Eight Philadelphia women were among 300 Jewish women from nine countries attending the JWRP’s leadership conference in Maryland.
By Daniel Schere
The realization of Israel’s wonders is a “life-changing experience” that has a ripple effect from generation to generation.
That was the universal message heard by more than 300 Jewish women from nine countries who gathered in College Park, Md., from Sept. 18-20 for the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s annual leadership conference.
JWRP was started by eight women in 2008 as a way to help Jewish women from around the globe connect with their heritage, which they have done by sending them on weeklong trips to Israel throughout the year.
The three-day conference featured a number of speakers and discussions about how JWRP members and former trip participants can bring their experience to their home communities.
This was especially apparent during a Sept. 19 lecture given by Zeev Ben-Shachar called “Empowering your children to be proud supporters of Israel.” He is the director of Israel education at the nonprofit organization Jerusalem U, which seeks to help young Jews learn about Israel through film.
“What’s at stake? Just as we make films, anti-Israel activists make films,” he said before showing a music video called “Freedom for Palestine” that was promoted by the band Coldplay and contains a number of anti-Israel lyrics.
“You see something like that or your child sees something like that, and you have to ask, “Is it effective? Is it persuasive?’ Most of our children don’t have the answer to that,” he said.
Ben-Shachar then showed a chart of countries and their perception among members of the international community compiled about 10 years ago. Israel was at the bottom of the chart with a 56 percent unfavorable rating. He then showed a map of the Middle East that distorted Israel to be similar in size to its neighbors. He said that is due to the inaccurate perceptions people have about the country’s influence in the world.
“This is how it lives in the psyche of people,” he said.
Ben-Shachar noted many people, including children, do not bother to read entire news articles but simply look at the headlines, which he cautioned can be misleading due to the differences in the way some news organizations report terrorist attacks overseas.
“When it happens in Paris or Istanbul, it’s terrorism. When it happens in Israel it’s an attack,” he said.
Ben-Shachar said the best way to teach children about the complexities of Israel is to look at the big picture by explaining that it lies in an unstable region of the world surrounded by conflict, noting that Jews are not the only ones facing persecution in the Middle East.
“Israel is an excuse for me to teach critical thinking skills, he said. “If you want to understand Israel, you have to be able to zoom out. If we zoom out, we can see the predicament of other minority groups. Look at Christians in the Middle East, and see that they’re numbers are dwindling down.”
The constant threat of violence has not been a deterrent for JWRP’s participants.
Stephanie Blockson and Laura Wolf of Baltimore encountered a mildly scary situation on their trip in October 2015 – a period of escalated violence during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group was at its hotel and suddenly noticed a group of anti-Israel protestors across the street, yet they weren’t phased, Wolf said.
“We all kind of stopped and were like, ‘Should we be scared? Are they violent?’ We weren’t really sure what to do and before we all knew it, I looked up at the head of our group and all of our armed guards were dancing and singing Am Yisrael Cha. They had an Israeli flag and, all of a sudden, all of the JWRP women were singing and completely overpowered the protestors,” she said. “It was just one of those moments that wasn’t even planned on the trip.”
Wolf and Blockson said the trip taught them a good deal about what it means to be a Jewish woman. They were recruited to go on last year’s trip by friends, and are now trying to do the same.
“For the trip that’s coming up in December, I referred three women and all three of them were chosen for the trip,” Blockson said. “I try to talk about it all the time and actually when I got back last year someone said, ‘I want to meet for coffee. Tell me about your trip because I’m thinking about it.’”
For Gevura Davis of Philadelphia, who is a mother of five and works for Etz Chaim, setting aside eight days to connect with the Jewish homeland allows her to recharge the batteries and find a spiritual zen of sorts.
“As moms, we’re super busy trying to be powerhouses and superwomen, and when we have an opportunity to do something for ourselves, our inner self is able to shine and we can get in touch with our idealism and our desire to be better,” she said. “[My kids] all know that mommy goes to Israel to be a better person, and so they’ll suffer for nine days of me being away because I’ll come back a better person and more energized. They see the returns.
Davis’s Philadelphia companion, Melanie Leiberman, said after her first trip in 2012, her husband immediately noticed a positive difference that made for a better husband-wife relationship.
One of the conferences highlights occurred on the final day, when Rachel Fraenkel received one of the Pamela Claman Leadership Awards. Fraenkel’s son Naftali was one of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped and killed by Hamas terrorists in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. She has since become involved with JWRP as one of its trip speakers.
“For me, unity is feeling connected and remembering we are an extended family,” she said by satellite to the conference. “In a family, you don’t have to like everyone all the time. Liking is a very personal choice, but love is different. Love is about commitment and responsibility, knowing I would do anything for you and remembering that deep down inside we are family, we are connected.”
In an interview with Washington Jewish Week, Fraenkel said she usually speaks toward the end of the trip and can tell the women are at an emotional high.
“The one thing that’s really extraordinary is that these are people in the middle of their lives that have families. It’s not some kind of blank slate, like, how do you go from here,” she said.
Fraenkel said the support from Jews all over the world has been “unbelievable,” and she hopes the magic of Israel will be felt by women from “a variety of walks of Jewish life.”
Fraenkel said that two years after her son’s death, she still hurts but is doing all she can to stay positive.
“The doors and the windows are wide open, and I try to keep perspectives with new experiences,” she said. “My mantra is that I can feel pain. I don’t have to become my pain. There are so many other colors and experiences.”
Daniel Schere is a political reporter for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.