By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – In February 2008, eight Jewish women from varied backgrounds gathered for a four-day retreat in Utah. A mix of single, married, observant and secular women across a wide age spectrum, they all believed that values were weakening throughout the world, resulting in deterioration of family, community and the very fabric of the Jewish people. They emerged with a mission: to create a movement that empowers women to change the world through strengthening Jewish values for themselves, their families, and their communities.
That movement became the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. Today, JWRP subsidizes and leads the twice-yearly nine-day “T.A.G.” (Transform and Grow) trip to Israel
Working with Jewish partner organizations and funders, JWRP recruits Jewish women – many of them unaffiliated – to join city cohorts from the U.S. and Canada, South and Central America, and South Africa travel and study together and commit to continue their Jewish involvement after returning home. Members of each cohort meet to engage in a Jewish activity at least four times throughout the year.
To date, JWRP has brought some 2,000 women from 60 cities and 12 countries. Each participant pays for her airfare; the rest of the trip is free.
Nicknamed “Birthright for Jewish moms,” JWRP is geared to Jewish women who are at a very basic level of Judaism and have an interest in learning more.
Westport resident Jane Moritz, owner of Challah Connection, joined the Manhattan cohort last summer as a participant and again this summer as a leader. Both years, she was joined by fellow Fairfield County women.
Interspersed with sightseeing were sessions taught by Orthodox educators – many connected to Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based international Jewish outreach organization – tasked with sharing knowledge about a Jewish lifestyle to women who lived more secular lives.
“We have this great religion and so many people don’t consider it as something that will give them soulfulness or comfort,” says Moritz. “The teachers try to guide us and bond us together so that we feel great about being Jewish.”
Moritz first learned about JWRP last year when her husband received an email about the organization’s first men’s trip, but was told that she was “overqualified” when she applied.
A native of Stamford, Moritz grew up in a Conservative household with an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and graduated from Bi-Cultural Day School. Since 2002, when she bought Challah Connection – a company specializing in Jewish-tradition gift baskets – she used the business to educate herself and others about the Jewish lifecycle and to deepen her commitment to tikkun olam.
But there’s always more to learn.
“I really loved the trip; I strengthened spiritual connections with myself and others,” Moritz says. “I had never tapped into my leadership qualities, but I discovered on the trip that helping people makes me happy and that I love being in Israel.”
When trip organizers asked Moritz to be one of three cohort leaders this summer, “I had mixed feelings,” she says. “I was flattered and I wanted to give back, to help other women catch the thing I had caught. But I was also afraid that the second trip wouldn’t be as great. But it was – the trip is about the people you’re with. ”
As a “madricha,” or guide, Moritz helped with logistics – making sure her cohort members were at the right place at the right time, keeping track of people, and answering questions. “The position was also about being available as a resource and a comfort, helping iron out issues between people, and making sure that the group was inclusive. Your mind and heart are constantly aflutter, you’re stimulated all the time with new ideas and new people, you’re away from your family and your usual surroundings.”
In fact, trip leaders welcome every group to Israel with a talk about gossip, treating fellow participants kindly. “They taught us, from the Talmud, that if you gossip, you’re actually killing people,” Moritz says. “You’re with all these different women and you have to get along. They taught us about the beauty of patience and self-control.”
Sessions explored a range of Jewish issues, from the meaning of challah (in Jerusalem), the mikveh (in Tzfat), relationships, the Matriarchs, and personal responsibility. The group visited other significant sites including Yad VaShem, and held a naming ceremony on Masada and bnot-mitzvah at the Western Wall. They also delivered ‘thank you’ packages to IDF soldiers at a military base.
A highlight for Moritz was a class about pleasure through a Jewish lens. “The first and most important thing is to take care of yourself – eating healthy and exercising and staying in great shape,” she says, “because if you’re not in good condition, you can’t help anyone else. Even the small things we do on a normal day like walking the dog is part of self-care.”
Moritz discovered that two spiritual aspects of her life had a deeper connection than she had realized. “I’m very involved in both yoga and Judaism and I had this great epiphany that both espouse the same kind of spiritual things,” she says: “not judging yourself or others, and trusting the universe.”
Moritz was joined last summer by fellow Westporter Beth Manners.
“Visiting Israel was a lifelong dream for me; additionally, I was trying to learn as much as I could about my Jewish heritage,” Manners says. “JWRP provided both. The trip was amazing. I fell in love with Israel and gained a lot of Jewish wisdom, which I have shared with family and friends. I made great friends and have stayed in touch with many of my JWRP sisters.”
Along with New Canaanite Helen Kluger, who took part in the 2012 trip, and Westporters Amy Halpert and Erika Yarmoff, 2013 participants, there is now a Connecticut JWRP alumnae group that continues to meet for Jewish and social activities.
“I had always been curious about Israel and how I would feel being there. I was intrigued to learn more about my own Judaism, and the State of Israel, and know whether I would feel a sense of connectedness with others,” says Halpert. “The trip for me was an intense learning experience, and one I relished. Thoughts, impressions, and information were thrown our way, and it was very refreshing to be able to focus on them. The people were wonderful. The trip has made for a very memorable summer.”
For Moritz, the two trips have bolstered her Jewish self.
“I found out that I like Jewish leadership learning and I would like to do something more about that,” she says. “In my business, I can now offer more help and products to my customers. In my parenting, I have broader perspective and I can be different with my kids and help them more and not get mired in the crap. That’s JWRP’s mission: to help moms be more grounded and spiritual with their kids, to parent more Jewishly.”
Moritz’s husband, Josh, is going on the first men’s trip, led by Rabbi Yaakov Palatnik, husband of JWRP co- founder leader Lori Palatnik.
For more information: jwrp.org
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