Local moms connect with Israel on Aish trip

The group of 28 St. Louis Jewish mothers are pictured at Masada during the Aish HaTorah of St. Louis trip in July.

By Michelle Brooks

Last month I had the opportunity to participate in the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project’s Transform and Grow trip to Israel, sponsored by Aish HaTorah of St. Louis. Twenty-eight St. Louis Jewish mothers left their families for a nine-day trip. For all of us, it was an opportunity to learn not just about Israel but also about ourselves.

Our first day in Israel was July 4, Independence Day in the United States. For some of the women in the group, this was the first time away from their families, an independence some of us had never felt in a long time (or ever).

In addition to seeing traditional sights in Israel, the larger group (there were 180 women from all over the United States and Canada), participated in educational sessions at the Aish HaTorah Center in Jerusalem. My only trip to Israel had been 15 years ago when I participated in a two-week educational seminar as part of my graduate studies. This time, though, the sessions were focused on topics such as: Why the Jews? (about anti-Semitism); Discovering the Real You, and Gossip, Lies, and Lessons. Instead of seeing Israel through the eyes of a single graduate student, I saw it through those of a wife and mother of two. As a result, sites such as the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, take on a whole new meaning. You think about how your life would be without those you love, and of the pain of those thousands of parents and children.

On Friday afternoon, the larger group participated in a class with a well-known “challah lady” in Israel, showing us the secrets to making great challah and how to make challah in the shape of a flower, napkin ring, and a six-strand braid. We each had the opportunity to make our own little challah in preparation for Shabbat. After a communal candle lighting, the group made its way to the Western Wall, a crowded scene with teen groups, soldiers, and tourists. Later on we shared our Shabbat meal with Lone Soldiers who don’t have family in Israel (some were Americans). Later in the trip we also connected to soldiers as we visited an army base and brought care packages to them through the Thank Israeli Soldiers program.

On Sunday, we began our day early as we headed up to Masada. As part of our time up on Masada, those women who did not have a Hebrew name chose one ahead of time and were given one as part of a short naming ceremony. About 20 women received their Hebrew name as 160 of us looked on and joined in their celebration. The next stops included the Dead Sea and camel rides before heading back to Jerusalem.

We traveled through Israel by bus, having the opportunity to have informal conversations with others from St. Louis, and learning about each other (our professions, families, etc.). We had three women who served as city leaders and three women who were madrichim (who went on this trip last year). This group of six provided the rest of us with a great deal of support, guidance, and an open ear when needed. We often “debriefed” on the bus after leaving a site, and to them, no question was off-limits. The trip was a time for us to ask about practices and traditions in Judaism we have wondered about or questions that were sparked as a result of the trip. What was unique about this trip is that it gives Jewish mothers the opportunity to focus on themselves for nine days – not about if their child has sunscreen on, what will be for dinner that night, who’s turn is it to give the kids a bath, etc.

The group bonded like no other group to which I have been a part. We learned about each other’s motivation for going on the trip, our religious and family backgrounds, and things we are passionate about. There was a woman who I would call a “foodie” on our trip (and a friend of mine). If you were at her table for a meal, and if it were served family style, she would arrange the food on the table and take a photo of it before we could eat. It was fun to see the joy she got out of each meal. We also had a group who were serious photographers. They would be snapping photos one after the other, capturing our experience by the minute. As a result, we have hundreds of photos amongst all of us, and if one person missed a photo opportunity, chances are someone else got a shot of the moment. A small number of women in our group had never been to Israel, and there is something about experiencing Israel with those who have never been. When you are touring, you feel their (and remember your) excitement when you went to Masada or the Kotel for the first time.

With Israel (it’s past and present) as our backdrop, we learned about ourselves and stopped to think about the Jewish families we want to create in the future. The reasons for going on this trip were varied, but the end result for many of us was similar – a closer connection to Israel, to our Judaism, and to ourselves. This trip was truly a gift, one that all Jewish mothers should experience at some point in their lives.

Michelle Brooks is the Director of School Services at CAJE, Our Jewish Home educator, wife of Gary, and mother of Olivia, 6, and Sophia, 3.