooking the wall.
“I heard a lot of people saying … they don’t know how to pray, they don’t know what that means,” said Pollak. “People will often go to the wall and pray for world peace or for their entire family to be happy or healthy. They pray for these big things because they think that, when you talk to G-d, that’s what you ask for – big things.
“Something they emphasized in that class was that praying is not about just big things, it’s about little things, too; it’s that we should pray about everything. You can pray that you want your little son Johnny to do well on his math test. You can pray that you hope that your daughter wins that award, or that next week your haircut is going to be great. The message was, pray for what’s important to you.”
Another class that hit home for Pollak was one about judgment and perspective. In it, a story was shared that she has been telling people ever since. It was about a little girl who is standing in the kitchen with her mom, holding two bright red apples, one in each hand.
“She says to her mother, ‘Mommy, do you want one of my apples?’” said Pollak. “The mother says, ‘Yes, I do.’ So, the little girl proceeds to take a bite of one apple and then takes another bite from the other apple. The mother stops and thinks to herself, ‘Oh, you little brat.’ Then, the little girl puts her hand out to her mother and says, ‘Here, Mom. This one is sweeter.’
“That story really hit home and depicted that we judge based on what we see and not on what really is. I realized that it’s easy for us to judge based on what we think is happening. That story took me through the trip and really made me stop in my tracks every time I looked at someone or if I heard a story and judged what was going on with that person.”
Once back in Toronto, Pollak thanked G-d for the life that she has. She also discovered that her husband, mother-in-law and friends really stepped up and looked after her life while she was away. Her husband, she said, “appreciated me more, just like I appreciated him more when I came back.”
As a result of the trip, Pollak has decided to find ways to live her life with more intention and more appreciation for her marriage, focusing on the positive things in her life, as well as understanding the responsibilities of being a Jewish woman in one’s home.
“I think coming back made me realize that I have a responsibility bigger than I thought from a spiritual standpoint and that I’m going to live and work to do more of that,” she said.
A Vancouver JWRP group is being formed under the auspices of Vancouver Torah Learning Centre for a July 17-24 trip to Israel. For more information, contact Devorah Brody via e-mail at [email protected] or visit jwrp.org.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.