Jewish women experience Israel on ‘momentous’ journey

Twenty local Jewish mothers participated in an exclusive “Momentum” journey to Israel June 26-July 3 in a partnership between the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Front: Stephanie Teitelbaum, Sheri Weiss, Kim McDonough, Marcy Rudowitz, Donne Ordile; middle: Stacy Miller, Erin Cohen, Colleen Bell, Michelle Pargman, Karen Freedman, Andrea Mail, Tammy Shumer; back: Laurie Berger, Erin Januchowski, Sara Gross, Diane Ackerman, Paige Wajsman, Henny Fisch, Ellen Balotin, Rachel Heiser, Erica Jolles

Front: Stephanie Teitelbaum, Sheri Weiss, Kim McDonough, Marcy Rudowitz, Donne Ordile; middle: Stacy Miller, Erin Cohen, Colleen Bell, Michelle Pargman, Karen Freedman, Andrea Mail, Tammy Shumer; back: Laurie Berger, Erin Januchowski, Sara Gross, Diane Ackerman, Paige Wajsman, Henny Fisch, Ellen Balotin, Rachel Heiser, Erica Jolles

Among the women participating were Avondale resident Colleen Bell, medical director for behavioral health at the IM Sulzbacher Center, and Kimberly McDonough of Monclair, owner of Dansations Performing Arts Center, who are members of Congregation Ahavath Chesed on San Jose Boulevard. Rachel Heiser, of Lakewood, is a member of the Jacksonville Jewish Center and works at Elite Look Productions as a color specialist and bridal stylist.

The Momentum experience included an eight-day journey to Israel, from the Galilee city of Safed to the ancient desert mountaintop fortress Masada, and featured extensive itineraries and curated curricula encompassing everything from Jewish values to contemporary Israeli society.

“Israel was much safer than I thought it would be,” said Bell, about her first trip to Israel. “Families would be out late at night, and I felt safer there than walking around at night in Jacksonville. There were not armed soldiers everywhere. It is very small but very diverse in terms of people. Not everyone is Jewish, and all are required to serve in the army (so Muslims and Christians would serve beside Jews). There is a wide spectrum to what it means to be an Orthodox Jew.”

It was also McDonough’s first trip to the Holy Land.

In Jacksonville Sister City Hadera the group met up with recent Bolles graduate Aaron Abel, who is studying in Israel. Left to right: Henny Fisch, Andrea Mail, Diane Ackerman, Stacy Miller, Aaron Abel, Kim McDonough, Michelle Pargman, Erin Cohen, Colleen Bell, Rachel Heiser, and Paige Wasjman

In Jacksonville Sister City Hadera the group met up with recent Bolles graduate Aaron Abel, who is studying in Israel. Left to right: Henny Fisch, Andrea Mail, Diane Ackerman, Stacy Miller, Aaron Abel, Kim McDonough, Michelle Pargman, Erin Cohen, Colleen Bell, Rachel Heiser, and Paige Wasjman

“I went on the trip with no expectations except to learn. It was incredible!” said McDonough. “I learned more about Israel’s history as well as self-discovery. I feel like those experiences will affect me every day going forward. I want to use the concepts we spoke of as Jewish women and empowerment, every day forward.”

For Heiser, it was her second trip to Israel in 13 years. Now at 32, and married with two young children, Heiser said, “I was able to appreciate it much more. I was able to form a connection with Israel that I was searching for at 19 but could not find.”

Bell was somewhat surprised to find Israel less ravaged than shown in news coverage.

Rachel Heiser

“Israel is a very spiritual place, whether you belong to an organized religion or not. It is steeped in history, and regardless of your background, it is worth visiting, even for an atheist,” Bell said. “It is not anywhere near how it is portrayed in the news – violent, unstable, war-torn. It is a vibrant place full of meaning and a diverse population. They say the value of Israel is not so much in the land but in its people. It is a country of innovation and does not seek just to survive, but to thrive. The desert blooms, and spirituality is weaved into everyday life. I hope others consider seeing it for themselves.”

Heiser concurred. “I wish the world could see this country as we see it. I felt safe. I felt at home. I gained a sense of pride and understanding of my heritage that I am excited to share with my family. I found myself on this trip,” she said, adding she wanted to take her family to Israel.    

The women spent one day going to the top of Masada, then descending into the Dead Sea, which McDonough said was incredible. “The places we visited were full of true history. Each place we visited had its own stories that will always be relevant.”

She also noted that despite differences in Jewish practices, the women on the trip were “ultimately so similar. Having Etz Chiam and The Jewish Federation both running the trip made for a very diverse group of women from Jacksonville, that I am know proud to call my friends,” said McDonough. “Also, being in Israel, you truly get that feeling of belonging. The trip focused on Jewish traditions and values during the seminars. They were inspiring and introspective so I was able to learn more about Jewish traditions as well as learn a lot about how I want to live every day.”

Colleen Bell with her “ride” in Israel

Colleen Bell with her “ride” in Israel

Joining Bell, Heiser and McDonough on the trip were Diane Ackerman, Stacy Aubrey, Ellen Balotin, Laurie Berger, Erin Cohen, Henny Fisch, Karen Freedman, Sara Gross, Erin Januchowski, Erica Jolles, Donne Ordile, Michelle Pargman, Marcy Rudowitz, Tammy Shumer, Stephanie Teitelbaum, Paige Wajsman, and Sheri Weiss. All completed an online application and a personal interview to be selected for the trip, which was funded, except for airfare, by JWRP, Etz Chaim and the Jacksonville Jewish Federation.

The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (jwrp.org) was founded in 2008, with the mission of empowering women to change the world through Jewish values. Its major project is the eight-day “Momentum,” a highly-subsidized, life-changing journey to Israel, experienced by over 11,000 participants from 190 partner organizations in 26 countries worldwide.


By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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