By Cindy Mindell
SOUTH WINDSOR – 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 (JWRP), an international non-profit headquartered in Rockville, Md., whose flagship Momentum program is an eight-day journey through 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, both with their own families and in their communities. Since 2009, JWRP trips have engaged more than 10,000 women from 21 countries. Each participant pays for her airfare; the rest of the trip is free. Nicknamed “Birthright for Jewish moms,” JWRP is geared toward Jewish women who are at a very basic level of Judaism and have an interest in learning more.
In November, the first-ever Connecticut JWRP cohort – the “Mitzvah Mamas” – made the eight-day journey, led by Mindy Radler Glickman of South Windsor. The 15 participants all live within a 30-minute drive of South Windsor.
Chester native Heather Wasilewski, a resident of East Longmeadow, Mass., decided to convert to Judaism in 2013, six years after marrying a Jewish man.
“It was all my own decision,” says Wasilewski, who began with an introductory course through the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. She and her family joined Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass., and she is on track to celebrate her bat mitzvah in November. She decided to apply to the JWRP trip in order to deepen her Jewish engagement.
“As I became more involved in the Jewish community, I began to learn how important Israel is to the Jewish people and believe it or not, until I became Jewish, I didn’t understand this,” Wasilewski says. “Everyone talks about visiting Israel, and I wanted to learn about why it is so special. Additionally, without JWRP, I couldn’t have afforded to go. The fact that it required involvement in a mother’s group before and after the trip was also appealing. I had been looking for this type of camaraderie in a Jewish setting and I hadn’t found it nearer to where I live.”
Before the trip, the Connecticut group met several times and Glickman met individually with several of the members, two of whom wanted coaching for their bat mitzvah celebrations in Israel.
Leesa Wallace of Bloomfield was one of those new b’not mitzvah. A Milwaukee native, Wallace’s Jewish education was cut short when she was 10 and her family moved to a tiny Wisconsin town with no Jewish population. Two years later, the family relocated outside Wausau, Wisc., where the community’s lone rabbi had been threatened by the antisemitic Posse Comitatus movement. Too frightened to send their two daughters to religious school, Wallace’s parents told her that the synagogue had burned down.
“My sister and I were the only Jewish kids in school and my parents said, ‘When they sing Christmas carols, just go with it. You probably don’t need to mention that you’re Jewish,’” Wallace recalls. “So all of the Jewish things we had been doing – lighting Chanukah candles, having a seder at Passover – we stopped completely.”
Armed only with the basic Shabbat and holiday prayers, Wallace went on to college and a first marriage, but never made her way back to a Jewish community until a year ago, when she learned from a friend about JWRP trip and decided to apply to the Mitzvah Mamas.
“There was one particular day on the trip that was pretty intense in the best of ways,” she says. “The morning started off with my bat mitzvah and I was doing my dvar Torah and talking about how I got to that place. I started crying and said, ‘It wasn’t safe to be Jewish but it is safe now and now I have women that I’ve connected with personally and spiritually on such a deep level.’ After the bat mitzvah, we went to the Kotel, where everything just kind of solidified. There was a sense of connectedness that I don’t believe I had ever felt – with the community, on a deep spiritual level, with the land, and with other human beings.”
For Wasilewski, the highlight of the trip was her naming ceremony at Abraham’s Tent in the Judean Desert. In choosing a Hebrew name during her conversion process, without the benefit of a Jewish family history, she translated her English name, Heather, to the Hebrew equivalent, Avrash.
“I figured that I had grown so much as a Jew that it was time to add a meaningful name,” says Wasilewski, who spent weeks before the trip combing through baby-name websites. “I wanted something that would express my deep love of nature. Levanah, meaning ‘moon,’ was the perfect fit for me.”
Wasilewski was surprised to find herself the center of attention and celebration as the only woman receiving a Hebrew name, in the presence of nearly 200 JWRP participants from around the world who were visiting Abraham’s Tent that day.
Mitzvah Mamas have launched a yearlong post-trip plan, which includes monthly Rosh Chodesh gatherings open to all women in the community 13 and older. In addition, several community programs are in the works. In partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the group plans to launch Storytellers at SummerWood, an oral-history project with the residents of Hoffman SummerWood assisted-living community in West Hartford, and to host a screening of the Jerusalem U documentary film, “Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front.” The group also plans to participate in the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford community-wide interfaith Passover seder and the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford Women’s Seder, as well as the Federation’s newly launched Shopping for Seniors program.
Trip participants returned home inspired to engage more deeply in Jewish life. Many of the women have started to incorporate Jewish rituals in their lives and homes, according to Glickman; several are engaging in weekly Jewish study by phone via Partners in Torah.
“It is exciting to see the flames growing,” she says. “It is evident that Israel is the ‘charging station of the soul.’ All the Mitzvah Mamas are so grateful to have had this opportunity, especially to their husbands and families for holding down the fort while we were away. They are our heroes.” The Mitzvah Mamas are currently on a waiting list for a second trip.
In addition to joining Partners in Torah, Wallace will soon join a synagogue and has started lighting Shabbat candles every week, along with her youngest daughter.
“I feel strengthened with my marriage and my ability to parent Jewishly,” says Wasilewski. “I gained many insights, but here is just one example: I loved a lecture on allowing your soul to shine through. Distracting clothing inhibits other people from being able to see our true selves. I have three young daughters and I know we will battle about clothing someday. Now I feel ready to frame why we beautify but not display our bodies.”
Wasilewski hopes to bring JWRP to the Springfield-Northampton corridor.
“I’ve never organized a group from scratch before, but I feel empowered to do so,” she says. “This experience was so powerful that I have to share it.”
The next Mitzvah Mama Rosh Chodesh gathering, for the month of Shevat, is scheduled at Temple Beth Hillel, 20 Baker Lane in South Windsor, on Saturday, Jan. 28, 5 p.m., followed by Havdallah. The program is free and open to all women ages 13 and older. For information: (917) 698-7952.
CAP: Connecticut’s “Mitzvah Moms” at the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s welcome reception in Israel.