12.9.16 Issue

Annette van de Kamp, Editor, Jewish Press

When Sara Kohen joined the JWRP trip to Israel in July of this year, it was the fullfillment of the highest order.

“I had wanted to go for a long time,” she said, “but circumstances made it a challenge. I had vague plans to maybe go once our oldest son, Judah, becomes Bar Mitzvah.”

Kohen, Sara webThat would have meant waiting a while, as Judah is only six years old.

Then, Sara and husband Ari heard about the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which focuses on getting Jewish mothers to Israel, on trips that are designed especially for those of us who have many reasons not to go.

JWRP does not target any specific group of Jewish women, but includes all; being on one of their MOMentum trips means traveling with women from different cities, different countries, and, most importantly, different backgrounds and levels of observance. It means breaking bread and learning about Judaism with those who have never even lit a Shabbat candle to those who are steeped in Jewish life–and everyone in between.

Being too busy with our jobs and having young children who need our attention often means travel to Israel falls into the “some day” category. It’s a pity, because especially when our kids still live with us, we have an opportunity to pass on our love of Israel. To that end, the trip includes short classes, where the focus is on what Jewish mothers have in common, no matter their level of observance. Those classes can then be applied in one’s personal life, and that means something different for everyone on the trip.

Sara is married to Ari Kohen; together, they are the parents of Judah (6), Talia (X) and Micah (2).

“I thought the classes were great for improving my parenting skills,” Sara said. “It was great to talk with other moms about patience, being more positive in general, but particularly with my children.

“To be honest,” she continued, “I was not sure ahead of time what to expect from the classes. I like learning, but part of me wondered what it would be like to spend so much time in class instead of sighseeing the whole time during my first trip to Israel. It turned out to be great. The classes, which focused on applying lessons from Jewish tradition to contemporary everyday situations, were taught by some of the most inspiring, engaging presenters I have ever had the privilege to see. Each class had a different topic, such as “words matter,” and “Happiness is a choice,” aimed at helping participants become the best version of themselves. I try to bring those lessons home and apply them in my own life, and I believe they are making me a better wife, mother, friend, employee and community member. I am finding myself more conscious of my speech, and the choices I make in my interactions with others.  I think any other trip participant would say the same if asked.”

Bringing the experience home, for those of us with younger kids, means talking about it–a lot.

“I tell the kids stories about where we went, what I saw. I think it’s cool to hear first-hand stories. They learn about Israel at school anyway, but for me as a parent to be able to give that first-hand account is very meaningful. Before this, Israel was an abstract idea. Now, it’s a concrete place.”

While the programming during the JWRP trip focuses on how Judaism provides a home for every Jewish woman, the reality of that often takes participants by surprise.

“I wasn’t prepared for the emotional connection I felt to Israel,” Sara said, “and I would not have guessed that my response would be so strong.  Rationally, you look forward to visiting the places you’ve heard about, like the Kotel, and then suddenly you find yourself actually there, and the response is much stronger than you ever imagined.”

Anyone who visits Israel knows: there’s a special love for the food that lingers long after you return home.

“I miss how easily available it is,” Sara said. “It was such an experience to see the variety! It reflects the larger issue that in many ways, it’s a little harder to be Jewish in Omaha. Take the calendar, and the amount of explaining you sometimes have to do. Sure, some things are easier in the United States, but some things are more complicated. Not always worse or better, just different.”

When asked to describe her favorite day, Sara chose Jerusalem.

“I would wake up in the King Salomon Hotel,” she said, “and after breakfast, I would go for a long walk to the Kotel. I loved the walking. On foot, you see everything, all the people, and you can take your time to drink it all in. I’d have falafel for lunch, or maybe shoarma. I would end my favorite day with the dinner we had at the Inbal hotel. When 400 Jewish women celebrated Shabbat together, and we all understood that, although every single one of us was different and had her own unique story, we were together.”

Like all participants on this trip, Sara has one message for other women in our community:

“Go! You have to go. I came back, and you know what? The kids were fine. Ari was fine. You owe it to yourself, and you will absolutely not regret it. Before this trip, I had never left my younger kids, but they were fine.”