Sometimes you have to travel a world away to find a group of friends in your own backyard.
This was the experience of 12 Jewish mothers from around the Valley who went to Israel this summer through the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP). The women embarked on an eight-day journey through Israel, from the Galilee city of Safed to the ancient desert mountaintop fortress Masada.
The trip itself was just the start of this JWRP project, which continues with a year of activity focusing on leadership and building community.
Sometimes described as Birthright for moms, the JWRP Israel journey is meant to inspire participants to connect deeply with their Jewish heritage and transform their families, their communities and the world. The JWRP has sent more than 10,000 women from 26 countries to Israel since 2008.
Subsidized locally by the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center (The J) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, the trip required that participants pay only airfare and two modest fees.
This summer’s trip was led by Kim Subrin, chief operating officer for The J. Though Subrin had been to Israel six times before, including on a JWRP trip last December, she said she learns something new each time. She especially enjoyed this visit because it was with a smaller group.
Subrin wasn’t the only participant who felt the trip was unique.
“I’d been to Israel twice before, when I was much younger,” said Jill Leshin of Scottsdale. “This was a spiritual journey of rediscovery. I’m in the middle of some career changes in life. This trip helped me identify those, but also gave me the permission to seek out what might be next.”
For Stephanie Fishman of Ahwatukee, one particularly memorable experience was the group’s visit to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Israel officially declared its statehood in 1948.
“We heard the recording of David Ben-Gurion speaking to the people of Israel that the vote passed and that Israel was a nation,” Fishman said. “Then we heard the original singing of ‘Hatikvah’ for the first time, and to be in that room and to see Theodor Herzl’s picture on the wall and to just listen, it was the most incredible experience.”
Another poignant moment came when one of the women in the group observed the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death.
“We were in one of the oldest temples in Tzfat,” Fishman said. “After the tour left, we stayed as a group of women from Phoenix and formed a circle. We held our friend up and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish together as a group.
“We didn’t really know each other, but at that moment of sisterhood and bonding, we had that feeling of being there for each other.”
The bonding between the women only grew as the trip continued. Lori Fentem of Scottsdale recalled the women sharing an intimate Shabbat meal with an Israeli couple, Ofra and Michael Stanger.
“The family that hosted us was so open and warm. They made us feel very comfortable,” Fentem said. “Even though we as a group had bonded so well and shared so much, there were stories that came out around that Shabbat table that none of us had heard before. It really brought us that much closer.”
That feeling of deep friendship was felt by many of the participants.
“I feel like I have made lifelong friends and sisters,” said Leshin, who noted that the group keeps in touch. “Social media is definitely our friend. We’re part of a Facebook group and a group on WhatsApp that people are furiously using.”
The next JWRP trip from the Valley is scheduled for November. JN