Washington Jewish Week / June 15, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Some of its supporters lovingly call it “a mommy version of birthright,” and indeed it is: a unique way for mothers and grandmothers with little connection to Israel to learn more about their own Judaism.
On Monday night, the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project took center stage at the 6th Annual “Supper Under the Stars” – a lavish dinner held under a full moon in the backyard of Diana and Michael Epstein’s Potomac home.
Some 175 Washington-area Jews attended the event, each paying $180 to help support a highly subsidized project sponsored by Aish DC that has brought more than 1,000 women to Israel from 20 U.S. cities and five foreign countries.
JWRP was started three years ago by Canadian Jewish educator Lori Polotnik — now rebbetzin at Aish DC in North Bethesda — along with seven of her friends.
“We called ourselves the ‘Utah 8’ because we were all in Utah when we came up with the idea,” said Cindy Zitelman, a longtime Rockville resident and mother of three.
“We felt we really needed to do something. Morality was going downhill, people weren’t raising their children with Jewish value, and we felt that women could make a difference. That’s how we came up with the name of the organization.”
Added Torah lecturer Ruth Baars, wife of Rabbi Stephen Baars and the mother of seven children: “It’s very hard for Jewish families. Kids are not always so positive about having Judaism as part of their lives.”
Monday night’s event featured a video presentation, a Chinese auction and a lecture by Palatnik entitled “Friend Me: The Jewish Approach to True Friendship.”
Zitelman, 54, who was honored as mother of the year, told WJW: “We want [to bring on these trips] women with kids at home so they can influence not only themselves but also their children. Also, the women don’t just come to Israel as single women, but as a group within an organization. That’s how Aish DC is involved.”
Likewise, longtime social worker Golda Jacobs, who spent eight years at the National Institutes of Health counseling hospitalized children and their families, was feted as grandmother of the year.
“My father would be incredibly proud that I’m the honoree tonight,” Jacobs told her friends. “My own connection with Aish HaTorah is one of great appreciation, but I am the very happy recipient of a ripple effect. I have seen the fruits of their labor and their devotion to thinking and learning, and a part of it has rubbed off on me.”
Holly Zook of Germantown went to Israel last November as part of a JWRP mission consisting of 23 women. Along with her new friends, the women traveled from Tzfat to Masada, rode camels in the desert, floated in the Dead Sea and kayaked down the Jordan River. They also attended Torah lectures in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the women spent most nights.
But one of Zook’s favorite memories was doing a “mitzvah project” with Bet Shemesh, a town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that’s had a long-standing partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
“We went to an Ethiopian teen center in a converted bomb shelter in Bet Shemesh, we planted vegetables in their garden, and all the teenagers did a skit for us,” Zook recalled. “They were singing and dancing American songs, and we were the judges. Then we brought out some sports equipment and spent the day with them.”
At 40 years old, Zook jokes that she’s “exactly in the middle” of the age range for JWRP participants, which is 30 to 50. In her group, there were women from all across the United States, though the organization recently conducted a Spanish-speaking trip to Israel for Jewish women from Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico.
“We are looking to bring women who are not affiliated,” said Zitelman. “You can’t be shomer Shabbat. We want women who haven’t had the opportunity to experience their Judaism or have traveled to Israel.”
Explained Baars: “Women who are Shabbat-observant are already involved with the community, so they don’t need us.”
Participants are generally asked to pay round-trip airfare to Israel, which runs $1,500 to $1,700 this time of year. JWRP pays all land-based costs including lodging, meals and transportation within Israel. And as the local partnering organization, Aish DC offers a $200 stipend for each woman. In the past year alone, JWRP has raised an estimated $1.4 million.
“When people ask why we are doing this, I tell them that our goal is to inspire you and your family,” said Baars. “For some families, this might mean being more involved in the synagogue. For others, it means lighting candles before they go out to a football game.”
Interestingly, almost none of the women who to go Israel speak Hebrew (though they often learn a few words during their nine-day visit). One exception was a young Israeli who taught Hebrew in Minneapolis but had little understanding of Judaism.
“They say the younger generation doesn’t care much about Israel,” said Zitelman. “Well quite honestly, besides birthright, if you live in a family that doesn’t know about Israel, you’re not going to teach your kids.”